Ethan has crafted a beautiful, engaging book for all who seek to transcend the cultural, political, and linguistic barriers that history has placed between us. Unfortunately, I fear that those of us who aspire to global citizenship are a small and diminishing minority. In a world where information is everywhere, time is compressed, and attention is fragmented, I sense an emerging impulse to cultivate local community around common shards of our fragmented culture.
Rewire begins with several anecdotes that demonstrate how seemingly globalized our physical world has become, while the globalization of culture and communication lag behind. Residents of Boston, for example, drink bottled water from Fiji without a second thought, but few are aware that Fiji experienced a military takeover in 2006. Far fewer have heard the music of Voqa Mosimosi or seen The Land Has Eyes, the first and only Fijian feature film. Noting that it costs only 18 cents to ship a liter of water from Fiji to the US, Ethan observes that it has proven more complicated to move the weightless bits of Fijian culture across the Internet than to move atoms of Fiji’s water from a distant island to your neighborhood grocer.
However, in the very next chapter, “Imaginary Cosmopolitanism,” we are cautioned to not take Fiji as a representative sample of globalization’s forward march. Citing figures from Pankaj Ghemawat’s challenge to Thomas Friedman’s assertion that “the world is flat,” Ethan observes that venture capitalists still invest 80% of their capital domestically, only 20% of stock market shares are owned by foreign investors, and only 7% of the world’s rice is sold across international borders.
The flat-world view looks at infrastructures of connectivity and conflates what could be with what will be. It blurs three separate phenomena — the globalization of atoms, people, and bits — into a single trend. The infrastructure that it celebrates — container shipping, air travel, and the Internet — quite obviously have the potential to shrink distance and integrate economies and cultures. But they’re held in check by social, legal, economic, and cultural forces that make the blurring of international borders a slow, gradual, and uneven process.
In all three cases — atoms, people, and bits — Ethan finds that we tend to overestimate the pace of globalization. Products made in China represent only 2.7% of US consumer spending and only 17% of the food that Americans consume comes from abroad. (Ethan cites the figure 7% from a 2008 article, but as of 2009 the USDA claims 17%. Notably, the importation of plant products increased from 16.8% in 1990 to 25.6% in 2009.)
Similarly, in the case of the globalization of people, Ethan notes that “global migration is significantly lower than it was 100 years ago.” If you follow the debate around immigration reform in the United States you might be led to believe that millions of Mexicans are waiting at the US border to cross as soon as any change is made to immigration policy. In fact, only 11% of Mexicans say they would like live in another country. And in 2010 net migration from Mexico to the US was zero — maybe even less. (That is, more Mexicans migrated from the US to Mexico than vise-versa.)
Even the most cosmopolitan of regions — North America and Western Europe — are surprisingly domestic. Only 9.4% of those living in European countries were born in another country. Only 14% of those living in the US were born elsewhere, compared to 21.3% of those living in Canada. Migration is more easily explained in leaps and bounds that are shaped by economic development, war, and natural disaster than as part of a linear narrative of steady globalization.
Our overestimation of the globalization of atoms and people pales in comparison to to our assumptions about the globalization of culture and communication. Assuming that we are interested in becoming so, there is no reason we shouldn’t all be cosmopolitans now. In 1970, your average international phone call cost $2.43 a minute. It was nearly impossible to gain access to foreign newspapers, and video-conferencing was a thing of science fiction. A decade ago you might have had access to CNN and the BBC in your hotel room in Johannesburg, but you couldn’t have dreamed of constant, streaming access to live news — in English! — from local sources in Japan, France, China, Russia, and Qatar. You didn’t have access to Google News’ incredible archive. Nor could you saunter down the streets of all seven continents using Street View.
