RANDALL PINKSTON: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. This is Ethics Matter.
I am Randall Pinkston. I am a freelance anchor and reporter with Al Jazeera America, but you may remember me from my many years with CBS News.
Our conversation this evening is with Ethan Zuckerman. He is director of the Massachusetts Instiute for Technology (MIT) Center for Civic Media. He is a graduate of Williams College, a Fulbright scholar, and studied at the University of Ghana. Mr. Zuckerman is an Internet activist, a blogger, and a visionary. In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine designated him "a top global thinker for his insight that the world is not flat and globalization is only beginning, which means we have time to change what we're doing and get it right."
RANDALL PINKSTON: This seems like a nice starting point for one of the core issues for Carnegie, which is ethics, conducting our lives and our professions so that we can get it right. When we spoke earlier this week, you talked about the correlation between civic engagement and a digital age where there are low levels of trust. To begin, what are some metrics of that low level of trust, and how do they intersect with our participation in the digital age?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: One way to think about this is the Gallup Poll has been asking Americans for more than 50 years now whether they have a lot or some trust in the government to do the right thing most of the time. That number hit a peak of about 74 under the Eisenhower administration. It has had a steep fall ever since then. It did not hit a low point under Nixon. It has kept going down. I was born in 1973. Since I was born, that number has only once been over 50 percent, and that was right before we invaded Iraq, which would have been a very good time to be slightly less trusting of the government—
RANDALL PINKSTON: Not even after 9/11?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: No. After 9/11, you actually had a surge of confidence in the government. You had a surge of patriotism. You had that moment when people sort of rallied behind President Bush at that point. But the general overall trend for more than two generations is a loss of trust in government.
What's interesting is that it is not just a loss of trust in government. It's a loss of trust in institutions. If you ask people the same question about corporations, big banks, if you ask it about NGOs, if you ask it about universities, if you ask it about virtually anything, with the exception of the police and the military, it has been falling over the last 40 years.
It's not left or right. The left is bereft because they are losing trust in government, which was their hero. The right is bereft because they are losing trust in the market. After the 2008 banking crisis, it is very, very hard for anyone with a sound head on their shoulders to look at this and sense the market is going to work all by itself.
Across the board, you have young people looking at the world and saying, "I'm not sure I trust any of these institutions." That raises a very difficult question about what you should do as an engaged citizen at a moment of very high mistrust.
RANDALL PINKSTON: So when young people—when everyone—goes online, looks for information, whether it is written or on video, does the trust factor come in there anywhere?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: They don't trust us either. The good news is that it is not that they have shifted their trust somehow from newspapers to the Internet.
People trust their friends. They trust their families. They trust people known to them. Eurobarometer, which is one of the big surveys that has looked at trust in Europe, found that what people most trust is people like them. That seems to be what has really come out of the Internet. It's this different sense of authenticity. So rather than essentially looking for an institution or an authority, people are looking for people who look like them. There are all sorts of problems that come from shifting our trust from institutions, no matter how flawed they are, into people who look like us. It is actually a very easily manipulated tendency.
RANDALL PINKSTON: It also seems to suggest that instead of our access to the world via the web broadening our understanding, broadening our desire to get to know more about other people in the world around us, it's doing the opposite.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: For me, this is one of the central tragedies of the last 20 years. I got online very early. I got online in about 1988. I realized how important being able to be online was for the first time in 1993.
I was about to move to Accra, Ghana. I was leaving a town of 8,000 people in Western Massachusetts, moving to a city of 3 million on a continent I had never visited before. I was able to go onto this early proto-Internet, these message boards called Usenet, and basically say, "Hey, I'm looking for Ghanaians. Can people tell me what to expect, what to bring, what to do?" and found people, including people that I remain friends with to this day. To me, as a 20-year-old college kid in 1993, the Internet was this open door to relationships with people that I had never met and might not meet unless I got on an airplane and moved to another country.
Fast-forward 22 years. That promise that the Internet was magically going to connect us to people of other languages, cultures, religions—that hasn't played out the way that many of us hoped. We really thought the Internet was going to become a borderless space. What has happened, in many ways, is that we are likely, most of us, getting less information about the rest of the world than we were in the 1970s.
RANDALL PINKSTON: You have said that there were some dumb assumptions made about what connectedness would do. You have just mentioned interpersonal relationships. What about what it was supposed to do with respect to changing government, changing financial institutions, getting around censorship, for example?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Let me put it a different way. I mostly teach Master's and Doctoral students at an engineering university. I teach at MIT. The main thing that I try to teach them over the two to seven years I have with them is that technologies always have assumptions behind them, and those assumptions are political. Whether you mean for them to be political or not, those assumptions are inbuilt into the technology.
The politics of the early Internet were actually pretty clear. We were hoping for something that was truly global. We wanted it to be as decentralized as possible. We believed that it was going to end old monopolies. We believed that it might be impossible to create new monopolies. We believed that the Internet interpreted censorship as damage and routed around it.
