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‘A small world after all?’ by Ethan Zuckerman

The article is about the availability of information, and how internet should make us more connected. It states that no one expected the Iranian revolution of 1979, mostly because the resistance started in mosques and homes, instead of palaces and barracks. The calls to resistance were transmitted via leaflets and cassettes instead of broadcast media.

It then mentions the Arab Spring, and asks why it came unexpectedly to the Western world in this age of massive communication and participation through social networks. The author then states that ‘we may be encountering a narrower picture of the world than we did in less connected days.’, and that today’s television in the U.S. features less than half as many international stories as in the 1970s.

The article continues listing limits to the way we discover new information online. First, the search engines are only good as the questions we ask for them, if nobody asks about a particular subject nobody will read about them. As of social media, it says it is limited to the circle of friends we have in them. In the end, the article asks for the engineers of ‘the web’ to build tools that will make us more interconnected. It cites as en example that google, after every search, could use our search information not only for ads, but also for helping us discover compelling subjects we have never explored; Facebook, in turn, apart from suggesting us to connect with a person from high school, could look for strangers in remote parts of the world with whom we share common interests.

In my opinion, the critique should not be directed at the tools of the internet, but instead at our education systems or our culture. I think that, should Google or Facebook do the changes that the author wishes, there would be minimal impact on the interconnectivity of the societies. The author states that the insular habits of the mind have not changed, and, for me, this has more to do with the social values. The author should ask parents to teach their children to be curious about all that’s happening in the world.

The idea that we live in a less interconnected world than 40 years ago seems a bit exaggerated to me, but I don’t know how to compare that.

690 comments to ‘A small world after all?’ by Ethan Zuckerman

  • nh19

    Very thoughtful post. The silo-ing of us all through the web is a real threat. I think I used to see more of opinions different from my own, but I am not sure. How would you accomplish what you ‘re advocating without any ‘shoulds’ in the sentence?

    Also, doesn’t the Google-Facebook solution have some implicit gnarly privacy issues?

  • Tarana Gupta

    I agree that even I am not sure, if we live in the less connected world than 40 years ago but for sure we live a filtered one.

    Last year Eli Pariser delivered a powerful speech at the annual TED conference about the dangers of the ‘filter bubble’.
    In it he warns against the new “unethical” gatekeepers of information in the 21st century: algorithms, powering the likes and clicks of Google and Facebook, are rapidly gathering information about each of their users, so they can serve them a mixture of content and ‘relevant advertising’.

    Internet was meant to set information free and assessable to millions at the same time despite of the geographical differences and interests & not to hand over editorial power to the unseen “contextual” algorithms of Google and Facebook.

    Having said that I am not fully against “personalised searches” , when it comes to consumer’s efficiency. Algorithms are great for personalization, but to set information free, realize the Internet’s potential, and move towards something better, people need to be the focus. Internet is people and by filtering few voices, we are blocking those voices to be heard.

    I would recommend this video by Fareed Zakaria (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gt14kYEYYZU) Which I saw recently on China’s Government censorship on internet in his “What in the world segment” to discuss further about how relevant is “alarming” level of Goverment censoring on internet. Internet censorship in China is among the most stringent in the world. The government blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, and other Internet sites.

    Dorothy Chou, Google’s senior policy analyst, said in a blog post “Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different,”. “When we started releasing this data, in 2010, we noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.”

    It’s alarming because free expression is at risk.

  • cnc292

    As a former teacher whose actually has worked within a couple of the US educational systems, I couldn’t agree with you more with your assertion that more responsibility to be placed on the parents, as well as the educational systems to encourage and motivate children to broaden their horizions.Due to the structuring of how students are assessed, there is more emphasis on learning a specific set of information and “passing a test”, than on learning how to think and being motivated to learn things that are outside of one’s immediate realm. In fact, even when children are often curious, they are often discouraged by teachers (due to time constraints) to stay on task and to stay focused on the task and matter at hand.

    On the other hand, if the internet is used more effectively within K-12 environments and allow more structured and filtered freedom to view information about certain things, it can actually be used as a catalyst to motivate learning. Also, if parents actually physically sat down with their children and pointed/monitored them while they were actually using the internet, that would also be helpful. If more social networking sites and school systems partnered to set up educational components within existing social networking sites with security settings, then children might get excited to explore about the world around them.

  • Nadine Coleman

    As a former teacher whose actually has worked within a couple of the US educational systems, I couldn’t agree with you more with your assertion that more responsibility to be placed on the parents, as well as the educational systems to encourage and motivate children to broaden their horizions.Due to the structuring of how students are assessed, there is more emphasis on learning a specific set of information and “passing a test”, than on learning how to think and being motivated to learn things that are outside of one’s immediate realm. In fact, even when children are often curious, they are often discouraged by teachers (due to time constraints) to stay on task and to stay focused on the task and matter at hand.

    On the other hand, if the internet is used more effectively within K-12 environments and allow more structured and filtered freedom to view information about certain things, it can actually be used as a catalyst to motivate learning. Also, if parents actually physically sat down with their children and pointed/monitored them while they were actually using the internet, that would also be helpful. If more social networking sites and school systems partnered to set up educational components within existing social networking sites with security settings, then children might get excited to explore about the world around them.

  • Andres

    I think that all the data we submit to google/facebook/etc we have to assume it has lost it privacy. I mean, we are voluntarily giving data to their servers while using their services. Also, They already use our data for advertisement.