And yet, the Project on Excellence in Journalism found a drop in front-page coverage of foreign affairs from 27% to 14% among sixteen major US newspapers between 1979 and 2009. Similar studies have found even greater drops in international coverage on television and radio news broadcasts. The same holds true for consumers of online news. According to data from Google’s Ad Planner, Ethan informs us, 94% of page views by US internet users are for domestic websites. (99.9% of page views by Chinese internet users are for domestic websites.) Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon may give us more access than ever before to movies, albums and books produced in other countries, but it seems that the increase in supply has occurred along with a decrease in demand for content from other countries. Or, alternatively, perhaps the demand for information about other cultures never existed in the first place. Rather, we were force-fed information about other cultures by elitist editors who felt it their duty to inform readers about current affairs around the world. Now that those editors and curators have less influence, we dedicate more of our attention to what we care the most about: ourselves, our family, and our friends.
Building on the work of Robert Putnam, Ethan uses the analogy of cities to explain how access to more diverse content online may actually cause us to “hunker down” and stick with content and relationships that we are already familiar with. Extensive research by Putnam and his colleagues found a strong correlation between ethnic diversity and the decline in civic participation. Unfortunately, it seems that an increase in diversity is accompanied by a decrease in public trust and cooperation. To put it another way, it’s much easier to stick to groups of individuals just like us (think of the groups of friends in popular TV shows like Girls, Friends, Arrested Development and Mad Men) than to expose ourselves to the awkwardness and anxiety of socializing with those who may have different beliefs, values and customs.
In fact, our provincial online behavior matches the lives we lead offline. A heatmap made by Wall Street Journal editor Zach Seward reminds us of a truth we’d rather ignore: our lives are pathetically limited to the same few locations over and over again despite an infinity of potential experiences.
Having made a convincing case that we continue to lack cosmopolitan practices despite having all the tools at our disposal, Ethan dedicates the second half of the book to exploring what can be done to rewire “the Internet” so that users are more exposed to content from other cultures. He approaches the challenge with the perspective of an engineer, but his recommendations are far from the “solutionist” widgets and algorithms that one may expect. In fact, his vision for a rewired, cosmopolitan Internet depends on people — certain types of individuals equipped with increasingly important skills.
Ethan distinguishes between two complementary figures: the bridge figure and the xenophile. Bridge figures are our inter-cultural guides that “broker connections and build understanding between people from different nations.” Many bridge figures have large, distributed social networks — what Malcolm Gladwell would call “connectors” — and many are “third culture kids,” the term coined by anthropologist Ruth Useem to describe “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture.”
Daniel Hernandez, a Mexican-American journalist who published a memoir describing his first-hand experiences of living in Mexico City, is one kind of bridge figure. But Rubén Gallo, a Mexico City native now based in New York who published an anthology of translated essays from Mexican writers, is another. Erik Hersman is a bridge between the technology communities of Kenya and the US, Chuan Ling is a bridge between China and much of the rest of the world, and Jhumpa Lahiri is a bridge figure between India and the US. (Notably, Lahiri is married to Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, Senior Editor of Fox News Latino, and they live in one of the the country’s most diverse neighborhoods.)
If bridge figures are to have influence in how we learn about other cultures, then we depend on xenophiles to seek them out. Xenophiles watch foreign films, seek out music from around the world, love literature in translation, and will always pick the Economist over USA Today. In a personal, candid post, Ethan came to the conclusion that, as a monolinguist from Western Massachusetts, he’s not in a position to become a bridge figure. But he is a proud xenophile, reaching across cultures with curiosity and compassion. Other notable xenophiles that share a passion for other cultures even if they’re not equipped to help us understand them are Anthony Bourdain and Dhani Jones. Notably, each episode of their respective television shows depends on a bridge figure who guides the hosts through a new country each week.
Ethan returns to the analogy of the city to discuss how we can design online platforms for greater cross-cultural connection and serendipity. Jane Jacobs’ famous work of urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was the result of years of activism against a proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have divided her neighborhood to construct a 10-lane expressway linking New Jersey and Brooklyn. At the beginning of the 1960s, Jacobs was protesting a future scenario in which residents traveled from the isolation of their suburban homes in the isolation of their air-conditioned cars to the monotony of their nine to five office environment and back. In contrast, she celebrated the vibrancy and vitality of street-level random encounters and mixed-use neighborhoods where residents come to know one another at the local coffee shop and recreational center. Jacobs inspired an entire generation of urban planners that now advocate for livable, walkable neighborhoods. Now, writes Ethan, “online spaces need their Jane Jacobses” so that we can “design for encounter,” rather than isolation.