Boy, were we wrong. You may remember when we were celebrating unseating Microsoft. Now we have sort of a Facebook-Google duopoly. I throw Apple in there as another big, powerful player. These guys have an immense amount of control. We had no idea that we were going to centralize back around there. Censorship has proved incredibly robust, not just in China and Iran, but now in Russia, which has taken on wholesale Internet censorship, even in places like Ethiopia, where you wouldn't even imagine that the Internet would be enough of a problem that there would be massive censorship and, in fact, arrests of people writing online.
So we got many, many things wrong. The biggest thing we got wrong, I think, is that a lot of the people who were involved with the Internet in the early 1990s saw this as changing politics, saw this as making it possible for us to have a direct voice, to influence candidates and leaders directly. I am baffled, in some ways, that we haven't ended up with more direct democracy over the course of the last 20-plus years. But that now seems like a really passé idea. It seems like a very 1990s idea, whereas 2015 seems all about, how do we create new world-beating commercial monopolies? That seems to be the current landscape and the current values.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Let's unpack these a little bit. Occupy is a movement coming out of the Arab Spring, in many ways. The Arab Spring, in many ways, sort of inspires people to go out in the street. What we need to understand about the Arab Spring and about Occupy is that counterpower is a lot easier than power.
Here's what I mean about this. My site, Global Voices, the site that I helped co-found, sort of an international citizen media network—many of our correspondents were involved with the Arab Spring in Tunisia. We had the nice journalistic advantage that we could report on this because we were going out in the streets and then reporting on it after the fact. My best Tunisian correspondent had to drop off the story because he was named the minister of youth and sport in the new government.
What we found out from those protests in Tunisia was that you could get a lot of different people from Tunisian society together to say, "We're done with Ben Ali. Let's get rid of him."
There was the same thing in Egypt with Mubarak. It was really, really easy to rally people against. When you tried to get people together and say, "How should we govern? How do we work on this?" that has turned out to be much harder.
You may remember the name Wael Ghonim. He got a huge amount of celebration in the wake of the Egyptian Spring because he was the guy running the Facebook group, "We are all Khaled Saeed," which helped mobilize a great deal. He couldn't find any traction in the political environment. He ended up highly marginalized. What he is now doing is trying to start a different type of social network, called Parlio, in the hopes of having civil discussions between people around the world. He looked at this and said, "We couldn't figure out how to get together and actually build a governing movement."
RANDALL PINKSTON: Let's talk for just a second—maybe slightly off-track—about an historical comparison, the Vietnam anti-war movement, for example, which started out on a few college campuses and expanded to other college campuses, and before you knew it, it was all over the country. That did work, did it not, to create some political change? Of course, McGovern didn't have a shot, but some political change.
You would think that when you get a lot of people together, you can effect political change. But what you are saying is that with the Arab Spring, you got a lot of people together and the political change they sought didn't happen?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: If you think about what happens after the anti-war movement, you end up with kind of a dark and difficult time in American politics. You end up with some pretty unsuccessful one-term presidents. You end up with a conservative backlash, bringing in Reagan for eight years. In many ways, the people who really trained on the anti-war movement don't show up until the Clinton administration in terms of presidential power. They are building different forms of institutional power.
There is no way to say that the leaders of the Arab Spring won't be the new leaders in the Middle East 10 or 20 years from now. But it has been very, very hard to get from point A to point B.
I think this is true with Occupy as well. I think what's happening—and here I am borrowing completely from my dear friend Zeynep Tufekci, an amazing Turkish-American academic who studied the protests in Turkey around Gezi Park—she said, "Look, this is really hard to understand. You had more than a million Turks taking to the streets in 60 different cities. You had an amazing diversity of people coming together, from the far-right-wing nationalists to gay and lesbian Turks, showing up to protest Erdoğan. Then six months later, you have him elected with the largest majority ever to run the country. What happened there?"
Her answer to "What happened there?" was, you can get people out into the streets much more easily than you ever have been able to before. What's really hard is, once you get them out into the streets, they don't necessarily have much in common. Those far-right religious Turks, they are not holding hands with the guys dressed in lavender fighting for gay rights in Istanbul. Trying to build a movement out of that, which took years in the civil rights movement, took years in the anti-war movement—you can get people into the streets in a day now, but it's much, much more fragile.
Ferguson, which you asked about, is something different. Ferguson, to me, is a movement that isn't focused on political power so much as it is focused on media power. When we saw "Black Lives Matter" emerge as a hashtag as well as a protest movement, this is what we call in the media space a reframing. This essentially says these things aren't point incidents. We had 101 unarmed African Americans shot by police in the United States in 2014. Not until you have Black Lives Matter do you have the sort of clear narrative coming out of this that essentially says this is the manifestation of systemic racism in the United States, and this is how we have evidence that we are not, in fact, living in a post-racial society.
