The Internet is not enough: Paul Simon's "Graceland," Malcolm Gladwell and the importance of real connections

Trust Gladwell and "Graceland": True connection and cultural exchange requires "bridge figures" to cement ties

Published November 29, 2014 3:30PM (EST)

Paul Simon, Malcolm Gladwell     (AP/Luiz Ribeiro/Hachette Book Group)
Paul Simon, Malcolm Gladwell (AP/Luiz Ribeiro/Hachette Book Group)

Excerpted from "Digital Cosmpolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't and How to Rewire It"

The early 1980s weren't especially kind to Paul Simon. He ushered in the second decade of his post–Simon & Garfunkel life with One Trick Pony, a forgettable companion album to a forgettable film starring his former musical partner, Art Garfunkel. When a 1981 reunion concert with Garfunkel brought 500,000 people to New York’s Central Park, and sold over two million albums in the United States, the two began touring together. But “creative differences” brought the arrangement to a premature end, and a planned Simon & Garfunkel album became a Simon solo release, Hearts and Bones, that was the lowest-charting of his career. With the breakup of his marriage to the actress Carrie Fisher, “I had a personal blow, a career setback and the combination of the two put me into a tailspin,” Simon told his biographer Marc Eliot.

During this dark period, Simon was mentoring a young Norwegian songwriter, Heidi Berg. Berg gave Simon a cassette of mbaqanga music featuring musicians from Soweto, then the most notorious blacks-only township in apartheid South Africa. While the identity of the album Simon heard is uncertain, it likely featured the Boyoyo Boys, a popular Sowetan band, and listening to the cassette in his car, Simon began writing new melody lines and lyrics on top of the sax, guitar, bass, and drums of their existing tracks.

“What I was consciously frustrated with was the system of sitting and writing a song and then going into the studio and trying to make a record of that song. And if I couldn’t find the right musicians or I couldn’t find the right way of making those tracks, then I had a good song and a kind of mediocre record,” Simon told Billboard magazine’s Timothy White. “I set out to make really good tracks, and then I thought, ‘I have enough songwriting technique that I can reverse this process and write the song after the tracks are made.’”

In the hopes of working this new way, Simon appealed to his record company, Warner Bros., to set up a recording session with the Boyoyo Boys. In 1985, that was far from an easy task. Since 1961, the British Musicians Union had maintained a cultural boycott of South Africa, managed by the UN Center against Apartheid. The boycott was designed to prevent musicians from performing at South African venues like Sun City, a hotel and casino located in the nominally independent bantustan of Bophuthatswana, an easy drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria. But the boycott covered all aspects of collaborations with South African musicians, and Simon was warned that he might face censure for working in South Africa.

When Simon turned to Warner Bros. for help, the company called Hilton Rosenthal. Then managing an independent record label in South Africa, Rosenthal had in the past worked with Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, the two musicians who became the heart of Juluku, a racially integrated band that electrified traditional Zulu music and brought it to a global audience. Rosenthal’s label had partnered with Warner Bros. to distribute Juluku’s records in the United States, so Warner executives knew he could help Simon navigate a relationship with South African musicians.

As a white South African who’d recorded a highly political, racially integrated band in apartheid Johannesburg, Rosenthal was aware of some of the difficulties Simon might face in recording with Sowetan musicians. He assured Simon that they would find a way to work together and sent him a pile of twenty South African records, both mbaqanga acts and choral groups including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Then he arranged a meeting with his friend and producer Koloi Lebona, who set up a meeting with the black musicians’ union, to discuss whether members should record with Simon.

The musicians had reason to be skeptical of such a collaboration. They had previously crossed paths with one of popular music’s great appropriators, Malcolm McLaren. McLaren is best known as the Svengali behind the Sex Pistols, assembling the seminal punk band at his London clothing boutique. The controversial, explosive, brief, and ultimately tragic career of the Sex Pistols launched McLaren as a musical innovator and provocateur.

For his next act, McLaren didn’t bother to build a band. Duck Rock, released in 1983, is a complex and compelling pastiche of influences from around the globe: American folk, early hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean, and lots and lots of mbaqanga music. “Double Dutch,” an ode to African American jump rope culture, is built around an instrumental track, “Puleng,” by the Boyoyo Boys. McLaren didn’t credit the Boyoyo Boys for the track, claiming he’d authored it with the Yes bass player Trevor Horn. The album borrowed heavily from other South African acts, including Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, who also worked unpaid and uncredited.