    About what I’m advocating, I simply do not know. It’s quite an utopian change in the educative, cultural and familiar values what I was hoping for. Teachers can ask their students to bring a piece of international news to class sometimes.

  • Jorge

    I also definitely agree with Andres and Nadine. When I first moved to the U.S. six years ago, I was often surprised by questions about whether or not I had televisions at home, or spoke “Peruvian.” When I eventually asked my friends what they were taught in high school, most of them never really learned about the histories and cultures of other countries, or current events in the international arena. The little they did learn was prescribed to a “World Cultures” class where they studied the Greeks and the Romans.

    I definitely don’t mean to generalize, since I have also met plenty of people here that not only know about international events, but are interested in staying informed. I think the notion of cultural diversity should extend beyond immigrants and lead to a real understanding of cultures in other parts of the world that speak different languages, are built upon different histories, and follow different customs.

    Ultimately, I believe the Internet is a tool that can be of great use to build deeper connections across the world. We can start by using it more effectively in schools to allow for less “filtered” information and promote a greater diversity & understanding of perspectives. I think this would be effective and necessary in every part of the world, not just the U.S.

    As Tarana notes, it’s definitely concerning that governments are censoring information on the Internet rather than promoting transparency. It seems like the power of the Internet to connect people will be limited by how corporations and governments see fit to use it, as long as it’s not detrimental to their own interests.

  • Myriam Melki

    The 21st century is the Golden Age of Communication. Ironically so, it is also the Golden Age of Miscommunication. To this day, and despite the high rising numbers of literacy in the world, people are still being discriminated against because of their origins, and/or their different looks. Barbaric acts are still being executed, the wheel is turning, and the peaceful chunk of the world is oblivious to the massacres. We live in the 21st century, and people like Syrian President Bashar El Assad still exist. People who are willing to destroy they country and everyone in it provided they can still reign over blood-stained lands. Lands that were once beautiful. And people are dying like dominos do. Only this game is a dangerous one. Although it all started as part of the Arab Spring wave, the opposition in Syria was faced with a monster. And despite all the efforts, and despite the viral leaks of information, people are still dying, and the world is still oblivious to their death. Intercultural communication is important, however it seems to be selectively so. I will explain myself. Communication should allow the world to become a gigantic field in which everyone has a say. And all of us people living in the 21st century should try getting interested in what happens beyond our geographical cocoons. Globalization should be global, not selective. It should apply to all fields, including politics.
    So the Internet being what it now is, with Facebook, Twitter, and all other social networking sites storing our personal data, it is an extremely powerful tool, but it is also a dangerous one. It started revolutions. True. But there’s a constant stream of information circulating on the web, some of which is true, some of which is false. Skimming through the information is an impossible task. Trying to find out where the truth lies is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The 21st century is the Golden Age of Information, but it also most definitely is the Golden age of misinformation. However, given the choice, I would rather it stay transparent. It is crucial that it stays transparent. Censoring information is the worst kind of misinformation.
    Concerning communication between cultures, I think we are still far from establishing a harmonious network of communication between from different region of the world. Culturally speaking, I represent an interesting mix of cultures: Argentinian and Russian on my mom’s side, Lebanese and Mexican on my dad’s side. I lived in several countries, got to study 5 languages, got to know people from different worlds. A city like New York City is full of people like myself; its multicultural aspect gives me hope in the future of cross-cultural understanding. New York gives me hope. M.

  • hm1109

    As the developement of the internet, it became easy to search some information that based on common issues. Also, this internet connection gave us free to overcome the limit of physical distance and space. However, special information and datas are critical sources for company and nations to compete with others in these days. Many of us are exposed to junck informations but, rare of us are accessibile to unique one that give us a benefit. So, I think this developement of internet cause the basic deformation of the society and city connection itself.

    To make fluent data base, nations and cities started to change their industry and education system. Universities have their connection to share their information and datas to produce knowledges. And company started to sponsor them to reproduce their knowledge in the city. AS time goes by the different accessibility and ownership of the information rapidly increased. This is the reason why we cannot leave the city ‘Knowledge City’, even though we have freedom to connect in countryside.

  • Nancy

    The lack of privacy is frightening.. but so is secrecy. Horrible dictatorships have been able to thrive by controlling information. I don’t know what the balance is… how much privacy am I willing to give up in exchange for these new open system watchdogs on concentrated power?

  • Max Ma

    I had seen a documentary about Arab Spring, the author refutes the “invalid theory” and “harmful theory” of the Internet. The “network invalid theory” that considers Internet being a weak link can be treated as a kind of lazy activism. Take FB for an example to illustrate this argument – invalid theory, that is, for the crowd event, it tends to be 1000 people press ‘like’ button but only single man there for the event. And the “harmful theory” depicts the dark side of Internet freedom. The author considers both discussions stand on only one side, you can not deny the amazing effects of Internet for the use of civic movement like the Arab Spring. At that time, FB played a very important role.

    The author also talked about the Chinese way of censorship of the network. They will block all sensitive word during important events before and after June 4, for example, the Chinese search engine can not find the number “64”, Tiananmen … etc. . The development of China’s Internet seems free, in fact, the government continuously censored. Despite the local market needs, there are Webo instead of Twitter for micro blogging in China, Baidu instead of Google for search engine, Tudou / Youku instead of Youtube for video broadcast, RenRen instead of Facebook for social networking.. all the internet function seems to be very sound, but the author, actually we all, ultimately realized that this is the world behind the great wall, it is not truly free.