That reframing isn't just happening in the streets; it's happening in the media. It's forcing us to think about these issues in a different way. For me, that is a very different form of protest. We don't know where it leads yet, but, for me, it is a very interesting, very promising new direction.
RANDALL PINKSTON: Do you think that reframing could have happened absent social media?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I think what social media does is lower the barriers to entry for new ideas to enter the equation. It doesn't guarantee that everybody gets heard, because the main thing that happens with social media is that so many more people have the microphone. The problem is you still have selective amplifiers. It used to be that if you wanted to get that idea out, you needed an op-ed in The New York Times, and that is a pretty high barrier to entry. That is a fairly powerful gatekeeper.
You have different ways of getting that attention now. When the Ferguson situation exploded, you saw people going on Twitter and essentially saying, "CNN, where are you? This is a massive injustice that is taking place. This needs to be on the media agenda." You had those people mobilizing their network, so-called "Black Twitter," which is an oversimplification of the phenomenon of people focused on racial justice using that medium.
But they were able to get a platform and they were able to swing around the TV camera lens. TV is still incredibly important. The Internet, in aggregate, is reaching overwhelming percentages of young generations, but it is reaching them a few thousand at a time. TV is still incredibly powerful for sort of synchronizing. So social media moving TV turns out to be incredibly powerful in getting new ideas on the agenda. And I do think that is a major political change, not just here, but in countries around the world.
RANDALL PINKSTON: Let's talk for a minute about your book. Those of you who haven't seen it, Digital Cosmopolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't, and How to Rewire It.
There's a lot there. Let's take the first part, why we think the Internet connects us.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I write in this book about a phenomenon that I call imaginary cosmopolitanism. Imaginary cosmopolitanism is this idea that we have access to news and information from all over the world. The funny thing is, if you actually look at what people are paying attention to day to day, moment to moment, some of those imbalances of what we pay attention to are worse than they were in the 1970s. Mainstream media has actually moved to spending about 40 percent of the news cycle in broadcast television on international stories down below 15 percent. It has been a long, steady fall from the 1970s to today.
You have seen a similar fall in most major U.S. newspapers. The New York Times actually has done an admirable job of keeping it up. You see the same thing in the UK. So within mainstream media, you see less and less and less of the international voice.
The hope was that with new media, you would suddenly see a flourishing of voices from the rest of the world. The answer is, people are speaking, but in most cases they are not getting heard. When you start doing a content analysis of those really popular websites—the Huffington Posts, the Slates, the Salons—they are often more U.S.-centric, more Europe-centric than even the mainstream publications, even after their long slide.
We saw a really clear sense of this earlier this year when you had the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo got an amazing amount of media attention. The world swung around, decided to pay attention to a story about Islamic terror crushing freedom of speech. There was another really interesting story going on that same week. Boko Haram ended up wiping out the village of Baga in Northern Nigeria—more than 2,000 people killed, more than 10,000 people chased from their homes. We had something like one one-hundredth of the media attention in U.S. media. Nigerian media didn't even pay as much attention to Baga as they did to Charlie Hebdo, because it was such a big global story.
So we have the capacity to get these stories from every part of the globe. We have mobile phones. We have Internet connectivity. We can live-stream what's going on. The question is, what do we want to pay attention to? The crazy thing that has happened over 20 years of the consumer Internet is that we have told the market that we care about people who look like us, act like us, feel like us, and we don't much care about anybody else.
RANDALL PINKSTON: Next part, why it doesn't. Why doesn't it bring us closer together?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It doesn't because the Internet tends to reinforce some very basic sociological forces. The one that I write about most in the book is one called homophily, which is the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. If you look within sociology, there is almost no phenomenon as well-documented as homophily. People have done studies where they will watch students walk into a computer lab and look to see who they will sit down next to. Statistically speaking, I will sit down with someone with glasses. I will sit down with someone who is white. I will sit down next to someone who has long hair—
RANDALL PINKSTON: I'm sorry to interrupt you. I remember a book written years ago by Beverly Tatum, who is now the president of Spelman, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?—
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Yes. I end up citing it. It's a terrific book. Dr. Tatum makes the argument that there is a real advantage to this because it is a way, in college, of reinforcing your identity and getting comfortable enough to interact with the broader world.
What homophily will say about this is maybe it's fine for the black kids to sit together in the cafeteria, but I'm going to gravitate towards the white kids and I'm probably going to gravitate, without knowing it, to the ones of the same socioeconomic status, the same religion. We are remarkably good at this. When you interview students and ask them, "Why did you sit down next to someone who looks like you?" they say, "They looked nice."
On some basic level, we know how to find our tribe, and we define our tribe quite narrowly. A couple of authors did a study using Facebook data at Harvard. They found out that there is no phenomenon of "Asian American kids." There are Vietnamese kids, Chinese kids, Taiwanese kids. The groups that people flock into are so small and so tightly defined, it's really hard to imagine.