When Simon approached Rosenthal about recording with the Boyoyo Boys, the band was in the early stages of a lawsuit attempting to get royalties from McLaren. But Rosenthal and Lebona encouraged the collaboration, and a majority of the black musicians’ union agreed to invite Simon to South Africa to record. They worried that the UN cultural boycott was preventing mbaqanga music from taking its place on the global stage, as Jamaican reggae had done. Realizing that Simon’s stature could bring a great deal of attention to the local musical scene, they voted to work with him.

The sessions that Rosenthal and Lebona organized led to Graceland, one of the most celebrated albums of the 1980s. It won Grammy awards in 1986 and 1987, topped many critics’ charts and regularly features on “top 100 albums of all time” lists. It also made a great deal of money for Simon and the musicians he worked with, selling over sixteen million copies. South African songwriters share credits and royalties with Simon on half of the album’s tracks, and Simon paid session musicians three times the US pay scale for studio musicians. Many involved with the project, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, drummer Isaac Mtshali, and guitarist Ray Phiri went on to successful international music careers.

At its best, Graceland sounds as if Simon is encountering forces too large for him to understand or control. He’s riding on top of them, offering free-form reflections on a world that’s vastly more complicated and colorful than the narrow places he and Art Garfunkel explored in their close harmonies. The days of miracle and wonder Simon conjures up in “The Boy in the Bubble” are an excellent metaphor for anyone confronting our strange, connected world.

Collaborations like Graceland don’t happen without the participation of two important types of people: xenophiles and bridge figures. Xenophiles, lovers of the unfamiliar, are people who find inspiration and creative energy in the vast diversity of the world. They move beyond an initial fascination with a cultural artifact to make lasting and meaningful connections with the people who produced the artifact. Xenophiles aren’t just samplers or bricoleurs who put scraps to new use; they take seriously both forks of Kwame Appiah’s definition of cosmopolitans: they recognize the value of other cultures, and they honor obligations to people outside their own tribe, particularly the people they are influenced and shaped by. Simon distinguishes himself from McLaren by engaging with South African musicians as people and by becoming an advocate and promoter of their music.

Unlike xenophiles, outsiders who seek inspiration from other cultures, bridge figures straddle the borders between cultures, figuratively keeping one foot in each world. Hilton Rosenthal was able to broker a working relationship between a white American songwriter and dozens of black South African musicians during some of the most violent and tense moments of the struggle against apartheid. As a bridge, Rosenthal was an interpreter between cultures and an individual both groups could trust and identify with, an internationally recognized record producer who was also a relentless promoter of South Africa’s cultural richness. Rosenthal, in turn, credits Koloi Lebona with building the key bridges between black musicians and the South African recording community.

Bridge Figures

The Chinese activist and journalist Xiao Qiang and I started using the term “bridging” to describe the work bloggers were doing in translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture into another. Shortly afterward, the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan gave a memorable talk at the Berkman Center as part of the Global Voices inaugural meeting. Hossein explained that, in 2004, blogs in Iran acted as windows, bridges, and cafés, offering opportunities to catch a glimpse of another life, to make a connection to another person, or to convene and converse in a public space. I’ve been using the term “bridgeblogger” ever since for people building connections between different cultures by means of online media, and “bridge figures” to describe people engaged in the larger process of cultural translation, brokering connections and building understanding between people from different nations.

To understand what’s going on in another part of the world often requires a guide. The best guides have a deep understanding of both the culture they’re encountering and the culture they’re rooted in. This understanding usually comes from living for long periods in close contact with different cultures. Sometimes this is a function of physical relocation—an African student who pursues higher education in Europe, an American Peace Corps volunteer who settles into life in Niger semipermanently. It can also be a function of the job you do. A professional tour guide who spends her days leading travelers through Dogon country may end up knowing more about the peculiarities of American and Australian culture than a Malian who lives in New York City or Sydney but interacts primarily with fellow immigrants.

