Internet.org Posts and Ripostes

Over at the TIER mailing list, the Jester’s last post was part of a swarm of fast-flying posts and ripostes about Internet.org. Now that the outbreak appears to have died down, it seems a good time for a post-mortem.

The Jester’s main point was that Internet.org made almost no effort to explain how the indiscriminate spread of the Internet everywhere was a good thing. (Zuckerberg’s whitepaper alludes only to that bastion of expert, unbiased knowledge known as a McKinsey report.) In this, it was a striking step back even from the days of telecenters, whose proponents made direct attempts to aid agriculture and healthcare. Zuckerberg’s endlessly repeated premise is that the Internet is so important that he and his merry band of hardware companies will spread it farther and wider for the sake of “driving humanity forward.”

The Jester then implied that Internet.org’s rhetoric was based in part on a misguided consumerist concept that deserves to be questioned much more often: That “giving people what they want” is necessarily a good thing; that’s what the machine masters of the Matrix do. So should we praise Zuckerberg for seeking to expand his attention-sucking, productivity-reducing machine across the planet? Quoth the Jester, nevermore.

“Kurtis” graciously rose to his newly appointed role as Fool for the Day to argue that he had personally seen positive uses of Facebook in Papua New Guinea and believes that Facebook is good overall. (The full conversation on mailing list is available here.)

Facebook is filling some fundamental communication need for people. It really is. The people in Papua aren’t playing farmville (though they might if they had bandwidth), they’re communicating over a closed facebook group representing the teachers. Media is shared on that page, sorta like a mailing list (as they don’t have emails). They also connect to their friends and family in other communities and abroad, as many teachers are shipped in. I am told it is a *critical* service; teachers, doctors and others would leave the community if they were not able to talk with spouses on the central islands.

[…]

I would wager though, that if you asked teachers, they’d say internet access makes their jobs easier. That’s good enough for me, and probably a net positive overall too.

The Jester concedes that this is a valid perspective – it’s not one that the Jester agrees with, but neither can the Jester prove otherwise. We will probably never have indisputable objective evidence about Facebook’s overall social value, but we probably can agree that there is disagreement. In fact, several people from developing countries (though all well-educated and with the leisure time to monitor ICT4D chit-chat), chimed in with conflicting views.

Assane (from West Africa?) expressed dissatisfaction:

I feel very frustrated when I enter to those internet cafe’s (in Senegal where I am from) and see all those young kids spending more than 2 hours with the “machine” using facebook, visiting p*** sites, watching photos etc…

The problem is not to bring Internet to the people, the problem is what they are going to do with it to have a better quality of life. I would rather vote for a program (with a sustainability plan) to help school kids learn how to “usefully” use the Internet!

Pablo (from the non-rural part of a developing country) focused on insufficient content and cost-benefit:

I think FB does not care only on rural and communications only, so it is fair to address the ‘content’ question (i.e. what will be done with this infrastructure?) and also the urban problems associated with the so desired ‘development’.  In other words assess the cost-benefit of this program in broader terms.

Donald from Indonesia argued that Facebook was an important force in building up the Internet:

Facebook (moral, corporate, credit aside) has been an enormous force of change in spreading internet (and broadband, with the help of youtube)…

Let’s just credit facebook for its ability to bring about the mobile internet revolution in indonesia and (hopefully) continue to drive the buildup of the data infrastructure. And let others build more socially responsible / beneficial applications of it.

“Ibrahim” (from Pakistan?):

Every solution requires variable amounts of Multi-directional information flow and i guess there is no other silver bullet. Putting your knowledge to test with the existing knowledge (www) spurs innovation which in effect promises better solutions to the daunting challenges faced by humanity. In my opinion connectivity is one of the most effective, if not the only, solution to these problems.

Having said that, no one denies that every giant has its primary profitability motives but this does not necessarily implies that these motives can’t coincide with the greater good of the people.

Two people struck a conciliatory tone. Keshav from India emphasizes the importance of having Internet.org learn from the past:

Even the best-intentioned action, when carried out without adequate care, can lead to indifferent or negative results. We need to ensure that this initiative learns from the successes of the past.. and avoids making the same mistakes as many others.

And “Paul” (who said only that he was from BurgerKing.org… BurgerKing.org?), in a private e-mail suggested an alternate analogy:

facebook is more like mcdonalds. it’s great that it exists because it fills a real human need more cheaply and conveniently than almost any other option. but it’s addictive, the side effects of overuse are not very attractive, and the vendor has an incentive to get you in there as often as they can.

in america nobody needs to starve to death because there are dollar meals. but fast food basically creates a lot of fat people. fast food is widely considered to be an industry that needs reform, not promotion as a social good.

The Jester agrees that this is a far superior analogy. However, the same argument can be made with just about any product or service with debatable merit. It’s not clear, for example, that it would be praiseworthy to make unconditional cash transfers universal, for example, even though there will certainly be cases of positive use, and almost everyone would say they benefited?

So, to summarize, anti-indiscriminate-Facebook-spreading sentiments focus on (1) its negative effects (many of which the Jester believes the company actively encourages); and (2) other factors which are necessary to make Facebook a positive force.

Pro-Facebook arguments focus on (1) the existence of positive uses of Facebook (which the Jester does not deny); and (2) the importance of universal infrastructure even before it is clear what to do with it. (2) is an interesting perspective, and it deserves to be taken seriously, but the case against it is complex. For now, the Jester will summarize and leave the discussion for another time. The two issues are whether the Internet/Facebook is among the primary aspirations of the people of a country as a whole, or just that of a tech-excited elite; and, whether it makes sense to focus on universal Internet first simply because it can do good things, even if the foundations for its positive use are not in place. As the Jester’s alter ego has written elsewhere, “can” is not “is.”

To put this long post out of its misery, the Jester will answer a question raised by Ibrahim, who is appointed Fool for the Day for his happy innocence within the ICT bubble…

[The Jester says that] “there are many, many other more morally credit-worthy ways than the indiscriminate spreading of [Facebook.]” Jester can you please enlighten us with some?

Again, there are many possibilities. But if the Jester had gazillions of dollars, he would build on his currently meager support for favorite efforts like…

  • Shanti Bhavan, an Indian boarding school that takes children of very poor dalit families and nurtures them into smart, capable, well-adjusted, socially aware young adults. (The last time the Jester visited, the school had no Internet, but there was a computer lab for teaching a computer class. The first batch of graduates are now working as accountants, software engineers, and teachers at organizations like Goldman Sachs, Ernst & Young, and the Indian Army.)
  • Ashesi University, Ghana’s first private liberal arts college whose founder has a clear vision for how to impact Africa: Patrick Awuah is a former Microsoft employee who mercifully decided not to use his technical skills to build a gadget to save the world, but instead to do what Silicon Valley companies really don’t like doing: investing in people’s education.
  • PRADAN, a north Indian NGO that helps rural communities form effective self-help groups and guides them to realize their livelihood-related aspirations.

And, for ICT lovers…

  • Digital Green, an international non-profit that uses digital tools and unique organizational processes to amplify the impact of organizations like PRADAN. The Jester previously wrote about DG.

The Jester thanks the court for an interesting conversation!

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