Ethan Zuckerman: “We Still Don’t Understand Very Well How Social Change Occurs in the Digital Age”

INTERVIEW | Ethan ZuckermanDirector of the Center for Civic Media at MIT

“We still don’t understand very well how social change occurs in the digital age”

The Internet is responsible for one of the paradoxes of the digital age. We are just a click away from having a friend in the antipodes, but we end up following friends who we already know from work, school or just around the corner. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, denounces the lack of globalism on the web and alerts us to a few hazards that may cause damage to the democratic quality of our governments. Zuckerman proposes alternatives to the current model of Internet business and puts the magnifying glass on users in order to understand how social changes come about in the digital age. To what extent can ‘liking’ a photo mobilize society?


Photo Credits: Pieter Franken

Let’s start with a little fiction. How will the Internet be in 5 years? And how will it be in 25 years?

I think less and less about the web as a single place to go. The Internet is moving to streams of information as we start to think about the Internet of things. We are going to be in a place combining a lot of streams of information and we have to figure out how we are going to handle it, use it, visualize it, analyze it…. The next big platforms will help you to see patterns in the streams of information around you, like “oh, my house is overheated for 2 hours after I leave everyday and I must change this.” It’s much harder to think about 20 years or more. My assumption is that many of the things we interact with will be devices other than computers, tables, walls, surfaces, etc. We would expect some degree of intelligence in them.

What are the main advantages and risks of using the Internet nowadays?

The advantage is that we have a very powerful tool. If you have a new idea it’s so much easier to launch something to the world right now than ever before. Having a global audience is something amazing. On the other hand, surveillance from governments is extremely challenging. The main question is how do we create an Internet accessible and open to a large range of people, but that doesn’t have surveillance as a business model. That means tracking everything you are doing online. The questions over who controls that data and how we have enough privacy is an enormous problem so far.

Do you have examples about dangerous situations for our privacy when we browse?

Companies collect data about customers and try to match your online data to your offline data. Now I am visiting a lot of soccer sites and, based on my visits, the algorithm targets me with specific ads. The only way to make advertising more successful is getting more and more information about people. Then, we are also tracked offline. Kate Crawford – researcher at Microsoft and visiting professor at MIT- has done a lot of research about it.  A lot of companies provide Wi-Fi hotspots to identify mobile phones. While I am walking in a shopping mall and I pass by a Wi-Fi hotspot, someone is able to identify my phone and physically track me where I walk. These practices totally challenge privacy and it calls for another model.

There are some tools on the Internet -like the Tor Project– that protect our privacy. Is this an alternative model?

Tor disguises your IP address. To use it effectively you really need to turn on a lot of functionalities like turning off cookies and more things and it’s not easy to get full navigation. It’s challenging to use Facebook with Tor, for example. You may gain some anonymity but you trade it for less navigation. That’s the problem. People are more interested in browsing with convenience than in privacy. The answer for another model maybe needs better tools and maybe we need to legislate but first we need people saying we don’t want this.

If you were a regulator, what would you preserve?

Access to the Internet must be a fundamental right for business and individuals. Then, for privacy, there are some straightforward ideas about what information they know about me and how do they use it. I would like to see a moment with people paying for a service of higher privacy protection. If you say to Facebook, you are not allowed to share some of my information about me, how much will Facebook charge you for this service? Would it be something affordable or 100 dollars per year? I don’t know!

Is Facebook working on this?

I doubt it and it’s unlikely.  Imagine you create a business model charging 10 dollars per year per user in exchange for more privacy on Facebook. Facebook would lose 80% of the model with around 20 millions users. You multiply it by 10 dollars a year and you get 200 million dollars a year. Considering the cost maybe it’s not a profitable business.  Facebook is not in this business because when you promise that you are going to get more and more in advertising and get more every year there is no way to worry about it. But there are other companies moving into this business model. I use a service called Pinboard as a bookmarking service. It charges me like 1 dollar a month. One way or another it’s essential that the future isn’t purely an advertising business model. It’s incredibly corrosive towards the online experience and in the long term.

One of you main statements in your book ‘Rewire’ is that “atoms travel better than bits in the Internet.” Could you develop this idea?

Sure. Globalization works better with objects than with information. Despite that the Internet is potentially global, it tends to be highly local.

Apparently, with Facebook we are more connected than ever before and globally. I could have friends around the world, couldn’t I?

The average Facebook user has 130 friends, 87 or 88 are in the same country on average. Even most of the people move between 95% and 5%. Facebook and the Internet reinforce your existing ties with people from your work or classroom.

If we tend to interact with people similar to us is it because of our social preferences or because of the Internet?

In sociology, the term is called homophily. There is a very strong tendency for people who are similar -races, religion, socio economic background, etc.- to find each other and spend some time together. There is a tendency but also the tools are engineered and built to reinforce those tendencies. Facebook doesn’t necessarily have to focus on introducing people that you already know in the real world. It could focus on people that you have never met before.

What are the risks of being with similar people?

The Harvard Law professor, Cass R. Sunstein, warns against the “echo chambers” and “information cocoons” wherein people spend a lot of time talking and deliberating with others who share the same opinion. According to Sunstein, everybody ends up holding their opinion more strongly and this is very bad for democracy because it creates a very polarized society. Sunstein sees this in the US where the left and the right almost can’t talk to each other anymore.

You said that you have some students working on tools to make the Internet more cosmopolitan. What are those tools?

There is a tool called Terra incognita. It’s a plugin for your browser that helps you to read diverse information. For instance, if you are mainly interested in Africa and Europe and your are only reading news coming from those continents, the plugin will suggest news about Asia and other continents. Another tool is FollowBias. It lets you look whom you follow on Twitter based on gender, for example. So if you follow twice as many men as women, it suggests that you follow more profiles relevant to women. Both tools examinee your behavior and make suggestions.

What are the main goals of the Center for Civic Media?

We are trying to think about what is the future of civics in the digital age. Civics is not only voting or choosing a government. It’s this notion of being involved. We are interested in how digital media is changing the way people get engaged. A lot of the work that we are doing right now is monitoring citizenship. How citizens moving under simple pathologies like using cell phones can take responsibility and put pressure on governments.

Do you have some examples illustrating that?

Months ago, we saw a campaign in the US around equality where people changed their icons with an equals symbol. This looks silly, superficial… and it’s easy to make fun of it, but it’s actually kind of serious. If you’re on Facebook, you suddenly have a sense that some -maybe all- of your friends support this point of view. There are similar examples that look for changes through code. We have many people that are upset with NSA surveillance. It’s quite possible that in the future you will see companies getting much more profit for encryption and a lot of individuals using PHP. You may see projects like Mailpile trying to make PHP encryption very easy. That’s a change that comes from code and not from legislation. Code pushes to change norms and people suddenly think it’s normal to encrypt emails.

Is it enough with the Internet, open code or Facebook to engage and mobilize people? How powerful is a “like” on Facebook?

A change starts by changing the way you behave and making other people change some perceptions. In the digital age, I actually think that people can make changes, not yet enough to pass a law, but more in terms of showing neighbors what they support and starting something together. We still don’t understand very well how social change occurs in the digital age and how digital media have an effect. It’s a moment to be an ethnographer rather than to be a theorist.

Carlos Betriu for Ventana al Conocimiento