You can always get what you want. But is it what you need?

My review of Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire and Aleks Krotoski’s Untangling the Web.

Open a street map of a city – any city – and what you see is a diagram of all the possible routes that one could take in traversing or exploring it. But superimpose on the street map the actual traffic flows that are observed and you see quite a different city: a city of flows. And the flows show how the city is actually used, as distinct from how it could be used.

This is a useful metaphor for thinking about the internet and digital technology generally. In itself, the technology has vast – some think limitless – possibilities. So narratives like those of Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their recent book tend to sketch out all the things that networked technology could enable us to do. But what we will actually wind up doing with it is, at any point in time, largely unknown.

In that sense, Ethan Zuckerman’s book provides a welcome antidote to the current narrative of technological determinism. His central thesis is that while the internet does, in principle, enable everyone to become a true cosmopolitan, in practice it does nothing of the kind. Cosmopolitanism does not just involve being tolerant of those who are different from us. As the Ghanaian American philosopher Anthony Appiah puts it, true cosmopolitanism “challenges us to embrace what is rich, productive and creative about this difference”. Much of the early part of Rewire is taken up with demonstrating the extent to which the internet, and our use of it, fails that test…

Comments are closed.