AUGUST 16, 2014
SOMETIMES THE WORLD reveals itself to us in unexpected ways. While I don’t consider reading fiction a particularly practical habit, novels in translation often reaffirmed to me just how little I know of the world at large. Just one example is my experience reading Intizar Husain’s Basti. Originally written in Urdu, I found it incredibly taxing to read. The book follows the eponymous main character from life in a small, seemingly premodern village through the partition of India and Pakistan, up through the middle of the 20th century. What makes the book difficult is the way Husain uses his narrative voice to underscore this change. The beginning of the book is written in a poetic style, and in the early chapters, Husain describes people and situations in a way that reminds me of magical realism. But by the time we get to the division of India and Pakistan, he favors a realistic style.
I don’t know anything about life in mid-century Pakistan, so I can’t tell at one glance whether a sequence depicting a large group of monkeys running along a rooftop is a realistic event described poetically, or a kind of magical realism. I am forced to think, and think hard, in order to get through the book — not only taking my time with the words themselves, but also forcing myself to meet the world of the novel on its own terms. It is important to let oneself feel like an outsider from time to time.
As Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed, “Conversations across boundaries of identity — whether national, religious, or something else — begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own.” Examining books, art, and ideas that work in new ways helps us to not only recognize the wider world outside our networks, but also prepares us to engage with that world. This is the basic promise of what Appiah, and others, call “cosmopolitanism.” In his book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, Ethan Zuckerman looks to utilize modern information technology as a way to not only create more opportunities for the kind of frisson a reader might encounter with Basti, but also to help bridge the differences that these frissons reveal.
Zuckerman defines cosmopolitans as those who “take an interest in the beliefs and practices of others, striving to understand, if not accept or adopt, other ways of being” and “take seriously the notion that they have obligations to people who are not their kin, even people who have radically different beliefs.” Zuckerman’s digital cosmopolitanism adapts this idea to the internet, although with attributes specific to the web. Where cosmopolitans traditionally face a challenge in even acquiring good information about distant communities, the internet should in theory make other cultures accessible, if the digital cosmopolitan just knows where — and how — to look. As Zuckerman observes, “Our challenge is not access to information; it is the challenge of paying attention.” While there may be complications that go beyond mere attention (which will be discussed below), this is Zuckerman’s main concern — “rewiring” how people use the internet in order to foster better connections between disparate peoples. This is no easy task: “The Internet will not magically turn us into digital cosmopolitans; if we want to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of connection, we have to take responsibility for shaping the tools we use to encounter the world.”
Zuckerman is a key figure in the Global Voices project, an international community of bloggers and translators that attempt to make a wide variety of local viewpoints heard on an international scale. As a result, he is very sensitive to the issue of language barriers. For example, he notes that:
A 2008 study of English, French, German, and Spanish Wikipedias suggests that the 2.4 million-article English-language Wikipedia had 350,000 articles covering the same topics as the 700,000-article French-language Wikipedia, which implies that half the French-language Wikipedia wasn’t accessible to English speakers, and over five-sixths of the English-language Wikipedia was closed to Francophones.
Highlighting the language barriers in Wikipedia is especially pointed, since the online encyclopedia famously aims for near-absolute comprehensiveness. If its utility is limited by linguistic barriers, then other online projects are certainly even more disconnected. This is especially true when you realize that English and French are both international languages, spoken across many different nations and continents. Voices that speak in smaller local languages have an even more limited reach.
Zuckerman is a great believer in transparent translations and translating tools. Global Voices — where volunteers translate the work of bloggers from around the world — is essentially a small-scale version of the kind of effort he sees as integral to the success of digital cosmopolitanism. Another key component is what he calls “bridge figures”: annotators of online texts which use hyperlinks to explain complicated references as specialized terms. Merely reading something in translation can be a disorienting experience without the proper context; after all, my limited knowledge of Pakistan made Basti a very challenging text. Zuckerman observes that this is just as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction: “Without context, a news story can be overwhelming and incomprehensible. It implicitly sends a message that we don’t know enough about an issue to understand the story’s importance.” He sees bridge figures as one possible remedy to this problem, noting the way some sites that feature translated content (such as chinaSMACK, which makes Chinese-language articles available in English) will annotate entries. Bridge figures not only translate material, but also give readers enough information to make sense of why a particular story matters.