My friend Erik Hersman is an American, a former Marine, who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. The child of American Bible translators, Hersman grew up in southern Sudan and in the Rift Valley of Kenya. After school and military service, Erik ran a technology consultancy in Orlando, Florida, making regular trips to East Africa to document technological innovation on the blog Afrigadget. He then moved to Nairobi to lead the *iHub, a technology incubator in central Nairobi designed to nurture Internet-based start-ups.

Erik is able to do things most Americans aren’t able to do. He can wander around Gikomba in Nairobi and talk to local metalworkers in Swahili for a blog post about African hacking, because he’s a Kenyan. And he can help Kenyan geeks develop a business plan to pitch a software venture to international investors because he’s an American geek. Lots of people have one of these skill sets, but bridge figures are lucky enough to have both.

The sociologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem uses the term “third culture kid” to describe individuals like Erik who were raised both in the home culture of their parents and in the culture of the places where they grew up. Useem argues that kids raised in this way end up developing a third culture by combining elements of their “birth” culture and the local culture they encounter. Children who go through this process—the kids of military personnel, missionaries, diplomats, and corporate executives—often have more in common with each other than with other kids from their birth culture. Researchers working in the same vein as Useem’s have found evidence that some third culture kids are often well adapted to live and thrive in a globalized world. Frequently they’re multilingual as well as multicultural, and are very good at living and working with people from different backgrounds. As a downside, some third culture kids report feeling that they’re not really at home anywhere, in either their parents’ culture or the culture they were raised in.

While Useem’s research focuses primarily on North Americans and Europeans growing up in other parts of the world, international patterns of education and migration are giving people from many nations the opportunity to become bridge figures. Hundreds of the individuals who write or translate for Global Voices are citizens of developing nations who’ve lived or worked in wealthier nations, learned new languages, and absorbed new cultures as students, migrants, or guest workers.

Merely being bicultural isn’t sufficient to qualify you as a bridge figure. Motivation matters as well. Bridge figures care passionately about one of their cultures and want to celebrate it to a wide audience. One of the profound surprises for me in working on Global Voices has been discovering that many of our community members are motivated not by a sense of postnationalist, hand-holding “Kumbaya”-singing, small-world globalism but by a form of nationalism. Behind their work on Global Voices often lies a passion for explaining their home cultures to the people they’re now living and working with. As with Erik’s celebration of Kenyan engineering creativity, and Rosenthal’s passion for the complexity and beauty of South African music, the best bridge figures are not just interpreters but also advocates for the creative richness of other cultures.

The Taliban, McDonald’s, and Curried Goat

What happens when people encounter another culture for the first time? Will we find a bridge figure to help us navigate these encounters? How often do we embrace the unfamiliar as xenophiles, and how often do we recoil and “hunker down,” as Robert Putnam observes?

It’s a question as old as the Odyssey, where Odysseus’s encounters with people of other lands remind readers that his name, in Greek, means “he who causes pain or makes others angry.” For all the kindly Phaeacians who sail Odysseus back to Ithaca, there are Cyclopes who eat men and destroy ships. When we encounter new cultures, should we expect cooperation or conflict? The political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart consider this ancient question through the lens of media. In their book Cosmopolitan Communications, they look at what happens when people encounter different cultures through television, film, the Internet, and other media. Their exploration starts by examining the introduction of television to the small, isolated Buddhist nation of Bhutan in 1999. Prior to 1999, television had been illegal in Bhutan, though a small number of people had televisions and rented Hindi-language videocassettes to watch at home. In June 1999, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck allowed Bhutanese to begin watching television and to connect to the Internet. Two Bhutanese businessmen soon formed Sigma Cable, which by May 2002 offered forty-five Indian and American channels to about four thousand households.

Almost immediately after the introduction of television, Bhutanese journalists started reporting on an apparent crime wave, including drug offenses, fraud, and murder. Bhutanese schoolchildren began watching professional wrestling and practicing body slams on fellow students in the schoolyard. The situation escalated into a moral panic, as citizens and journalists speculated that television morality would overwhelm Bhutanese values and traditions.