We perceive that Ethan is more interested in convincing designers of online platforms to nudge users toward cosmopolitanism without their realization than convincing individuals to deliberately change their habits. For example, he would like Netflix, Twitter, Facebook and the New York Times to all consider users’ exposure to international stories — and not just to what our friends are viewing — when they recommend content. Ethan isn’t alone; he’s joined by a growing movement of programmers and startups that aim to bring back the delight of serendipity to our increasingly personalized online experience.
However, such a plea might be unrealistic as major Internet platforms must resolve the tension between design decisions and revenue generation. If users express a clear preference for the same content that their friends are viewing, while they ignore, say, a beautifully produced feature piece from Egypt about the rise of hip-hop inspired mahraganat music, then it is unlikely that digital companies will continue to invest resources in what doesn’t bring in revenue.
Furthermore, we are social creatures. One of the main reasons that we consume culture in the first place is so that we can later discuss it with our friends. I plead guilty. These days what I read most often are essays that my colleagues and friends send me over email and via Pocket. In fact, one of the reasons I took the time to read Ethan’s book instead of exploring, say, Pacific Islander literature, is because he is a friend — and because I know that other friends will read it as well. Without the social context, the content begins to lose meaning. If we want to become more cosmopolitan in our consumption of culture, then we must create networks of friends, colleagues and acquaintances from other cultures as well.
Ethan limits his suggestions for engineering cosmopolitanism to the digital realm. The is unfortunate because the path towards cosmopolitanism begins offline. The one example of an offline project to increase exposure to other cultures that is mentioned in the book is the Human Library, where you can “check out” a human from another country to learn directly about his/her culture through conversation. But there are many other notable, offline projects that deserve mention including Bilingual Birdies, Global Citizen Year, People To People International, the Interdependence Movement, and even good ol’ Peace Corps. L’Auberge Espagnole, a 2002 French comedy filmed in Barcelona, shows us how Europe’s ERASMUS student exchange program can lead to authentic cosmopolitanism, even among the reluctant. In short, I’m not convinced that the Internet is the best starting place to cultivate curiosity for other countries and cultures; though, it is a fantastic way to maintain those friendships and interests across geographic distance once they are established.
Nietzche, who ended his own life, once observed that philosophers tend to be the unhappiest bunch. As such, he cautioned his readers to pay more attention to how a philosopher lives than what he says. If we compare Ethan’s vision for how we ought to live with his own life, we observe what appears to be incongruence. Ethan lives in Lanesborough, Massachusetts with a population of roughly 3,000 people, 97% of which identify as white. (African Americans make up 0.3% of Lanesborough’s population.) He is the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Glancing through the staff page of the center, we find many impressive accomplishments, though diversity is not one of them. Most significantly, despite some attempts to learn Swahili from Ndesanjo, Ethan is not fluent in another language — one of the greatest barriers to understanding the intricacies of another culture. If Ethan were focused on engineering his own life to “increase chance encounter with other cultures,” then we might expect him to live in a more diverse area, give classes at a community college with a significant immigrant population, and acquire the language skills that would open up more opportunities for cross-cultural communication.
Should we blame Ethan for living a life offline that is seemingly incongruent with his vision for how we ought to rewire our online experiences? I don’t think so. We must all decide as individuals how we will engage with the wider world. Exposing ourselves to cultures, values, languages and geographies unlike our own can be both thrilling and exhausting. To become true cosmopolitans we must also create safe spaces that allow us to recover from the anxiety and disorientation of culture shock. For Ethan, that safe space might be a small, rural town. For someone who has been sent from Kansas City to Shanghai to work for a few years, that safe space might be drinking a latte at the nearest Starbucks while chatting with old friends from college on Facebook.