Bridge figures — which must face criticism from insiders (who might not want certain topics discussed “in front of” an international audience) and the indifference of outsiders (who might not want to take the time to read through the annotations) — are the heroes of Zuckerman’s digital cosmopolitanism. While not an evangelist for social media companies, he does observe that the bloggers who are drawn to Global Voices also “tend to be fanatical users of social-networking tools like Facebook and Twitter.” Zuckerman acknowledges the limitations of social media, but he sees these sites as potential allies in the larger digital cosmopolitanism project. Many users hope that social media will help them bypass traditional gatekeepers and connect with different perspectives and different ideas. Zuckerman does not believe, however, that social media will make the work of bridge figures easy. Pointing to research conducted by the University of North Texas’s Warren Watson, he notes that while diverse groups might be better problem-solvers (which points to the benefits of digital cosmopolitanism), they also see greater conflict. In short, Zuckerman writes, “Even when a diverse team solves a problem better than other teams, its members may not enjoy the process as much.”
This points to the great problem Zuckerman’s project faces: embracing cosmopolitanism is an active process, while the digital environment is often a passive one. The web, by and large, has become an explicitly commercial space. Commercial spaces don’t make people uncomfortable or challenge their assumptions; after all, “the customer is always right.” Amazon, Netflix, Google, Facebook, Twitter: all of them recommend new products or contacts based on what we already “like.” They reinforce our existing interests and networks. True, if you want to learn about esoteric hobbies, or long-out-of-print books, or indie films that never make it out of the festival circuit, there’s a website somewhere for you. But in practice we all need filters in order to process the deluge of online information. The way the web operates subtly encourages “bad behavior,” keeping us locked inside our own networks by keeping our filters narrow and predictable. Google even tilts its results based on an individual’s past searches — the more you search, the more likely future searches will reflect preexisting ideas and preferences. Most people don’t even notice.
I rely on Google more than any other digital tool. I love social media, and I understand that advertisements are what allow me to use all of this for free. But this also means that my digital networks exist on platforms with powerful incentives to tell me what I want to hear. Or, more importantly, to filter out the stuff I don’t want to hear. As a result, the architecture that we use to navigate the web encourages us to spend as much time as possible with stuff we like, leading to some dangerous habits. To become a thoughtful person, an imaginative person, we must engage with ideas, beliefs, and experiences that we do not “like.” We must challenge our beliefs and be cognizant of the limitations of our own perspectives. Ultimately, digital cosmopolitanism — like any other thoughtful engagement with the digital world — requires us to push against the architecture of the commercial web.
This paradox is succinctly addressed by Eli Pariser in his book The Filter Bubble. Quoting sociologist Danah Boyd, Pariser sees these distortions as “psychological obesity.” Just as physical obesity is caused when a natural human taste preference for sweet or fatty foods meets modern abundance, the psychological obesity of network distortions results when Information Age abundance meets our natural preference for familiar ideas. These “filter bubbles” are in part a product of the “personalization” that has become prevalent on both search engines and in social media. The internet is a kind of massive filter bubble creation machine. Pariser notes Google co-founder Larry Page’s oft-quoted ideal for search engines: “The ultimate search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want.” This isn’t an inherently bad thing — after all, the ability to find exactly what you want online is exactly why people use a search engine — but it underscores the way the passivity of the commercial web helps create and reinforce filter bubbles.
As Pariser explains, Google and other search engines use data to create user profiles, and this in turn influences what individual users see online:
Today, Google monitors just about every signal about us it can get its hands on. The power of this data can’t be underestimated: If Google sees that I log on first from New York, then from San Francisco, then from New York again, it knows I’m a bicoastal traveler and can adjust its results accordingly. By looking at what browser I use, it can make some guesses about my age and even perhaps my politics.