The interesting thing is that the Internet makes this much easier to do. Everyone here, if you joined Facebook, try to think back to that moment when you joined Facebook. For me, it's so far in the past I have to rejoin Facebook every couple of years just to check. Facebook tries to find your tribe. The first thing it says is: Where did you go to high school? Where did you go to college? Where did you go to elementary school? Where did you grow up? Where have you worked?
The first thing it's doing is trying to find you 10 friends. They know that if it finds you 10 friends, you will stay on the network and use it. But what they end up doing is finding your earliest identities. They find the community that you came from. Because Americans tend to self-sort, racially, religiously, in terms of the neighborhoods we live in, it puts you into, often, a racially and religiously segregated group. Wherever you have gone on in life, Facebook wants to remind you that you are from Mississippi, I am from Upstate New York, and we both have our different communities that we find ourselves within.
They don't do this because they are evil or they want to prevent global communication. They do it because it's highly profitable.
But think about what would happen if someone built a social network designed to challenge you.
RANDALL PINKSTON: Is that the rewiring?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It's one possible thing you could do with rewiring. I have a student right now named Sands Fish who is trying to build social networks designed to make you uncomfortable. Basically, the first thing he does is he takes away the choice of friends. You no longer have a choice about who is going to be your friend. You are going to interact with people whom he thinks you should be interacting with, as a way of sort of challenging us. Will anyone use this? It's a good question. This is why you do this at research universities rather than going out and getting venture capital for it.
A lot of my theories around this suggest that you need bridge figures. You need people whom you have one thing in common with, but something else that is very different. I spend a ton of my life right now working on technology and innovation in sub-Saharan Africa. I work with people whom I don't have a lot in common with in terms of where we grew up, who we know, where we are from, but we have a lot in common in terms of what we do day to day, how we interact with technological systems, the things that we care about. That gives us a common ground that we are able to work on.
This is not Nick Kristof's "put a white person in every story as a bridge figure." This is a "Can you find the common ground with someone coming from somewhere really different?"
RANDALL PINKSTON: Why have you chosen in your personal life to focus on sub-Saharan Africa? You could have focused on—I don't know—Mexico.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I had the incredible opportunity when I was 20 years old to move to Accra, Ghana. It's the only city I have ever lived in in my life. I'm a rural boy, but I lived in an amazing cosmopolitan city of 3 million people. My life was completely transformed by suddenly having my very small, rural, white, Western Massachusetts existence opened up to people who are living in very, very different ways and very, very different places.
When I came back to the United States, the questions that I got were so dumb—
RANDALL PINKSTON: Give me an example.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: "Weren't you afraid of being mauled by lions?" Living in an apartment building in the downtown of a city of 3 million people, no. I was actually pretty afraid of the Giardia in the water, but I was not particularly afraid of lions, particularly since they are not native to West Africa. But people would ask you this question with a straight face.
"Wasn't it incredibly dangerous?" No. This is a stable, peaceful country and has been since 1957, when it was the first country to gain independence from European colonialism.
What happened was moving to West Africa got me studying media. It got me working in the high-tech field to think about whether the transformations that I was seeing in the United States might transform West Africa. I started a non-profit that started doing work, first in Ghana and then in 14 different countries, on helping people get technology businesses off the ground.
When I discovered that you could not get Americans to invest money in sub-Saharan Africa, then I felt like I had to get on the media problem and had to start thinking about this question of why, in the year 2000, when Ghana had a free and fair election in which the opposition party won—you may remember our election in 2000. It didn't go so smoothly here.
My very dear friend Koby Koomson, who was Ghana's ambassador to the United States, faxed Bill Clinton offering Ghanaian election observers to come into Florida to show them how it was done. That Ghanaian election, one of the most important elections on the African continent—an election that demonstrated that democracy was there to stay in Ghana—got almost no play in U.S. media.
That is the question that I have now been wrestling with really for the last 15 years or so. If we think of that not just as an unpleasant phenomenon, but as a question of social justice, how do you get to a world where people are taking the ability for sub-Saharan Africans to have economic and democratic progress seriously? How do we address that attention gap as a social justice issue?
RANDALL PINKSTON: Global Voices is one of the organizations that you founded, in part, to deal with that question?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: My dear friend Rebecca MacKinnon and I found ourselves both at Harvard in 2004. She is a China expert. She was actually CNN's bureau chief in Beijing. [Editor's note: For more on MacKinnon, check out her Thought Leaders interview.] I have been doing work on Africa since I was quite young. We both found ourselves looking at blogs from these countries.
In 2004, amazingly enough, people were writing extraordinary stories from every corner of the world, and no one was paying any attention. We thought if we could just aggregate these things, if we could just put them together in the same place, give it a bit more visibility, we could start changing the media in some of the ways that she and I had both thought about.
This has ended up becoming a project of about 900 authors, 130 countries. It is still a thriving community today, but, in some very real ways, it failed that test that I had for it.
