The world is complex and interconnected, Zuckerman rightly insists, and the evolution of our communications system from a broadcast model to a networked one has added a new dimension to the mix. The Internet has made us all less dependent on professional journalists and editors for information about the wider world, allowing us to seek out information directly via online search or to receive it from friends through social media. But Zuckerman also contends that this enhanced convenience comes with a considerable risk: that we will be exposed to what we want to know at the expense of what we need to know. While we can find virtual communities that correspond to our every curiosity and kink, there’s little pushing us beyond our comfort zones or into the unknown, even if the unknown may have serious implications for our lives. This problem was astutely satirized by a headline in The Onion that went viral after this spring’s Boston Marathon bombings: “Study: Majority of Americans Not Informed Enough to Stereotype Chechens.” (Meanwhile, in the scarcely distinguishable world outside of news satire, the embassy of the Czech Republic was forced, in the wake of evidence that the attack had been carried out by the ethnic-Chechen Tsarnaev brothers, to release a statement clarifying that “the Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities.”) There are things we should probably know more about—like political and religious conflicts in Russia or basic geography. But even if we knew more than we do, there’s no guarantee that the knowledge gained would prompt us to act in a particularly admirable fashion.
To put it another way, parochialism is a symptom of audience empowerment. We search for information we already want or find new things through people we know, and since these people tend to resemble ourselves, a lot happens in the world that we never hear about. For instance, Zuckerman notes that Americans may not learn about what’s happening in Zambia unless we happen to know some Zambians. And in the age of Google and Facebook, if our habits of media consumption are limited, we are to blame, not some all-powerful gatekeepers. So Zuckerman argues that if “we want digital connection to increase human connection,” we need to experiment. Specifically, he outlines three areas of digital life that could use “rewiring”: language, personal connection, and discovery. In sizing up the sphere of online language, he applauds the ongoing development of “transparent” or automated translation, which may soon allow us to seamlessly follow conversations unfolding in otherwise obscure idioms. At the same time, Zuckerman argues that translation alone is not enough, which leads to his anatomy of those he deems “bridge figures,” who have roots in multiple cultures, and xenophiles, or enthusiastic bridge crossers. Individuals who fall into these categories serve an essential purpose, transmitting ideas across cultural and national boundaries while also providing indispensible social context and mitigating misinterpretation.
I don’t mind the parochialism of the internet that much, if only because think the internet’s tendency to bring together groups of people who would otherwise be scattered is great, especially for introverts like myself. Like ballet? There’s a forum for that. Like throwing knives? There’s a forum for that. Granted, it also means that people who want to gather for hateful/evil purposes are also empowered.
There’s the question of how you separate what needs to know from what someone wants to know. How do you determine what is relevant from what isn’t? Most of the news we read is irrelevant to our own lives and doesn’t affect how we live. And if it should, how do you get the right response? It’s true that learning about something can sometimes produce greater empathy in an individual, but I think that is because the individual is already primed to respond to it in that fashion. And as I suggested in my last post, merely increasing the amount of data you have doesn’t necessarily lead to greater understanding. The sort of cosmopolitanism described by the author Tayor is reviewing doesn’t seem much different from the shallow, condescending multiculturalist sampling that we’ve had for the past while.
A more interesting question is how you form people who are competent to discern the relevant from the irrelevant, and who can cast their nets wide and be able to make a good judgment of the information that gets sent their way.