Such data-driven customization eliminates the possibility of “lucky accidents.” As Zuckerman declares in Rewire, in order to really bridge the gaps between cultures, “we need to harness […] serendipity.” He isn’t merely talking about chance encounters; for his digital cosmopolitan, “serendipity is a product both of an open and prepared mind and of circumstances and structures conducive to discovery.”
As Pariser notes, however, the commercial web has little time for inefficient tasks like manufacturing serendipity:
Google’s core mission, in many ways, is to transform [our] intentions into actions. But the better it gets at that, the worse it’ll be at providing serendipity, which, after all, is the process of stumbling across the unintended. Google is great at helping us find what we know we want, but not at finding what we don’t know we want.
Ironically, Pariser recommends digital cosmopolitanism to counteract this experience. He argues that purely by expanding one’s interests, Google’s algorithm will have a greater breadth of personal information with which to work, and search results will become more diverse. But this is a very, very difficult task to accomplish on an individual basis. As a result, both Zuckerman and Pariser urge web designers and social media companies to do more to encourage serendipity.
Nevertheless, online incentives often point companies in a different direction. Both Zuckerman and Pariser are uncomfortable with the Big Board, a system employed by Gawker to make sure its contributors see in real time just how popular individual posts are with users. Content creators have a financial incentive to keep giving users what they want, and what they want is what’s familiar. This means that sites that profit from the sale of advertising and are driven by views or “hits” are rewarded when they pander to audiences, not when they challenge them. This does more than simply imperil digital cosmopolitanism. It also has implications for the wider project of meritocracy.
These implications simmered to the surface in a recent online flare-up over Jamelle Bouie’s essay for The Magazine titled “And Read All Over.” The piece itself discusses a particular kind of network distortion — one leading to racial disparities in digital media. Bouie looks at a number of well-known tech-news sites and notes that white males tend to dominate the bylines, despite the diversity of the actual audience for new technologies, noting, “If the term ‘people of color’ is narrowed to mean just African Americans and Latinos, then […] in the world of tech writing, they are few and far between.” It is a nuanced and well-argued piece, but it was particularly notable for the reaction it drew from the tech industry. Tech entrepreneur Jason Calacanis — while scrupulously and emphatically decrying overt racism — insisted in a pair of blog posts that “the tech and tech media world are meritocracies.” Reading Calacanis’s posts, I was struck by how he failed to actually address Bouie’s core argument that “many writers of color lack an insider connection: They don’t necessarily have the social status or networks needed to break into tech journalism.”
Instead, Calacanis asserted that social networks don’t matter in tech journalism, and offered readers a path to “success” that almost exactly follows the approach Bouie argues has failed. Calacanis encouraged young journalists to impress established sites by participating in comment boards, feeding booster sites like the Big Board. On the other hand, Bouie notes that many sites use their comment boards to screen new contributors, and argues that this policy accidentally keeps out many minorities precisely because “many people are turned away by the endemic racism and sexism of internet comment threads.” It doesn’t occur to Calacanis that the people who will be the most successful at joining a pre-existing conversation (like a chat room) are the kinds of people most similar to those already engaged in it — people with similar interests, education level, and social markers (such as demeanor, style of speech, and pop-cultural tastes). In a sense, he gives the ultimate in-network response — this approach works for everyone I know, so obviously it will work for you too — without acknowledging Bouie’s claims that the traditional approach doesn’t work well for many minority candidates. Network distortions have left Calacanis, like many other users, oblivious to outside perceptions of his particular network and unable to comprehend external criticism.
Advocates for the transformative potential of the commercial web argue that network distortions and bubbles can be resisted if content producers attract user interest with new and unexpected content. From this perspective, the solution to the lack of minority contributors is to simply encourage minorities to start their own blogs. The talented bloggers will eventually find an audience, and this will in turn change the “conversation” online. For digital cosmopolitan, the message then becomes: translate and annotate, and the rest will take care of itself. Zuckerman’s own experience with Global Voices, however, tells a different tale. Instead of changing the media agenda by drawing people to new stories, “Global Voices has become a go-to source for information on the infrequent occasions that countries rarely in the news suddenly burst into the headlines.” This dovetails with my own experience on the site: when I peruse Global Voices, I find myself drawn to topics I’m already following. While I better understand the topics I don’t know enough about other topics to take an interest in them. This means that issues impacting smaller, less-powerful communities don’t simply rise up through digital feeds, no matter how talented their online advocates might be. Filter bubbles are stubborn impediments.
