The age of connection
WASHINGTON, April, 13, 2012 -- Is technology making it a small world after all? In the Spring 2012 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, Ethan Zuckerman says the Internet has yet to break down the habits of mind that drive nations and peoples apart, but he has some ideas that could change that. A century ago, Tom Vanderbilt recalls, it was the telephone that promised to alter our personal and working lives—and ultimately it changed little. Christine Rosen appreciates the potential of email and social media to weave lives together but points out that important forms of contact are vanishing along with the handwritten letter.
The Internet has changed many things, but not the insular habits of mind that keep the world from becoming truly connected.
When the Cold War ended, the work of America’s intelligence analysts suddenly became vastly more difficult. In the past, they had known who the nation’s main adversaries were and what bits of information they needed to acquire about them: the number of SS-9 missiles Moscow could deploy, for example, or the number of warheads each missile could carry. The U.S. intelligence community had been in search of secrets—facts that exist but are hidden by one government from another. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, as Bruce Berkowitz and Allan Goodman observe in Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age (2002), it found a new role thrust upon it: the untangling of mysteries.
As we enter an age of increased global connection, we are also entering an age of increasing participation. The billions of people worldwide who access the Internet via computers and mobile phones have access to information far beyond their borders, and the opportunity to contribute their own insights and opinions. It should be no surprise that we are experiencing a concomitant rise in mystery that parallels the increases in connection.
The mysteries brought to the fore in a connected age extend well beyond the realm of political power. Bad subprime loans in the United States lead to the failure of an investment bank; this, in turn, depresses interbank lending, pushing Iceland’s heavily leveraged economy into collapse and consequently leaving British consumers infuriated at the disappearance of their deposits from Icelandic banks that had offered high interest rates on savings accounts. An American businessman on a flight to Singapore takes ill, and epidemiologists find themselves tracing the SARS epidemic in cities from Toronto to Manila, eventually discovering a disease that originated with civet cats and was passed to humans because civets are sold as food in southern China. Not all mysteries are tragedies—the path of a musical style from Miami clubs through dance parties in the favelas of Rio to the hit singles of British–Sri Lankan singer M.I.A. is at least as unexpected and convoluted.
A central paradox of this connected age is that while it’s easier than ever to share information and perspectives from different parts of the world, we may be encountering a narrower picture of the world than we did in less connected days. During the Vietnam War, television reporting from the frontlines involved transporting exposed film from Southeast Asia by air, then developing and editing it in the United States before broadcasting it days later. Now, an unfolding crisis such as the Japanese tsunami or Haitian earthquake can be reported in real time via satellite. Despite these lowered barriers, today’s American television news features less than half as many international stories as were broadcast in the 1970s.
As we start to understand how people actually use the Internet, the cyberutopian hopes of a borderless, postnational planet can look as naive as most past predictions that new technologies would transform societies. In 1912, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi declared, “The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” Two years later a ridiculous war began, ultimately killing nine million Europeans.
The challenge for anyone who wants to decipher the mysteries of a connected age is to understand how the Internet does, and does not, connect us. Only then can we find ways to make online connection more common and more powerful.
There are at least three ways we discover new information online. Each of these methods has shortcomings in terms of giving us a broad, global picture of the world. Search engines, while incredibly powerful, are only as good as the queries we put to them. They are designed for information retrieval, not for discovery. If you had been able to ask Google in 1979 how many SS-9 missiles the Soviets possessed, you might have received a plausible answer, but you wouldn’t have been told you should be asking about cassette recorders in Iran instead. Search engines tell us what we want to know, but they can’t tell us what we might need to know.
The limits of online information sources are a challenge both for us and for the people building the next generation of online tools. If we rigorously examine the media we’re encountering online, looking for topics and places we hear little about, we may be able to change our behavior, adding different and dissenting views to our social networks, seeking out new sources of news. But this task would be vastly easier if the architects of Internet tools took up the cause of helping to broaden worldviews.
Facebook already notices that you’ve failed to “friend” a high school classmate and tries to connect you. It could look for strangers in Africa or India who share your interests and broker an introduction. Google tracks every search you undertake so it can more effectively target ads to you. It could also use that information to help you discover compelling content about topics you’ve never explored, adding a serendipity engine to its formidable search function.
The age of connection is just beginning. Many people still view the world as dominated by secrets: How close is Iran to building a nuclear bomb? How can Western companies crack the Chinese market? Where are undiscovered reserves of oil? It’s at least as possible that the questions that will dominate the next century are the ones we don’t yet know to ask. Those who will thrive in a connected world are those who learn to see broadly and to solve the mysteries that emerge.
Also in the issue:
Left, Right, and Science: Science rarely offers answers to political questions, argues Christopher Clausen. But that doesn't stop both sides from insisting otherwise.
The Torture of Solitary: Stephanie Elizondo Griest traces the peculiar history of solitary confinement in America, from its origins as a redemptive strategy to its use and abuse today.
Japan Shrinks: Nicholas Eberstadt examines the shrinking population of Japan, where, in the not-so-distant future, centenarians may outnumber newborns.
A Manifesto at 50: Daniel Akst finds in the Port Huron Statement—and its oft-forgotten conservative counterpart, the Sharon Statement—ideas and longings that still resonate in America today.
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The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is the national, living memorial honoring President Woodrow Wilson. The Wilson Center provides a strictly nonpartisan space for the worlds of policymaking and scholarship to interact. By conducting relevant and timely research and promoting dialogue from all perspectives, it works to address the critical current and emerging challenges confronting the United States and the world. Created by an Act of Congress in 1968, The Wilson Center is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and supported by both public and private funds.