LANESBOROUGH -- Publishers Weekly gave Ethan Zuckerman's debut book, "Rewire: Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection," a coveted starred review, calling it "a fascinating and powerful reflection on what it means to be a citizen of the world in the Internet age."
Published by W.W. Norton and released in June, "Rewire" was praised by sources ranging from The Los Angeles Times to Foreign Policy as one of the top books of the year.
Zuckerman (Williams class of ‘93) is director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of Global Voices, an international community of authors and translators who work together to bring
Zuckerman recently carved out some time from his busy schedule to talk with The Advocate about "Rewire" and his experiences as an author.
Q: When was your interest in the Internet first sparked?
A: When I started at Williams, I was in love with a young woman at the University of California, Berkeley. The best way to keep in touch was by computer. At that point, not many people were using the Internet. There were probably only a few dozen people at Williams who were online.
Q: Did you go to work immediately after graduating from Williams?
A: I went to West Africa for a year on a Fulbright Scholarship and studied at the University of Ghana. I worked at Tripod, a Williamstown-based early technology company, for five years, then I decided to go back to Africa to run a technology volunteer corps - a sort of Peace Corps for computer geeks - from 1999 to 2003. I moved on to Berkman Center for Internet and Society (at Harvard University) and spent several years researching in the fields of information and communication technology.
Q: What prompted you to write "Rewire"?
A: A lot of people got involved with the Internet because they were really into the technology. I am more interested in how it changes the nature of human relationship.
I had been writing a blog for more than five years about how the Internet was changing the way we gather information and more about the way we could use the Internet to connect people across cultural borders. My ideas about the Internet and cross-cultural connection were getting more complicated, and I knew I couldn't expect people to read blog posts that were 8,000 words.
Writing a book was a chance to write at great length and to work with an editor. My friend David Weinberger, an author who has published four celebrated books about the Internet and society, told me that the time to write a book was when you had ideas that were a chapter in length.
Q: How much research did you need to do for the book?
A: I had to do a good bit of research on sociology, studying the phenomenon of homophily, and management theory, looking at how companies were studying the effects of cognitive diversity in the workplace.
Q: What did your work in Africa reveal?
A: I've worked in Africa for twenty years and I'm perpetually surprised at how much the economic and technical progress that's taken place on the continent is invisible to people who don't get to travel to Africa. I often talk about what people know and don't know about Africa when discussing issues of information flow on the
Internet, because there's still very little information about contemporary Africa making its way into newspapers, television broadcast and into most people's online reading.
Q: What did you most want to convey in "Rewire"?
A: I think the main idea I wanted to get across is that the social implications of technology are not inevitable. It's not inevitable that a global Internet turns us into globally knowledgeable individuals. At the same time, its not inevitable that we use the Internet to connect to people we already know. It could be a very powerful tool to help us discover new relationships and new interests.
Q: How does new technology compare with newspapers and TV broadcast news in informing the public on world affairs?
A: There's been a sharp drop-off in international coverage in newspapers and TV broadcast news over the past 40 years in the US. Still, those media outlets tend to present more international news than purely online news services, like the Huffington Post. I argue that to use the Internet to make more international or cross-cultural connections, we need to work to solve problems of translation, cultural context and discovery. We need better systems to discover interesting stories from other parts of the world.
I wrote the book in part because I am hoping to attract people to work on these problems. How do we build Internet tools that introduce us to people we otherwise would not have met, not just to people we already know? How do we integrate translation and cultural contextualization into existing tools?
Q: It is not uncommon for first-time authors to encounter difficulty in finding a literary agent who will take them on as new clients. Did that happen to you?
A: I guess I was lucky. The first agent I went to was willing to represent me. We communicated with seven or eight publishers. I went with Norton because I like the editor and their reputation.
Q: What did you find difficult as an author?
A: Discovering that even with a book of 70,000 words, there is lots you have to leave out. My editor was insistent that it not be a 600-page book, and it is better for the fact that it is a briefer book.
Also, when you write a book, months go by before you hear anything back. I finished the draft of "Rewire" in October 2012 and most people didn't get to read it until June 2013. It's different with blogs. When you post online you get feedback within an hour.
Q: What can we expect from you now?
A: My current project at MIT has to do with tracking media consumption and making reading suggestions. In the book, I talk about this as the idea of "engineering serendipity." With people's permission, we might watch what they are paying attention to and offer suggestions that would help them break out of existing patterns of what they pay attention to and what they ignore. Latin America is part of the world I tend to pay little attention to. This tool might track my reading and suggest people writing about Latin America I might pay attention to.
The next book I write will be on a different topic: what it means to be an active and engaged citizen. Citizenship is more than knowing issues and voting.
"Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection" is available at Water Street Books and at amazon.com.