Bhutanese authorities had hoped that a local public broadcaster, charged with producing educational content about Bhutanese traditions, would help temper the influence of foreign media. But the broadcaster was slow to produce programming, and the Hindi soap operas and British news programs offered via cable television were far more popular. By 2006, the government had created a new ministry to regulate media, which promptly banned sports and fashion channels as well as MTV on the grounds that they had “no suffering alleviation value.” Worried that television was teaching young Bhutanese to stay at home and watch soap operas, the nation’s health and education minister embarked on a fifteen-day, 560-kilometer trek to warn his citizens against indolence: “We used to think nothing of walking three days to see our in-laws. Now we can’t even be bothered to walk to the end of Norzin Lam high street.”

Television’s apparent transformation of Shangri-la into a land of violent, criminal couch potatoes expresses one set of fears associated with cross-cultural encounter. Western media are so powerful and insidious, this argument goes, that a fragile culture like Bhutan’s can’t possibly hope to compete. Faced with American Idol, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s, Bhutan’s culture will inevitably capitulate to the dominant, Western culture unless governments aggressively intervene.

Norris and Inglehart argue that there are at least three other possible outcomes to these types of encounters: resistance, synthesis, and disengagement. We might see one culture violently reject another, which they term “the Taliban effect.” The banning of Western music and movies in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan and the violent opposition to secular education in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram are both examples of the ways encountering another culture might lead to polarization instead of extinction at the hands of a dominant culture. So too can dominant cultures polarize in the face of perceived invasion or threat: when the city of Nashville, Tennessee, tried to ban the use of languages other than English in city buildings, it signaled a retreat from tolerance in the face of the perceived threat of immigration.

Happier possibilities exist. We can imagine “a blending of diverse cultural repertoires through a two-way flow of global and local information generating cross-border fertilization, mixing indigenous customs with imported products.” Consider curry, where encounter between the food of the Indian subcontinent and the rest of the world has led to syncretic cuisine like Japanese kare-pan (curry-stuffed bread), Trinidadian curried goat, or that paragon of British cuisine, the curry jacket potato. Cultural encounter can lead to creative fusions that honor both cultures while creating something unexpected and new.

We could also encounter another culture, shrug our collective shoulders, and conclude, “That’s not for us.” Norris and Inglehart call this “the firewall theory,” and suggest that deeply rooted cultural attitudes and values are quite robust when confronted with other cultures through the flows of media and communication. These values act as a “firewall,” allowing some influences to pass through and others to be filtered out. The researchers find ample evidence that cultural values—as measured by instruments like the World Values Survey—are quite slow to change, even when countries are well connected through media technologies. South Africa, for instance, has become much more connected to global media and economics since the fall of apartheid, but the World Values Survey finds evidence for the survival of conservative social values during this period of sharp change.

This finding is good news for anyone concerned about the youth of Bhutan. It’s also consistent with the effects of homophily on social and professional media. Being connected to global flows of information doesn’t guarantee that we’ll feel their influence over and above the influences of homegrown media, or the preferences of friends and family. But it presents a challenge to those who believe that cultural encounter can lead to outcomes as banal as revitalized pop careers and improvements in snack food, or as significant as novel solutions to global problems like climate change. Creative fusion may happen by accident, but it’s far from guaranteed. If we want the benefits that come from sharing ideas across borders, we need to work to make it happen.

Weak Ties or Bridge Ties?

Who’s most likely to help you find a new job—a close friend you talk to every week, or an acquaintance you see a few times a year? The close friend has more motivation to help with your job search, but he probably knows many of the same people you do. The acquaintance has connections to different social networks and is likely to know of opportunities you haven’t already encountered. In fact, many important contacts come through people whom job seekers barely know or have fallen out of touch with—old college friends, former colleagues. That’s the conclusion the sociologist Mark Granovetter reaches in his widely cited paper “The Strength of Weak Ties.” In his words, “It is remarkable that people receive crucial information from individuals whose very existence they have forgotten.”

Granovetter’s finding has been so widely popularized that it’s become standard job-seeking advice. The popular social-networking site LinkedIn appears to exist primarily to allow cultivation of these weak ties for job seeking. Malcolm Gladwell brought Granovetter’s insight to a wide audience in his best-selling book The Tipping Point, where he observes, “Acquaintances, in short, represent a source of social power, and the more acquaintances you have the more powerful you are.” Gladwell uses this insight to identify “connectors,” people with vast social networks, who he believes are a key to understanding how to successfully market and spread an idea. The success of Gladwell’s popularization has made weak ties one of the best-known ideas from contemporary sociology.

