Internet.org and Why Facebook Is the Matrix

The Jester thanks Ashwani Sharma for requesting jesterly opinion on Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement. Last week, Zuckerberg announced vague plans for Internet.org, a collaborative effort involving Samsung, Ericsson, Qualcomm, et al., and of course, Facebook, to bring better Internet connectivity to the “next 5 billion” people… that is to say, the 5 billion people who still aren’t slaves to Facebook.

It will come as no surprise that the Jester finds this effort pointless from the perspective of international development and ineffective even for reaching its own stated goals. (The Jester laughed at the conspicuous absence of telecom operators in the consortium, who, more than anyone else, control bandwidth in the target geographies. Presumably, they were not interested in further eroding their profit margins for the sake of customers who have the least disposable income. Note to Zuckerberg: There’s a reason why free-market solutions for the bottom billion don’t work.)

What’s surprising, though, is that the response of the media has been appropriately tepid, even critical. The New York Times (in what otherwise reads like a corporate press release) quotes Bill Gates making a general comment about universal access efforts: “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” Chris O’Brien at The Los Angeles Times astutely notes that Internet.org “fails to recognize the complexity of reasons that people don’t use the Internet.” And then there’s Gawker’s Sam Biddle, who shows off that surprisingly rare commodity in an age of instant information: critical thinking. He calls the effort “faux humanitarian” and a “long con.”

Perhaps the world is becoming a little jaded by Internet giants claiming to save the world with the same toys they unleash on smartphone-addled developed-world users. Hurray says the Jester – it’s about time! (The Jester likes to imagine that there are clandestine anti-tech-hype cells forming all around the world, trafficking in tattered paper copies of old Jester posts lovingly transcribed at dusty Internet cafés where the printers are broken. The Jester daydreams that those cells are having some impact, but more likely, it’s just people coming to their senses. And even more likely, it’s just journalists going through a cycle of negative sensationalism about the tech industry. Whatever the case, the sun is shining in Jesterland!)

With the critique out there, the Jester has less to say. Less, but not zero. (Does the Jester ever have zero to say? Unfortunately for readers, no.)

What’s amazing about Internet.org is just how thoroughly empty it is of any attempt to connect Internet access to something tangibly good in the lives of the next 5 billion. At least in the nostalgia-inducing days of telecenters, people tried. Proponents explained how specific projects would deliver agricultural advice to farmers or would improve healthcare through telemedicine. They had detailed plans and prototypes. Zuckerberg doesn’t even bother…

  • “The Internet is such an important thing for driving humanity forward.” in The New York Times
  • “Making the internet available to every person on earth is a goal too large and too important for any one company, group, or government to solve alone.” Internet.org
  • “The internet […] is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.” Zuckerberg’s whitepaper

So, according to Zuckerberg, the Internet is important, and it’s important. And, by the way, did you hear that the Internet is important? Even compared to telecenters, the Jester has seen very few claims that Facebook leads to better healthcare, improved education, greater income, or anything like that. Even misguided cheerleaders of the “Facebook revolution” in the Arab Spring have fallen silent now that Egypt teeters between failed state and military dictatorship.

The most that can be said of Facebook is that users appear to want it. There’s no doubt that the billion+ people with Internet access do in fact spend unfathomable amounts of time on Facebook. But usage doesn’t always mean positive social value, as we know from the tobacco industry. Calls for universal Internet access tend to hang on the neo-liberal consumerist rationalization that is the bane of so much that is wrong with the world today: Namely, that by giving more people something that they want – or by making it cheaply available in the free market – the world necessarily becomes a better place.

This was articulated recently on an ICT4D mailing list by someone the Jester will call “Kurtis.” Kurtis – whom the Jester dubs Fool for the Day – writes, “at least [Internet.org] is a project that’s trying to give people things that they want instead of telling people what they should want (e.g., crop prices).”

At least. Well, it’s hard to argue against giving people what they want, but the Jester will take on this thankless task.

Of course, giving people what they do not want should not be the goal of development. That much seems obvious.

But it’s also the case that giving people what they want shouldn’t be the goal of development, either.

Giving people what they want is just another word for charity. It stunts local capacity; it creates dependent relationships; it strengthens corrupt power. Giving people what they want is to jack them into the Matrix, where lost in a semi-pleasurable, mind-numbing digital dream, they don’t mind squandering their productive energies to feed their machine masters. And in case no one has noticed, Facebook is the Matrix! It’s exactly an artificially intelligent Internet overlord that lulls users into a semi-conscious reverie of bourgeois fantasies while it harvests their energies to feed itself. It is reported that among American smartphone users, the average Facebook user is on Facebook for 30 minutes a day. 30 minutes a day! To put that into perspective, the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2012 American Time Use Survey shows that on average, Americans spend 32 minutes “caring for and helping household members,” 38 minutes on “educational activities,” and 18 minutes on “participating in sports, exercise, and recreation.” (And, even in the Internet age, Americans still spend two and a half hours a day with that other major opium of the masses, television.)

“But wait!” shouts the attentive reader. “If you neither give people what they want nor give them what they don’t want, what else is left to do?” Well, the attentive reader also seems an unimaginative reader. There are so many other things we could do other than give or trade in stuff. If giving people fish is suboptimal, so is giving people Internet access. We could instead teach a class where good teachers are scarce. (Zuckerberg can be commended for doing this himself.) We could instead help strengthen healthcare systems. We could instead march in the streets together against injustice. We could dance the funky chicken.

Indeed, there are many other ways to frame the goal of development other than as “giving people what they want.” The Jester’s personal favorite is that the main goal in development is to help people become better versions of themselves. But that’s a topic for another court session.

So what should those of us who aren’t Silicon Valley gazillionaires do? Alas, there is little recourse for most of us to reign in the power of the Matrix Facebook, as it seeks world domination in a way that previous evil empires hadn’t even dreamed of. In the current global zeitgeist, the ethic of “let corporations do whatever they want unless they are breaking actual @#$% laws” is just too powerful. But as people concerned with international development, we can still avoid getting on this and other Internet-access bandwagons. Publicly funded organizations can avoid the apparently immense temptation to partner with grandiose but substanceless technology projects , especially when there are plenty of other genuinely meaningful projects to engage with. Bloggers can post their own critiques of Internet-access-disguised-as-philanthropy. And practitioners can strengthen their resolve to resist the attraction of save-the-world-quick schemes. In a universe where the virtual world is ruled by the multi-tentacled spawn of Silicon Valley, it is all the more important that some of us spend years in the real world organizing under-voiced communities into effective political and economic actors.

In short… take the red pill!

[A follow-up to this post is here: http://blog.ict4djester.org/2013/09/02/internet-org-posts-and-ripostes/.]

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