RANDALL PINKSTON: How so?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: We haven't seen a massive change in how sub-Saharan Africa gets covered.
RANDALL PINKSTON: By Western mainstream media.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I would say Western mainstream media. The big story that had everyone paying attention to Africa over the last decade has been Ebola, which is another story about uncontrollable tragedy, which, if we don't get a handle on this, may actually come and kill us all.
RANDALL PINKSTON: In other words, is the old saw "no news is good news" especially true in Africa?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Which is crazy, because, of course, it has been where an enormous amount of economic growth has happened. Ghana, which was one of the least developed nations in the world when I was there in 1993, is now a medium-development nation. Had you put your money in a basket of Ghanaian stocks, you would not be a freelance anchor anymore; you would be a comfortably retired man.
RANDALL PINKSTON: Now you tell me.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It is a country that has had 10 percent economic growth year after year over the last several years.
No one knows these stories. No one is hearing the stories about development coming out of Africa right now. Bill Gates used his annual letter to make this point last year. He sort of stood up and said, "Look, people compliment me for giving all my wealth to help the poor and the disadvantaged. What you guys don't get is that there are so many fewer poor and disadvantaged. There is so much growth happening on that continent right now, and we just don't know about it."
I had really hoped that Global Voices was going to launch a generation of young media stars, whether they were going to be reporters or whether they were going to be entrepreneurs in that space. We have had a lot of people go on to some very good jobs, but it has not really shifted that much larger problem of whom we pay attention to and whom we don't pay attention to.
RANDALL PINKSTON: You were part of the founding of one of the first social media companies back in the mid-1990s.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Tripod.com.
RANDALL PINKSTON: I'm wondering, at that point or maybe prior, who was thinking about ethics? When you talk about the legal profession or the medical profession or other professions, there are either internal governing bodies and rules or government bodies and rules. Who deals with those kinds of issues with digital media?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: If you wind the clock back to the 1990s, I think we would have told you that by building companies that let people publish whatever they wanted to publish, we were doing the ethical thing. I would have pulled out the example of Malaysia, where most of the opposition politicians, including Anwar Ibrahim, had web pages on our server because they couldn't find another way to publish within Malaysia. But we believed, with almost religious certainty, that the Internet was going to take care of a lot of these problems that we were worried about.
Fast-forward 20 years. It's quite clear—and I have written a whole book about it—that it is just not that easy. Every technology has assumptions, has politics baked into it, but they are not always exactly what you thought. We really thought by giving the microphone to hundreds of thousands—millions—of people, that it would change the politics, that it would change inclusion. There are so many things that we got wrong in the process.
Fast-forward now. You have companies facing incredibly deep moral issues. Right now we are collecting huge amounts of data on people. You can, by correlating that data, determine someone's creditworthiness with a high degree of accuracy, not by knowing anything about their financial transactions, but by knowing about their social network. If you just know who someone is friends with, you know some other details about it, you can make a very, very good guess at someone's credit score.
We are going to start seeing digital redlining. We are going to start seeing forms of big data used for discrimination, because it's profitable. This is a moment at which we desperately need people coming and working in these technological fields who have a very deep moral and ethical grounding and have a really deep understanding that the technology, whether you want it to be or not, ends up being political.
This is why now, 20-plus years into my career, I feel like the best thing that I can be doing is trying to teach these brilliant engineers coming out of MIT—not teach them how to build better or more profitable systems, but how to ask those critical questions about what those systems are and are not going to do and to try to figure out how to bring ethics onto the table when they are building those companies.
RANDALL PINKSTON: In our earlier discussion, you said there were three elements as you look for governing systems: consumers, consumer rights organizations, and government leadership.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: This is the question that you were going to ask me about regulation. How do we go ahead and regulate these—
RANDALL PINKSTON: Yes, how do you do that—or shouldn't or should we?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: The Internet industry has done an incredibly good job of making the case that it should be immune from regulation. It did it at first by successfully convincing lawmakers that "you do not know the space and you have no idea what you're doing." In some ways, it has continued making the case, in that lawmakers are often three, five, seven years behind whatever is going on right now.
Right now lawmakers are starting to wake up to bitcoin and the notion of virtual currency and the idea that people are actually making money in this space, even as bitcoin looks like that may be going away and we may have some successor currencies. So the government tends to be late.
At the same time, we also do need the government to come in and say, "Look, we have found ways of preventing credit discrimination. We have found ways of essentially saying we can't make a credit decision based on race, based on education level, based on where you live. It has to be based on your financial behavior. If you don't make that decision, we're going to penalize you in a serious way."
RANDALL PINKSTON: Based on financial behavior.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Based on financial behavior, based on something directly linked rather than indirectly linked. Big data is all about indirect linkage. We may well need governments to look at this and say, is that indirect linkage fair? Does it end up being explicitly or implicitly discriminatory against classes of people?
