Posts Tagged ‘Internet’

Internet.org and Why Facebook Is the Matrix

August 28, 2013

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/.]

My Internet, Right or Wrong

June 8, 2011

The stars have aligned for the Jester, who is fortunate today to have four Fools for the Day (FftD). Jaume Fortuny and Tony Roberts, both of whom commented on the Jester’s previous post, were joined by Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and U.N. Special Rapporteur, Frank William La Rue, in affirming the need for the Internet to be a human right. (Thanks to @jeffswin and @fortuny for bringing the Pakistani and U.N. news to the Jester’s attention. The Jester chuckled at @fortuny’s triumphant tone, and appreciated @random_musings’s wry remark about the U.N. ignoring the Jester. The Jester demands that his country be recognized by the United Nations!)

In light of both grassroots and grass-tops support for the Internet as a human right, it might seem all too foolish for the Jester to rant against the idea. Nevertheless, ranting is the Jester’s favorite pastime. If only some queendom would actually pay him for it!

The Jester has already posted his arguments against human-right-ism of ICT. So, he will focus on rebutting rebuttals.

Fool-for-the-Day Jaume Fortuny begins, “Human rights must ensure an environment of social harmony and personal development that dignify the lives of people,” and continues with several such platitudes. The Jester is certainly not against social harmony, personal development, or dignity in the lives of people, and actively believes that these things should be worked on very directly.

The real question is not whether these things are important, but how best to achieve them. ICT, alas, is simply not even a partial cure for challenging social problems. Technology amplifies human intent and capacity. Consider social harmony: if people want to fight rather than to reconcile, then the Internet only makes the fighting more intense. Witness the phenomenon of cyber-balkanization in the United States, for example, where conservatives and liberals each have their vocal representatives and blogs, and only scream more loudly at each other. Just a quarter of a century ago, it was common for Republicans and Democrats to collaborate on legislation. Today, with the miracle of the Internet, politicians are even more beholden to their constituents, and constituents isolate themselves in parallel Internet universes that never intersect. Is that ICT-enabled social harmony?

Mr. Fortuny is on firmer ground when he suggests that developing countries might want to learn from the Finnish capacity for innovation. The Jester agrees, but capacity for innovation and use of technology are two different things. It’s relatively easy to drive a car; it’s much harder to engineer one (and then to profit from it). Not understanding that difference is at the heart of much ICT confusion.

FftD Tony Roberts asks, “In a world where oppressed groups with the volition and potential ability to overturn dictators and challenge injustice, chose the internet, or other ICTs as the most efficacious tools in a stage of their struggle, should we deny them the right?”

The Jester has two responses to this question: First, Mr. Roberts may have misunderstood the nature of a declared “human right” as the Jester was critiquing it. The Jester never said that anyone should be actively denied the use of the Internet. Though it may come as a surprise to readers, the Jester doesn’t go around sabotaging telecenters as a side hobby!

The question is whether the Internet must be actively made available to everyone, which is the implication of something being a human right. There are many things that are desirable, but which cannot practically be provided for all, and are not absolutely critical to dignified human life. For example, if Twitter ever becomes necessary for dignified human life, the Jester will likely take the blue pill and go back into the Matrix.

Note that the United Nations has not issued a declaration of the human right to gasoline-powered vehicles, even though it could be argued that physical mobility is an even more fundamental need than the ability to watch YouTube. Despite the immense utility of transport, human beings can, amazingly, live decent lives without automobiles (unlike food, water, air, shelter, or basic healthcare), and it would likely burst  developing country budgets to provide transport to every citizen.

A second interpretation of Mr. Roberts question might be that for the very sake of fighting for human rights, shouldn’t we make the Internet a human right? This point of view is particularly relevant given the current uprisings in the Arab world. Unfortunately, it is also very circular. It falls into the category of the most common response that the Jester receives: “If X, not ICT, is what’s important in development, then how about using ICT for X?”

If the Jester had a dime for every time someone asked him that, he would simply fund a T1 line for everyone on the planet, just so that we could all move on to the real challenges. Of course, it would be nice if freedom fighters everywhere (the good ones, anyway) could have access to the Internet so that they could communicate with each other and the world, while their evil oppressors are stuck with carrier pigeons. Maybe if declaring the Internet a human right got us one inch closer to that possibility, we ought to do it. FftD Frank La Rue in his report writes, U.N.“ Special Rapporteur calls upon all states to ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.” (The Jester would like to know, where did they come up with his fancy title, and can he have one like it, too? Perhaps, Special Royal Gluteal Ache to the U.N.)