Confessions of a Bridge Figure, Xenophile and Former Travel Addict
I first came across Ethan’s work in 2004 when he published a book chapter titled “Making Room for the Third World in the Second Superpower.” I had recently graduated from UCSD where I studied at the Eleanor Roosevelt College, which was founded in 1988 with the specific mission to graduate students who consider themselves “global citizens.” As part of our program we regularly read literature from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I studied abroad in Nepal and Barbados. By the time I graduated from college I had traveled to more than 30 countries on a shoestring budget. Upon graduation, after saving up enough money, I moved to northern Mexico to teach English and get by on freelance web design. In 2005 I began working for Ethan and Rebecca MacKinnon — the co-founders of Global Voices — as the website’s first regional editor. A couple of years later I began to direct our Rising Voices project, which seeks to “help the global population join the global conversation.”
I was a proud bridge figure, a fanatic xenophile and a complete travel addict — literally living out of my suitcase as I temporarily lived in one country after the next for months at a time. Before he passed away in a freak accident, another wandering bridge figure once left the following comment:
Travel is an addiction. And you, my friend, are a junkie. Not the functioning Of-course-I-can-quit-any-time addict. Nope, my man, you’re the hollow-cheeked lotus-eating kind. The far gone. The unredeemable.
I recognize the signs very well. Because I, too, was a user. So I know those highs: the enervating unfamiliar city, the excitement of the unintelligible, and the artificial promise of another self. And like all highs, they are temporary. So that’s why you start looking for them again.
It took me years to come to terms with the fact that my constant search for new cultures and countries was, in part, a fear to establish a normal life and consistent identity in a single community that I could call my own. Escapism disguised as exploration. Like Ethan, I too will always feel an impulse to learn more about the rest of the world. But that impulse is now balanced by an even stronger desire to grow my roots and friendships here in Mexico City.
Rewire is an essential book for the aspiring cosmopolitan who wants to use online tools to widen the range of possible experience. It is less effective, however, in making the case as to why we should aspire to cosmopolitanism in the first place. Ethan’s arguments would be strengthened by digging deep into the increasingly available public data about bridge figures who are responsible for linking otherwise-isolated communities that are divided by language or culture. When I look through my social network map of LinkedIn connections, for example, I find that the greatest connectors tend to also be my most creative and successful friends.
Even among the most isolated outskirts of my professional network, there are key individuals who bridge those communities:
The final chapter, “The Connected Shall Inherit,” features profiles of several Forbes 500 CEOs that were raised in multiple cultures. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the leaders of multinational companies are often multinational individuals. But what about the rest of us who don’t have our eyes set on corporate leadership? Why should we spend a larger percentage of our busy lives engaging with news and culture from other countries? Rewire doesn’t offer compelling arguments, nor does it engage with its critics, such as Clay Johnson who argues in The Information Diet that we should spend less time reading international news that we can’t act on and more time reading local news that we can use to inform our direct engagement with our communities. Or David Weinberger’s observation that some of the most important advances in the world have been achieved not through the multicultural cooperation of diverse individuals across borders, but rather by putting very similar people from homogenous backgrounds in the same room without distraction. Or Evgeny Morozov’s counter-argument that, even if Google or Facebook were to expose their users to more international content, how would they possibly prioritize content? From Morozov’s book, To Save Everything, Click Here:
Why introduce you to strangers in Africa and India but not in Latin America or China? Why push you to learn more about South Sudan and not South Ossetia? Why send you to a site about Costa Rica and not Costa Brava? More broadly, why should the choice be about countries and geographies? Who said that the political situation in Madagascar is more important than the ethics of cloning or that the future of Hungary’s government is more important than the growing use of steroids in sports?
Rewire invites us to contemplate the vast possibility that awaits us in the wider world, and the extremely limited slice of experience that makes up the majority of our lives. With each passing year, we spend more and more time staring at screens. We can spend that time lusting over the newest products that we can’t afford (and don’t really need). We can play fantasy games to escape from the stress of daily life. We can seek out articles and essays that re-enforce our already established beliefs. And we also can use time to expand our understanding of the wider world and connect with individuals across different cultures and borders. The choice is ours.