We are not going to get there unless we get two other things. We need consumers to look at this and say, "We are being sold a very bad bargain. In an Internet where everything is free, we are the product." If you are not paying for it, you are not the customer; you are what is being sold. We do not have consumers behaving this way at this point.
What we are going to need are organizations of consumers getting together and essentially saying to an entity like Facebook, "We need a choice. We understand that you are providing a service, but we should have the choice to pay a $50 subscription fee per year to stay in touch with our friends and not have all of our data monetized, analyzed, repackaged, repurposed, and put together."
But we are not going to get that unless we actually have consumers getting together and finding a way to demand certain types of regulation and to demand certain behaviors coming from these corporations.
RANDALL PINKSTON: And to have the cognizance that what you think is free when you sign up for these services really isn't free. If you are getting it for free, you are paying.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: And I think at the very high levels of these corporations, people get that. What I don't think is that most of the young engineers, the young salespeople, young people going in and following the 2015 version of the American dream—which is to go work for one of these companies, whether it is in its start-up phase or whether it is one of the mature ones, like Google—that is where I think we need this critical thinking, we need this critical analysis, because those corporations are going to have to be part of this change as well.
They are going to have to look at this and say, "Look, we have ended up in this business model. We have ended up in this set of practices. This perhaps is not what is healthiest for society as a whole. Let's start thinking about some different and better ways to do this."
QUESTION: My name is Sondra Stein.
You explained how the Internet did not help bring democracy, these movements that caused some temporary change. But I am struck by reading how ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] is so good at the Internet, how they get so many people to come. Why are they so effective and democracy isn't?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It is very interesting. This notion that ISIS is better at the Internet than we are is one that is getting a lot of play at the moment. I don't want to take it at face value, because there are a lot of people in the U.S. military who are essentially pushing for incredible amounts of funding to try to figure out how to combat on social media.
I think it is worth mentioning that there are incredible leaders in the Muslim community going on and using social media and challenging this notion that someone should be drawn to jihad in the Middle East when they are not, in fact, taking on issues in their own communities. I think there is brilliant work being done around it.
I do think that what ISIS has to its advantage is that there are a lot of people who have left their homes and their communities and gone and joined the fight. The one thing that really works very well online is personal narrative, that ability for one person to say, "I'm like you. Here is my experience. Here is what drew me into Syria," is incredibly powerful. [Editor's note: For more on ISIS' online presence and its foreign fighters, don't miss Richard Barrett's September 2014 Carnegie talk.]
What's interesting is, generally speaking, when we have seen groups like the U.S. military try to combat this, they don't know how to do that. I would love to see the U.S. military mobilizing young Muslim service members to go online and say, "This is my jihad. This is absolutely the struggle that I'm involved with to defend the United States. Here's what got me there."
For the most part, I'm not seeing that coming out of these different efforts. What I'm seeing is the anti-Nazi propaganda handbook recycled from the early 1940s. Some of this just has to do with who is in charge. The people who are leading this for ISIS are probably people in their 20s who were drawn in via social media. It is really hard for hierarchical organizations to try to figure out how to devolve power down to the people who are the natural users of this media.
QUESTION: Hello. My name is Patricio Calderon.
You talked about the assumptions being made at the beginning of the Internet. My question is, what do you think are the assumptions being made today about the future of the Internet and the world? And are those assumptions general or are they divided by business, academia, NGOs?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I do think there is a paradigm shift going on right now as far as the core values of the Internet. There may have been a couple of paradigm shifts. There was certainly a paradigm in the early 1990s that this was going to be decentralizing; it was going to be global; it was going to link everybody together.
The paradigm that I see now—the person who is the most articulate about it is Peter Thiel, who is an incredibly successful venture capitalist [VC], behind PayPal, behind a lot of other investments. Thiel is, in many ways, sort of the father of disruption, this idea that any stable industry can be disrupted by someone who can come in and build a highly successful and preferably monopolistic business.
I find Thiel equal parts terrifying and helpful. I find him terrifying in that I find his politics atrocious, but I find his honesty really refreshing. I like the fact that there is someone willing to come in and say, "Why would I start a business if I couldn't have a monopoly?" I think that is very much the attitude that has entered the space.
Look, in 1994, when I started working for a dot-com company, you didn't work in this space to make money. You worked in this space because you were the kind of kid who spent way too many nights in the computer lab. At this point, the kids that I teach who are heading into VC-backed startups have a very clear commercial vision behind what they want to do and a very clear sense of where they want to be. I'm not saying that it's across the board. I think there are a lot of people who do want to change the world, but they see the way to change the world through one of Thiel's best friends, Elon Musk, by creating a technology—whether it's the Tesla motorcar, whether it's SpaceX—something that is going to revolutionize the world.
But this is a really weird theory of change, this sort of theory of change that we are going to create a technology that is so wonderful that it's going to sweep the world. That is a really interesting political system.