But the reality is that any dictator willing to shut down or censor the Internet is already engaged in violating other more important human rights, such as the right not to be shot in the head or tortured by secret police. Mr. La Rue filed his report on May 16, a couple of months after the Syrian uprisings began.

The Jester likes to imagine President Bashar al-Assad having the following moral quandary: “In order to stay in power, I’ve killed a thousand of my fellow citizens, detained tens of thousands, and even had one 13-year-old tortured and killed. But, the U.N. says the Internet is a human right. Gosh, maybe I shouldn’t shut off the Internet. Hmm, what to do…?”

On June 3, al-Assad reportedly shut down much of the Syrian Internet.

The Internet: Human Right or Human Wrong?

May 31, 2011

About a year ago, the Jester gave a version of his “Myths of ICT4D” talk to an audience of Indian students. Among them was Samujjal Purkayastha, who in an follow-up e-mail asked what the Jester thought of Finland making the Internet a human right. The Finns passed a law requiring that every household in the country have access to a 1Mbps broadband connection. Estonia, France, Greece, Spain, and Costa Rica have followed suit with similar legislation, providing further fodder for self-unaware techno-utopians like Nicholas Negroponte, and fueling ongoing public discussion in international development.

The rhetoric of human rights is emotionally powerful. Anyone who argues against X as a human right must answer the challenge, “How can you deny someone X, when X is so essential?” And of course, few people — not even the Jester in his most Luddite of moods — are explicitly for denying anyone the Internet. (The exceptions are dictators losing their grip on a country making a last-ditch effort to stymie the opposition by cutting communication lines. It does seems to the Jester, though, that any dictator willing to suppress his opposition by force and shut down the Internet will hardly be concerned about public shaming by some foreign diplomats.)

But, the question is not whether to deny someone something that they’ve never had, but whether, of all the things they could have next, the Internet should be it. Unfortunately, when the list of things they don’t have includes reasonable access to clean water, quality primary and secondary education, basic healthcare, and basic sanitation, the Internet falls far far behind in the list of priorities. (Nor, incidentally, can any of those things be meaningfully addressed via the Internet. The Jester does not encourage young ICT4D PhD candidates to work on a mechanism by which to convert bits to water, at least not if they wish to finish their dissertation within the third millennium. )

Human rights rhetoric admits no greys. It allows no ordering of priorities. In fact, the whole point of anyone arguing for X as a human right is to turn what is in fact a question of when and how much into one of black-and-white either/or. Proponents hope that once something is accepted as a right, those in power will spare no expense to provide it universally. 

Unfortunately, this logic is short-sighted and counterproductive if true development, and not the selling of some technology product or service, is the goal. As the Jester has written ad infinitum, the Internet is of minimal value to a poor, undereducated farmer earning less than $2 a day. Countries with the highest rates of Internet penetration today are those that happened to be rich already (and which, incidentally, often also have the highest penetration of lots of other things requiring money, such as automobiles). The belief that the Internet makes a country rich is not far from the belief that sticking one’s tongue out makes one Michael Jordan.

Even if broadband access were to cost as low as $5 per month (the current cost of a monthly broadband subscription in India, likely among the lowest in the world), at $60 a year, that is a sum that could be put to use much more meaningfully towards other purposes, such as contributing to a clean-water kiosk, hiring assistant teachers for classes to boost educational outcomes, purchasing decent medical insurance, or installing a latrine.

Furthermore, by adding yet another item to the growing list of human rights, Internet-rights activists diminish the emphasis on those rights that might truly deserve special status. The world is very far even from guaranteeing clean water and minimal nutrition to all 6.7 billion people on the planet. Given that, it’s pure delusion to suggest that international development is ready to take on an information technology as a universal right.

And, if none of that is convincing, consider that the world is marching steadily and quickly towards a world in which everyone will have access to the Internet via their mobile phones. The latest figures are around 5.3 billion mobile phone accounts and 2 billion Internet users. Hungry telecoms will make it happen, anyway, so why should good people interested in development waste their time when other development objectives are being neglected?

None of this is to suggest that Finland, or any other country in particular, is  wrong to provide the Internet to all. For countries that have secured water, nutrition, sanitation, healthcare, shelter, and education for every one of their people (as Finland has more or less done), the Internet seems a reasonable next step. But, if developing countries have an aspiration to be more like Finland, it seems clear that there are many other priorities before universal broadband. To start, countries ought to learn from the Finn’s terrific educational system, which, incidentally, uses relatively little ICT.