Despite the apparent familiarity of the idea, it’s worth returning to Granovetter’s original paper to understand that not all weak ties are created equal. “The Strength of Weak Ties” begins with an analysis of sociograms, graphs of social networks. Granovetter is interested in bridge ties—“a line in a network which provides the only path between two points.” These ties are important because they are the choke points in the flow of information and influence. Diffusion of ideas through a network depends on these bridge ties.

Granovetter’s bridge ties have much in common with the bridge figures we’re considering—they are part of two different social circles and can broker ideas between these networks—but bridge ties exist in social networks of people who share the same country and culture. The friend at a cocktail party who introduces you to a stranger who lives in the same building you do is a bridge tie.

It’s difficult to ask an individual to identify the bridge ties in her social network. Answering the question requires knowledge you may not have—for example, that your friend Jane is well connected to a group of Latvian jugglers and could bridge between your social network and theirs. Because sociologists cannot easily study bridge ties through their usual survey methods, Granovetter proposes they study weak ties instead. His logic? Strong ties—ties between people who confide in each other, who see each other at least weekly—are never bridge ties. Here Granovetter relies on Georg Simmel’s work on closure. If I’m close friends with Jim and with Jane, Simmel postulates, the two will feel intense social pressure to become friends. This is what explains why all the West African students at the college Wimmer and Lewis studied in their Facebook experiment are friends—it would be impolite not to be.

Closure is such a powerful effect, Granovetter believes, that he gives a special name to the situation in which I have strong ties to Jim and to Jane, and they have no ties to each other: “the forbidden triad.” Because it’s “forbidden” for two of my close friends to be disconnected from each other, strong ties don’t serve as bridge ties; if you and I are closely tied, I’m likely to already know the people you are strongly linked to. Weak ties suffer no such restriction, though they are certainly not automatically bridges. What is important, rather, is that all bridges are weak ties. If we want to find the places in social networks where we could find connections to unexpected groups, we need to look beyond our closest friends and toward our weak social ties.

Granovetter’s assumptions about strong ties may have been true in 1973 when he wrote the paper, but they are more questionable today. My wife, a congregational rabbi in our small town, is linked to hundreds of people in our geographic community and hundreds more through online discussions that let her interact with other congregational leaders around the world. Her strong ties in the geographic community may feel pressure to become friends with one another, but her online strong ties feel no pressure to know her local friends. This is not an uncommon pattern in today’s age of social media: 50 percent of adult users of social media report a major reason for use is connecting with friends they’ve fallen out of touch with or are geographically distant from. Some 14 percent report using social media to connect with others who share an interest or hobby with them, maintaining ties that are geographically independent. In an age of digitally mediated friendships, it’s quite possible—and likely quite common—for strong ties to be bridge ties.

Ultimately it’s the bridge ties that matter even to Granovetter’s analysis. He closes his paper with a look at two communities in Boston and their fights against urban renewal. The Italian community in the West End wasn’t able to organize in opposition, while a similarly working-class community in Charlestown successfully opposed redevelopment. The difference, he concludes, is in the structure of friendships in those communities. West Enders belonged to tight cliques of friends, often people who’d grown up together. They worked outside the neighborhood and maintained close social ties to these friends in the community. Charlestown residents, by contrast, worked largely within the neighborhood, which gave them a chance to meet other Charlestown residents who weren’t in their immediate circles of friends.

It’s not that West Enders lacked weak ties. “It strains credulity to suppose that each person would not have known a great many others, so that there would have been some weak ties. The question is whether such ties were bridges.” When it came time to organize, Charlestown residents had bridge ties—from work and voluntary organizations—within their neighborhood, while West Enders didn’t. Granovetter speculates, “The more local bridges (per person?) in a community and the greater their degree, the more cohesive the community and the more capable of acting in consort.”

It’s not simply the number of acquaintances that represent power, as Gladwell posits. It’s also their quality as bridges between different social networks. Lots of friends who have access to the same information and opportunities are less helpful than a few friends who can connect you to people and ideas outside your ordinary orbit.

Excerpted from "Digital Cosmpolitans: Why We Think the Internet Connects Us, Why It Doesn't and How to Rewire It" by Ethan Zuckerman. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Inc. Copyright 2013 by Ethan Zuckerman. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Ethan Zuckerman

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