The last piece of the answer to this: The other paradigm behind all of this is a shift from a paradigm of openness—anyone can create, anyone can put something online. Russia is going to find itself on the Internet because someone in Finland puts out a phone line, and suddenly they are online. Now it is very much the app store. It is very much a model of some very powerful gatekeepers essentially saying this is what we're going to do online. It is a very, very different moment in time.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. This has been just fantastic, on so many levels. Ajay Anand.
So many questions, but I think my largest question is about your original vision, this utopia of openness and what it has devolved or evolved to today. The thing is, everything is going to be projected by the reality of this world, which is two very large blankets. There is culture, so Western hegemony, racial biases. Those refer to a bunch of the media coverage things we are talking about. Those are deeply entrenched. The second is that capitalism won out. Ultimately everything is going to be influenced by those very strong, deep realities.
There is an algorithm in the middle of it that doesn't care about the morality of its decision. It essentially is just going to process efficiently and reflect the realities of our world, whether they are ugly, which I would say they are—and maybe you would say so yourself—but once we are devolving power to the algorithm further and further—it's so funny that this talk happened today, because I had a drink with a friend who is running a digital agency. He said, "We're coming to the point where—I'm a moral person, but when I'm faced with abstract data and conversions are coming through, I don't care anymore."
We are at a point where you are going to go for a loan and the loan officer is going to say yes or no, and you are going to ask that person sitting across the desk—and they won't have an answer for you—why?
I don't see it swinging back. I don't know what is the force that will take us back to something more beautiful or more elegant.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: So you're looking for hope. I am not generally a merchant of hope, but I'm going to go out on a limb and try to find some positive ideas in this.
One is that—I have now been playing around with the Internet long enough that I am starting to have a sense of history. The class I'm teaching in the fall is actually on Internet history, looking at history in the sense of these paradigms and these values that came forward.
When my company was sold in 1998, the big player in this space was Yahoo. We were heartbroken when Yahoo didn't buy our firm, because they were the coolest kids on the block. They are now a badly beaten and battered company. And the company that bought us, Lycos, hasn't existed for years.
Things can and do change. There is no guarantee that Google and Facebook and Apple run the future, just in the same way that there was no guarantee that Microsoft was forever.
So that's the first thing.
The second thing is that in the United States we have incredible blinders on about the rest of the world, and that plays out in the technology world as well. There is a real tendency in the United States to look at Chinese companies and assume that all they are doing is copying. And it just couldn't be further from the truth. Whether it's Xiaomi in the mobile phone market actually producing beautiful things, whether it's Sina Weibo, whether it's WeChat, there are really different paradigms emerging for how people interact with one another online.
It's crazy to think that the hope to solving the problems of a U.S.-dominated Internet is the Chinese Internet, but one hope in all of this is that there still is space to launch new companies, to launch new ways of interacting, and there is still a chance that there are different paradigms that can come to the fore.
For me, the third place of this is that it's easier and easier to innovate. It is so much easier to start a company now and get something out there, in 2015, than it was when we were starting Tripod in 1994. My hope is that we could have a sea change of who gets involved.
What I am really interested in is, after the next crash—there will be a next crash. It's coming in a year or two. This would be a very good time to pull out of technology stocks. After the next crash, could we get more of the people to the table who want to change the world and who want to see technology through a lens of cosmopolitanism or social justice? For me, that is the generation that I am trying to cultivate and that I am trying to bet on.
QUESTION: My name is Youssef Bahammi.
This is a very rich panel indeed. I haven't read your book yet, but I want to see if you agree with this idea—maybe it is one of the key points in the book—the fact that indeed the Internet has exploded as a group of nebulae in the universe. In the beginning, we already, like you mentioned during the rich discussion, had the impression and the assumption that websites like, to start with, MySpace, then LinkedIn, then Facebook, then the Twitter era—were going to be over-impacting our context of action in real-life chemistry.
But it seems that during the recent years there was maybe a deception, depending on the social culture of each country, the economical system of each country also. Politics is a strong factor in social media. We leave it at that.
All I'm going to say is, do you agree with the fact that this idealistic idea of seeing the Web 2.0 in the beginning has maybe shattered in the eyes of many? Thank you.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: What I would say is that part of that vision from the 1990s—and to be clear, it was an incredibly naïve vision—was of almost a new state, a new people. You had folks like John Perry Barlow stand up and quite seriously say, "Governments of the world, you have no jurisdiction here. You have no authority in our borders." Part of what he meant was that he thought there was going to be a new generation of people who lived online and who were immune to those local politics.
This is a really easy thing to say as a wealthy white dude from the United States. It's real easy to come in and say, "Real life doesn't matter anymore. Politics don't matter anymore. We have created a space free of race and class and culture." Of course, the answer is, we haven't, nor should we. But now what we have been dealing with is, how does the Internet unfold differently in different parts of the world, with different groups of people using it?