A few years ago, VIDA, an organization dedicated to supporting women in the arts, compiled statistics about the presence of women in major literary (and lit-friendly) magazines (ranging from The New York Times Book Review to Granta, Harpers, The Paris Review, and many more in between). The results were revealing. Every single publication they surveyed was dominated by men — male writers, male critics, male authors being reviewed. Out of the 45 authors whose work The New Yorker reviewed that year, 36 were men. Other magazines had similar results. This is especially glaring when you realize that the actual market for fiction tends to skew female.
I wasn’t shocked by VIDA’s statistics. I write, and I know a lot of women who write. I am well aware that the literary magazine world has long been infamous for its male-centric bylines. And yet, when I looked at my own bookshelf, I realized that of the 56 books I read in 2010 (the year of VIDA’s study), only 12 were written by women. I wasn’t deliberately reading books by men, or excluding books by women. But I couldn’t help but wonder: was the network I used to find new books skewed towards male writers? A network of whose existence I wasn’t even fully conscious? If the web is structured to reinforce a user’s positionality, had even my own library fallen victim to its inexorable gravitational force?
For historical reasons, race and gender in particular are the defining features of many preexisting social and political networks. Overt discrimination still happens all the time, but network distortions can perpetuate racial and gender disparities. On a global scale, it means the interests of wealthy nations often dominate political and media conversations, while serious issues elsewhere are ignored. This is the kind of serious problem Zuckerman’s digital cosmopolitanism is meant to alleviate.
Zuckerman has a number of suggestions to fight filter bubbles and other forms of network distortion. For example, he points to the AllMetalResource blog, which in April 2011 embarked on a project to find heavy metal bands from all 195 nations recognized by the UN, mostly through YouTube. The site introduces performers from faraway nations, many singing in unfamiliar languages, through what Zuckerman calls “structured wandering” — a sort of online version of a flâneur. Structured wandering can help the familiar come in contact with the foreign, reminding us that our own experience is limited.
Zuckerman offers a number of other actions — monitoring your media consumption, slowly building on your preexisting interests, seeking out bridge figures and bridge communities — that are also useful exposure tools. I implemented a few in an attempt to remedy the filter bubble preventing my exposure to female authors, the most successful of which was talking to some of the women I knew and asking them what they were reading. The recommendations were useful: Elizabeth Taylor, Clarice Lispector, and Djuna Barnes, to name a few. A greater awareness of my own reading habits caused me to actively pursue literary cosmopolitanism. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that by itself, all of this is inadequate.
As a critic, reading more books written by women — and more international literature —isn’t itself an accomplishment. It is a minimum professional obligation. And that’s ultimately how I see digital cosmopolitism as well — as a minimum obligation, a set of practices engaged internet users ought to follow, but only as a foundation to further action. Another more important step is to push back against the commercial web’s overemphasis on “the interesting.” Writing in a very different context, Susan Sontag once noted that the “interesting” has superceded the “beautiful” as the primary criteria of artistic merit. She observes that this is problematic, as “The interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept, bent on enlarging its domain.” The standards of a consumer are passive: they emphasize pleasantness, ease of use, and comfort above all else.
I treasured Basti precisely because it challenged my comfort level, encouraging me to think differently and look at the world through an alternative lens. I think we’d all be better off spending more time rather than less in venues that displace, rather than reinforce, our comfort zones. As Basti puts into practice, there are manifold worlds by which the human experience is defined, and just as many views through which to see them.
 It is now possible to opt out of much of Google’s personalization, though this requires an active effort on the part of the user.
 The essay appears in Issue 7; it can also be read on Bouie’s own website: http://jamellebouie.net/blog/2013/2/3/and-read-all-over
 These posts can be found here: http://launch3.squarespace.com/blog/doing-the-right-things.html and: http://blog.launch.co/blog/that-was-interesting.html