Ethan Zuckerman — founder of Geekcorps and Global Voices — is an activist who puts his money where his mouth is. For decades, he's undertaken heroic efforts to foster a global dialog using the Internet, taking practical steps to network netheads from all over the world, giving them the power to work together. He is one of the best-informed commentators on the extent to which the Internet has changed the lives of people in every corner of the globe, and he's also a person with a mission to help people better their lives through technology.
His new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, is a wonderful, hopeful, and sobering look at the state of the global net. Zuckerman takes us on an evidence-heavy, cautiously optimistic tour of the way that activists have used — or failed to use — networks to advance the cause of freedom and economic development.
Zuckerman doesn't claim that the Internet can solve all our problems, but he also sets out a set of problems where the net has an important role to play. By analyzing the successes and (especially) the failures to foster a planetwide dialog, Zuckerman signposts important examples we can learn from, and also juicy problem-spaces where we can direct our energies.
This decade has seen the rise of a profitable line of cynical, self-styled "cyber-realists" who claim that the Internet is an overblown fad that does more harm than good (or even deny that the Internet exists at all). Zuckerman's cautious optimism, derived from decades of hard, personal work on the front lines, is more rebuttal than they deserve. Zuckerman shows "cyber-realism" up for what it is — cyber-nihilism, hyperbolic posturing that offers no remedy and no action, just a kind of hopeless denial of the possibility of using technology for good.
By contrast, Zuckerman tells us exactly when and where the Internet has helped, and shows us how we can work together to make it do better. It's a hopeful and useful book, sober but uplifting.