For me, the moments when I am hopeful are when I look at the very different ways people are using the Internet in different countries. That is what I think we could really improve our job in, being far more aware of those different paradigms, those different ideas. But I think that naïveté that I was talking about in the 1990s—and I think probably the same naïveté that you are talking about in Web 2.0—I am not sure it shattered enough. I think it shattered for a lot of us inside the field. I'm not sure it shattered for the world as a whole, and I think we probably do need to combat it more directly.
QUESTIONER: Do you think that there are two groups, the group of interaction and a paradigm of image, between the people online? Some defend their image, and on the other hand, you interact with others. It's two different contexts.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: The old joke is that there are two kinds of people in the world, ones who try to sort the world into two kinds of people—[Laughter]
I'm not going to fall into that trap, but I do think it is an interesting question about brand versus interaction. I am certainly coming down on the interaction side.
QUESTION: Maria D'Albert.
I recently spent time in a country where only about 25 percent of the population has access to the Internet and there are controls around the access to the Internet, both monetarily and in regulatory and actual access. One of the concerns that was cited by those in that environment was a concern about exactly that sort of hegemonic, neocolonial impact of this highly concentrated ownership structure around some of the companies we have just talked about, and the concern that, from a geopolitical perspective, their voices, their local voices, would lack the ability to maintain their authenticity.
There are certainly other impacts of that control, which is that local voices don't have the opportunity to develop their own communications adequately because of the control.
My longwinded question is, when we are counterbalancing traditional political control and this commercial and the issues that we have talked about around the use of information, what does Internet freedom mean in 2015, in an environment with shifting geopolitical environments?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: The "Internet freedom" term has been so badly corrupted by Hillary Clinton that I am not even going to touch it. The notion that the United States, with NSA [National Security Agency] surveillance, is somehow going to be a leader in Internet freedom is so farcical that I'm just going to keep that term off the table.
But looking at this question of what emerging nations do as they come onto the global Internet is a really interesting question. Right now the default is that you find your way into using these U.S.-owned services.
I was in Yangon, Myanmar, about 15 months ago. This is a country that, first of all, I had never imagined traveling to as a free-speech activist, and, second of all, really never imagined being invited to address a conference on free speech online. But I went there. My main surprise was to discover that Myanmar hadn't actually joined the Internet; they joined Facebook. No one was using any website other than Facebook. If you asked people how to search, in Myanmar they go onto Facebook and they use Facebook search.
What this means is that they are dependent on a Silicon Valley-based company for their space for political speech. There is an enormous amount of hate speech on Burmese Facebook, particularly directed at the Rohingya. It is really hard for Facebook to regulate this, because, unsurprisingly, Facebook doesn't have a lot of Burmese speakers.
So you look at this and you find yourself saying, I would really like to see countries trying to build their own local services. Now, the track record on that is terrible. You have Iran, Vietnam, and China as the leaders in the people who built their own local Internets. Russia had a wonderful set of local Internet providers, like VKontakte, all of which have now been taken over by government cronies.
It's really, really hard. On the one hand, you want to say, "Oh, no, fight the American hegemony." On the other hand, so many of the experiments that have been done in this field have created platforms with censorship baked into them, platforms with certain behaviors taken on it.
The way forward, to me, is looking at countries like Kenya that are cultivating their own local Internet companies that are building innovative software and hardware for global markets. I'm lucky enough to chair the board of a company called Ushahidi, which is a major Kenyan software developer competing internationally. That is what I would like to see governments trying to do, trying to help out those local firms, essentially saying, "Yes, we're going to build something to challenge Facebook. And you know what? Not just for Kenya; for everywhere. We are going to be full players in this system. No one said this had to be a U.S. system."
How we get there, the details of it, that is hard, but finding people to support those companies, finding people to invest in those companies, finding people to use those companies—maybe we are at that time.
Last story on this one: In 2001, I was running an NGO called Geekcorps that was based in Accra. Like it sounds, it was bringing geeks from the U.S technology industry over to work with the commercial sector, first in Ghana and then all over the world. One of the things that we realized was that all Ghanaians were using Hotmail, Microsoft's email service. Some of my volunteers and some locals started an email service called FreeGhana.com. We had these wonderful FreeGhana bumper stickers and we started putting them up. I would travel internationally and people would say, "Yeah, it's really terrible what's going on in Ghana. I really hope that someone will free the Ghanaian people."
We were way too early and we were way too local. We shouldn't have just aimed for Ghana. It was way too small. We should have done what Ubuntu Linux did. The leading Linux distribution is an African product. It comes from the Ubuntu Foundation out of South Africa. Most people don't know that the Linux that they use is an African product. They have been good about making their African roots clear, but their ambitions have been global.
That, to me, is what is exciting about this moment in time. I think there are companies that I am seeing in the developing world that could help reshape some of these industries in under five years, and I am really interested in finding ways to get behind those.
RANDALL PINKSTON: Thank you very much. Thank you all for your participation and your questions.
This concludes our conversation, Ethics Matter, with Ethan Zuckerman. Thank you, sir, for sharing with us your vision and your knowledge.