There’s a tragic irony to the five people Ethan Zuckerman and his publisher arranged to have blurb his new book.
In “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection" Zuckerman argues that counter to what he and many others hoped, instead of decelerating humankind’s basically tribal nature, in many ways the Internet has accelerated it. We may have access to foreign newspapers and music and the ability to make friends with anyone in the world, but for the most part we’ve used the Internet to do the opposite: to connect even more deeply to the people already in our lives and invest even more completely in the ideologies and cultures in which we’re most comfortable. We’ve hunkered down in our tribes instead of broadening ourselves by embracing our new access to everything.
"Our challenge is not access to information," Zuckerman writes, "it is the challenge of paying attention."
It’s pretty dark stuff and, unfortunately, persuasively so. And yet, Zuckerman also offers up the beginnings of a “physics of connection,” a way of thinking about the digital products and communities we build that we can use to create the connected Internet we had hoped for. In other words, a “physics of connection” that would help us “Rewire.”
In David Brooks’s review of George Packer’s “The Unwinding,” he bemoans the absence of a clear theoretical framework underneath Packer’s broad narrative. Packer’s book offers a deep and wide look at the collapse of both America’s basic social compacts and the civic institutions that made them possible. But Brooks worries that without a theoretical framework in which to place causality and blame, Packer leaves us without a way to think about beginning to rebuild (not that Brooks and Packer would likely agree about what that ideology would look like, but let’s leave that aside).
Zuckerman’s “physics of connection” might offer a start. Because while his topic is superficially “the Internet” and “the media,” whether he’s writing about the Arab Spring or global trade he’s really writing about the formation of trust and connection as a precondition to building power and institutions. He’s offering a new way to look at rebuilding what Packer so aptly persuades us we’ve lost.
Because while the Internet has helped accelerate a lot of the trends Packer describes in “The Unwinding,” it also offers us the most promising solutions. If we can understand the way Facebook connects — or doesn’t connect — a billion people, we might begin to understand how to rebuild our civic institutions. After all, it’s not just media organizations but libraries, political movements, NGOs and governments that are built on communication.
Which is why it’s a shame that so few people outside of Cambridge, New York City and Silicon Valley will likely read this book. Zuckerman writes about the importance, in a tribal online and offline world, of “bridge figures” who can translate between communities and persuade those like them to embrace new ideas and make new connections.
And yet, when it came time to pick 5 people who would endorse “Rewire” on its back cover and help persuade readers to pick it up, Zuckerman and his publisher selected Clay Shirky, danah boyd, Yochai Benkler, David Weinberger and Craig Newmark. If you don’t know who any of those people are, it’s because you don’t go to digital media conferences in New York, Boston or San Francisco. It’s because you aren’t already a part of Zuckerman’s tribe.
Which is precisely the problem.