Ethan Zuckerman is an associate professor of public policy, communication, and information, and director of UMass’s Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, focused on reimagining the internet as a tool for civic engagement. Before joining this week’s Zócalo/Future Tense panel, “How Has Computer Code Shaped Humanity?,” he sat down in our green room to chat about designing games, welding, and Black Sabbath.
What's your earliest creative act that you remember doing?
I made board games when I was a kid. Lots of them. And I remember making games that were probably no more complicated than, like, notebook paper and spaces and a dice to move with. But I think before I wrote music, before I wrote text, I was probably designing games—boardgames, pinball games—where you're shooting things up around and such.
Do you remember any of the games you made?
I loved the books by a guy named Daniel Manus Pinkwater, who’s almost like a Surrealist kids author. He has written literally hundreds of these really strange, quirky books. And I remember one game that I made when I was around 10 or 11 was where you'd sort of slip through different Pinkwater realities, like, fall through a hole between one or the other.
What is your favorite line of code?
Probably a good single line shell script. The environment that most serious programmers work is called Unix. It's an operating system. And one of the things that's super powerful on Unix is you can write little programs that are just a line long, and you can actually do surprisingly powerful things with them.
What is one little-known talent that you have?
I’ve gotten to be a pretty good welder. I started making simple furniture a while ago. And I did a lot of work with wood, and did a lot of built-in bookcases and such. And I started realizing that to do some of the things I wanted to do, I would need to learn how to weld. And my best buddy is the sort of guy who can fix anything. And I asked him whether he could do this for me. And he was like, no, it's a pain in the ass—you’re going to have to learn this yourself. And so I bought an inexpensive MIG welding rig. And I've been getting better and better. I just completed the last of a series of reclaimed wood and metal bookcases for my record collection.
What's the record you have on repeat right now?
Probably Black Sabbath Master of Reality. That's kind of what it always is. I actually just got it on vinyl. And it's sort of wonderful to have that chance to listen to it. It's someone's, you know, clearly beloved 16-year-old [copy]. Obviously, it's nowhere near as pristine as all the digital versions you can listen to, but there's really something about knowing that like someone's scratched this record up in a basement in the early 1970s. That just makes it wonderful.
If you were designing your own avatar, what features would it have?
I'm 6’2’’; I’m just shy of 300 pounds. One thing I always do when I encounter virtual reality spaces is try to see if I can make fat people. Because I'm a big person. And that's a complicated thing. But if I'm going to be a big person, I'd like that to be able to extend into virtual spaces. And most virtual spaces won't let you do it. Most virtual spaces will give you a little slider and you can basically go from, like, anorexic to maybe you should have a burger too. So it's really hard to, like, put a belly on something. But it's worth trying.
What's a moment where technology has thrilled you?
Technology thrills me all the time. And it's usually when I encounter someone who is living their life very differently than mine and loving it. These days, I find it mostly on TikTok. Like there's an Irish woodworker I follow who uses only hand tools that is incredibly skilled at sharpening them and keeping them up to date. And I'm just delighted by this guy. I discovered recently that a friend of mine, a young woman I'd met briefly in Australia, was becoming a coppice worker. And that means that she is helping maintain forests by selectively harvesting them, and she introduced me to this whole coppice TikTok. So there are all of these lifestyles and subcultures. The internet keeps surprising me with human creativity and variation. And I think as long as we're capable of doing that, that's a helpful counterweight and counterbalance to all the many terrible things.