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One world

by Michael Nielsen on April 30, 2009

Ethan Zuckerman asks a great question:

So here’s my pressing question: if the internet gives us new spaces in which to find common ground with very different people, what’s holding us back from becoming vastly more global and cosmopolitan than most of us are? Why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, do we seem to keep sorting ourselves into familiar groups?

The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck once said “I can only learn what I already almost know” [*]. Entering a new community is difficult. The more unfamiliar the community, the greater the potential gain, but also the harder it is to understand and appreciate the community. There are many communities I’d love to understand and be a witness to, even if I can’t participate in a more active way. But for most of those communities the barrier to entry is high, and it’s easier to stay within the communities I’m already familiar with.

[*] I can’t find the original quote, alas. It is, I believe, a translation from a French original.

Online, there are some special figures that stand out as people who can help broaden our sense of community. They do this, so far as I can see, in two ways. The first group are people who, individually, articulate and exemplify the values of their communities in a way that is extraordinary, and that is also accessible to people outside their community. I love to follow the activities of such people in communities outside my own. I’m thinking of people like Terry Tao, in mathematics. People like Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson in economics. People like David Byrne in music. People like Paul Graham for startup companies. One doesn’t necessarily follow the details of what is being said – I suspect few people can digest Terry Tao’s posts as quickly as he writes them! But the sense of being engulfed by a community is overwhelming when reading these people. One emerges enlarged.

The second group are the bridge-builders. People like Ethan himself, whose blog postings are frequently marvellous invitations to communities of which I know little, and which thus move me a little closer (a la Grothendieck) to being able to appreciate and understand that community for what it is. Posts like his biography of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, or the story of Matt Harding and the song “Sweet Lullaby”. Those posts both connect with me, and connect me to communities I never knew existed. Another bridge figure is Kevin Kelly, who has a wonderful eye for interesting stories and community, whether it be some of the oldest companies in the world, the story of an attempt to create a completely artificial environment for humans, or his musing on a world without technology.

I don’t know how to answer Ethan’s question from the beginning of this post. I do believe that at least part of the solution is to consciously seek out bridge figures, and to deliberately explore unfamiliar communities online. The architecture of the web – its link structure – makes it tempting to become ever more invested in our existing communities, subscribing to yet another blog closely related to our existing interests, way past the point of diminishing returns. I’m finding it more rewarding to consciously set aside at least some fraction of my time for exploring new communities, for finding new bridge figures, and for finding people who exemplify the communities of which they are a part.

From → Community

5 Comments
  1. The ability to peek and sample ideas is what makes the whole online experience so rich and engaging. Not needing to have a PhD in Math to listen and talk to Terrence Tao, brings the bar so down that, well, you can do it in your dreams, almost.

    That’s the magic

  2. I’ve noticed since becoming “involved” in the science 2.0 community (first lurking, then commenting, occasionally posting) that I’ve stopped exploring the way I did before a community of interest popped up (through a blog post of yours, in fact, and am grateful you proved such a useful “bridge” person). To retaliate, I’ve enforced “no networking” days on myself just to see what’s up out there…I’ve also found that new teaching assignments have forced me into new habitats, and this has been very good. I’ve scheduled 30-60 minute blocks of TED.com time into my work week since 1 good presentation on virtually any topic is good for 2-3 hours of immediate inspiration. I feel the same way about “Fresh Air” on NPR.

    But this has been a learned process (has anyone plotted a developmental timeline for 2.0 users?). And it requires a thicker skin than it should. Maxine Clarke has been a particularly helpful role model in this regard as she’s one who dares to complain about users’ needs while apparently managing an invisible force field against the informaticians’ missiles. I’ve had some private exchanges with folks new to the practice where we helped each other find out how to DO things we knew were possible but weren’t particularly obvious.

    The point, I guess, is that risk-taking is related not only to personality but also to a sense of security. Students will risk asking questions when the instructor has made clear that they won’t be mocked. Learning to speak Spanish in Vera Cruz was a lot more fun than trying out French in Paris. I monitor the tones of conversations carefully (as much as can be done through electronic exchange) and have a list in my head of people I will probably never respond to (even when I’m surprised at how good their blogs are).

    This makes the label “bridge builder” particularly important since it is those people that help users most to feel welcome (maybe we should start a tag: “bridge_builder”:-)). But perhaps it is a bit unreasonable to expect the web to have changed human nature? One of the findings on happiness is that people living in more homogeneous communities rate themselves as happier than those in more diverse ones (I recall this from a newspaper report on a research article, published by a British paper, encountered electronically but long before I used delicious). It could be that seeking behaviors (new sites, new writers, new ideas, new inspirations, etc) characterize only a subset of web users; that the desirability of the behavior is a defining trait of a particular community.

  3. Mickey – If you like ted.com, you might also enjoy many of the “Long Now” seminars, especially some of the earlier ones. I do something similar to you — when I exercise, I’ll often watch a TED talk, or a Long Now seminar, or something similar. Very inspiring!

    Your point about development is an interesting one. The technology of social media is moving fast, certainly much faster than social norms are adapting, and I find myself constantly challenged by it. E.g., it’s hard to know how to respond when someone makes a substantive point, but in a borderline rude way, in an online forum. The rules that work in everyday life need adaptation to cope with that situation.

    In regard to your last paragraph, I agree that human nature changing overnight isn’t likely 🙂
    But design decisions and our personal choices can make a big difference. I think it was Mitch Kapor who said “Architecture is politics”, and it’s certainly true that the design of information systems affects how and what we pay attention to. Something I follow loosely is some of the research work being done on recommendation algorithms that recommend items users are likely to like but which are not so similar to stuff they’ve seen before. If such algorithms were employed by, e.g., Amazon, it might really spread people’s attention out into wider communities.

  4. In case you didn’t catch it on next gen sci, this post from readwriteweb (http://tinyurl.com/covdrc) talks about the impact of systems design on the communications success by incorporating anthropological principles: “In anthropology it’s very clear that the environment that you create influences people and how they behave…People will come into the environment and behave according to what you built in certain subtle ways; ways that you probably didn’t think about.”

    One perhaps related issue — there’s research demonstrating that success in discipline-specific writing courses (this is what I do) does not always generalize; that is, students mis-apply knowledge of one genre to another, mostly because they missed the “meta” point — students were so busy learning to DO writing they didn’t get the chance to learn ABOUT writing in the anthropological sense. There are seemingly pointless differences between fields that are actually structural sign posts that one has left Kansas…for example, the use of subheadings: very common in sciences of all types but relatively rare in the humanities world. Perhaps this comes from a undergrad background in anthropology, but I am not sure that it is possible to escape communities as part of the human mind set — what I find so interesting in Stack Overflow’s approach is their admission that community preferences exist, and their willingness to design to those preferences.

  5. Ha! This is what I get for not paying attention during the end of semester grading blitz. I got the link to the Stack Overflow post from Next Generation Science, and did not see that you had already posted it, too. My apologies.

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