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A small world after all – or is it? Response to Ethan Zuckerman

This seems like a popular article so I will summarize my thoughts in point form. Personally I am intrigued at how technology has aided political activism in such a profound way. I studied political economy in a networked society in my last program as well as the cultural and political policies in Iran (and its effect on media).

* Technology is essentially a tool or a vehicle for gathering, collecting and distributing information that can help drive causes or movements. Samizdat in the Russian bloc decades ago famously showed that tools can and will be created to aide grass roots movements. Social media in the Arab Spring expedited an uprising that was probably bound to happen, though I agree with the author that Tunisia was an unusual trigger point. Political dissent had been brewing in all these Arab countries for a long time. Likewise, Iranian dissent had fomented long before the 1979 collapse of the Shah (who incidentally, ruled Iran with an iron fist). Probably the main surprise to people in Iran or the region was the swiftness of the change, not the opposition itself. Having lived and worked in this part of the world, it is admittedly hard to know what is going on unless you’re actually on the ground, or otherwise have access to very good intelligence, despite the plethora of media and news channels available.

* The increase in globalization has developed a greater demand for localization. The trend in media seems to reflects this – populations want to hold on to something that’s their own, which that they can relate to, whether its culture, language, politics, religion or economy.  Programs like ‘Everybody loves Raymond’ and ‘Friends’ are now being sold as formats rather than dubbed versions because as the world is awash with generic programming, audiences are demanding more localized content.

* Images tell a powerful story. The Bouazizi story runs deep and is extraordinary, culminating when a (female) police officer slapped him in public. When corruption, brutality, poverty and injustice are manifested and multiplied manifold, there is  enough force to topple a dictatorial regime (some call it people power). I agree with the author that much of what happened in Tunisia remained invisible to the rest of the world, but it could also do with the fact that it  happened so quickly. Media access was limited. On the other hand Tahrir square protests were drawn out and images of the millions of people gathered at the square were splashed across the world.

* Information overload chiefly brought on by the internet i think has made news stories and events more ephemeral. We have greater access to media, which is fantastic, but at the same time we juggle more tasks and process more info. Our attention span (in the western world anyway) has decreased which has even impacted newspaper formats –  news is now delivered in bite sized pieces . The Internet has perpetuated a breed of couch activists or “slacktivists” . The Kony / Invisible Children campaign is an example of this. This is probably what the author is referring to when he mentions that we encounter a narrower picture of the world than we did in less connected days. We have a lot of information but simply lack the capacity or time to pay as much attention to the details.

* The Green movement protests happened several months before the Arab spring, however, it failed and in some respects, worsened the internal situation as the regime stepped up censorship and blocked media and online access further. Why do you think it failed while the Arab Spring succeeded (Syria TBD)?

I think over time our ability to sift through and process information will improve, but because of the rapid changes in technology, our ability to keep up with it is a challenge. Can you trust any media outlet ? Probably not. But even if the majority of information is biased, there is always an opposing side or story. It rests in our hands to look for that information (or on the flip side, provide it). And the Internet allows us that opportunity.

2 comments to A small world after all – or is it? Response to Ethan Zuckerman

  • Nancy

    Could you trust the info from media outlets before the myriad outlets we have now?

  • Asli

    I agree with you on the issue of how more information has been very distracting. I think we live in an adaptation period; an adaptation to the newly found power of the internet. It has been there for awhile but I think the majority of people are recently catching up on its significance. And while so much more information is thrown at us, we are trying to find ways to focus on what is important. I have been seeing this with myself lately too and it is very frustrating. I use my twitter very actively to follow newspapers and what not and read more articles during the day –on the go- because of it. While this is great and has opened up more information to me, at the same time, I see that it has become so much harder for me to finish an article without being distracted by something else. By the time I’m done with this comment for instance, I am going to have checked my mail or my phone at least twice. Now, having recognized what’s going on, I am trying to change it and I believe that is the next step after this adaptation period.

    Yet, the importance of this on global news and it’s recognition in other parts of the world (esp. the western world’s interest with the middle east) is not that clear to me. More access to information does not necessarily result in more communication or increased participation, empathy and a willingness to learn about both sides of a situation in depth does – it always has been, always will be. And yes, the internet does allow us to research more in depth and hear different points of views but the empathy and willingness still comes from within (or an external threat that makes the issue important). In that sense, I agree with Landau: “solving mysteries requires deep, often unconventional thinking, and a full picture of the world around the mystery.” It is hard to relate to news in cultures that are very unfamiliar unless they, in a way, threaten or effect the way you live. I think, that is what does/will cause people to turn their heads to what’s happening elsewhere, because they have started to realize that it is, directly or indirectly, effecting their lives.
    In the 70s there was more international news coverage, mostly because it was a more political period. The 21st century, up until 9/11 has been very apolitical for most parts of the world. 9/11, the arab spring, the economic downturn in Europe etc. have all have impacts on people reading more international coverage because one way or another, all these have started to have affects on their lives.

    We, as human beings, often forget that we are all very similar in a very universal way. What we want from life, everything put aside, can be summed in two words: peace and happiness. It does not matter where you live, where you come from, how you were raised, ultimately all of us our in a quest for happiness – some want this by more money, a better career, a lover, a wife, children, others need freedom or peace in their countries – the ultimate search is the same. Perhaps if we could remember this more often, the people at the other side of the world would not look that unfamiliar to us after all and we could relate and care more to read about their concerns and problems.