Book Review - Ethan Zuckerman's Rewire

Reprinted from Stanford Social Innovation Review. This review appears in the upcoming print issue (now online)

Ethan Zuckerman
Not many people who write about the future frame their argument in the context of rabbinical teachings from the first century AD. But in the closing pages of Rewire, Ethan Zuckerman quotes Rabbi Tarfon: “It’s not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.”

Zuckerman, director of the Civic Media Lab at MIT and founder of the widely read website Global Voices, clearly recognizes the rhythm of history. In that way, Rewire marks a refreshing shift in tone from most other books in the futurist genre, which tend to read as if time had only just started and as if the issues that we face today had never before confronted humankind.

Zuckerman’s argument is simple: Now that we can all connect via low-cost global communications tools, we must use those tools to achieve positive change. That’s what Zuckerman has aimed to do with Global Voices, an online service that provides news and opinion about more than 100 countries around the globe. The site, which offers content produced by in-country volunteers, grew out of his concern about the parochial nature of most print and broadcast news.

Since launching Global Voices in 2004, Zuckerman has learned a humbling lesson: Just because we can gather information from every corner of the earth faster and more easily than ever before doesn’t mean that anyone will pay attention to that information. Internet technologies won’t make people care about world events if they aren’t already prone to do so. “I had hoped Global Voices would influence agenda setting. … I believed that by providing coverage of events that other media outlets had missed, we would help challenge the imbalance in attention,” Zuckerman writes. In fact, he notes, journalists today use the site for purposes that don’t always reflect his lofty goal: “It means that Global Voices offers reporters a way to get quotes from countries experiencing sudden turmoil, rather than using us to find important unreported stories before they break.”

Rewire is at its best when it focuses on the dynamic interaction between digital tools and those who use them. Zuckerman observes how the choices that engineers make can facilitate serendipity or ease the process of making new connections. One important contribution that the book makes is to help nontechnical readers truly see the way that sites do (or do not) respect their wisdom and their needs. Zuckerman cites Jane Jacobs’s views on city planning, and his book resembles her work in its focus on helping ordinary residents of the “digital city," as he calls it, better understand how their surroundings—digital surroundings, in this case—shape their behavior.

But in paying homage to Jacobs, Zuckerman doesn’t go far enough. He stops short of directly challenging the wisdom of the new digital-city planners. Jacobs didn’t play nice with Robert Moses, the legendary New York City “master builder” who became her nemesis. She organized take-to-the-street confrontations to stop him. In her books, she didn’t mince words. When she thought that the big shots were wrong, she said so—and offered strong arguments to counter their top-down approaches.

Zuckerman, by contrast, seems more intent on persuading Web designers and online managers to do the right thing—to “curate,” “translate,” and “contextualize,” as he puts it. He doesn’t ask the reader to consider the structural impediments, the competing motivations, or the basic power struggles that might stand in the way of individuals’ use of Internet tools to foster greater engagement or activism.
Such faith in the goodwill of engineers and designers doesn’t seem adequate. Zuckerman nods to the power of manifestos (including the one that launched Global Voices), but in the end his message is not one of revolution. Instead, he merely calls for a more deliberate application of the lessons that we’ve learned over the past two decades. That’s a good idea, to be sure: All of us who shop on, get news from, seek a job through, or connect with friends via the Web should have a better understanding of how design choices shape our behavior. Yet we’ll need more than mere understanding if we are going to rewire our own behavior, and not just have it rewired for us.


In a twitter conversation with the author following the posting of this review on SSIR, I noted my frustration with the last chapter of the book. To me, that chapter reads like it was written by an editor - suddenly Zuckerman's personal voice is lost and we're given bulleted lists of things businesses could do to follow his advice. He noted that, yes, that last chapter was shaped in such a way to appeal specifically to business book readers. I laughed to myself about this - I am so tired of lists, 2 x 2s,  sidebars, and icons in books, a structure so common in  "business books" it's hard to find actual paragraphs anymore. I could go on about this but I won't. My advice - read Zuckerman's book up to the last chapter.

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