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It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No…It’s a Facebook Drone.

The history of philanthropy is replete with tales of the very rich spending some of their money to secure a positive legacy, which is a less polite way of saying giving it away for the sake of the public good. A range of motivations may lurk behind such gifting from political inclinations, to actually caring about an issue, to realizing that dispersing money can be a shrewd economic decision as it results in a tidy tax write-off. Regardless of the deeper reasoning, one thing that should be fairly clear is that a bit of skepticism towards “charitable moves” that are obviously in the donor’s best (financial/power) interests may be warranted.

A particularly clear case of this, of late, have been moves by major tech firms as they voice their commitment to guaranteeing Internet access for all the world. In one regard this is a fairly understandable goal, at the same time it should not be isolated form the fact that these companies want to keep expanding (in size and profits) and in order to do this they need their customer base to grow. If you are an online platform, how do you grow your customer base once you have pretty much completely saturated the market? Easy, get a larger customer base. This murky mixture of “doing good” and “bold faced business strategizing” was always detectable in the new group Internet.org – driven by Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook) and his compatriots in the tech world with its goal of expanding Internet access (to the world). And yet this story has just developed a predictable if interesting plot twist that makes many of these tensions only clearer.

For Facebook – perhaps already bored with WhatsAppis now casting its lustful amorous attention in a new direction: towards the drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace. Titan’s drones are solar powered “atmospheric satellite™ platforms” (in Titan’s own words) which can stay aloft for an impressive period of time. Why does Facebook want a drone manufacturer? Simply put, because these drones can provide Internet access to those beneath them. While it is not completely clear how strong this signal will be or how much area will be covered by a single drone (they are moving after all) these high flying wireless-signals are an interesting way in which Facebook can fulfill its mission of getting everybody online.

Wait…Facebook’s mission of getting everybody online? Wasn’t that Internet.org’s mission? Yes, sorry about that, there must be a mistake in the above paragraph. It must be that the tech CEOs active in Internet.org pooled their resources to come up with the (roughly) $60 million that will be spent buying Titan Aerospace, right? Right? Nope. Titan Aerospace is being bought by Facebook.

At the very least this point should scrape off a bit of the veneer of altruism that might otherwise surround this venture, as it makes it clear that the “making the world more open” being invoked here is just more Facebook ad speak. Likewise it should set off the “monopoly” alarms that seem to have been blaring so much of late (what happens when a major online platform starts controlling the means of getting online?). But more than anything what should be clear is that the purchase of Titan Aerospace is just the latest moment in the orgy of spending that has been visible of late in the tech world, as the largest tech firms use their mountains of cash to buy up anything they want. In particular Facebook buying Titan Aerospace should act as a reminder of Google’s recent purchases in the realm of robotics – are the two firms setting up for a new patent war in the literal skies overhead?

Had the purchase of Titan Aerospace occurred through Internet.org (instead of Facebook) it would have represented an interesting move: a private tech firm being placed under the control of a non-profit (albeit with a somewhat questionable if moderately respectable goal) for the advancement of “the greater good.” If that were to occur it would be a bold move in bolstering the techno-humanistic ethos of Internet.org – claiming that the goal of connecting the world (via the Internet) was more important that just making money. Alas, even if purchasing Titan Aerospace will enable Facebook to work towards Internet.org’s goal, the humanitarian glisten is clearly outshone by Facebook’s mountain of money.

This jockeying for control over spreading the Internet (remember Google has their own plan in this area [involving balloons {no, really}]) should be seen as related to the recent concerns about the Comcast / Time Warner Cable merger. For just as many are concerned over the centralized control of the Internet in the US, it is also worthwhile to think about who controls access to the Internet in the rest of the world (keep in mind Facebook and Google are multinational corporations). If people are going to argue that the Internet needs to be seen as a “utility” than there should be some skepticism when private companies try to carve out more control for themselves of that “public utility.” Again, it would be one thing if an organization primarily with a social mission (Internet.org) was showing off its Internet delivering drones, but when an organization with a profit mission uses appeals to a subordinate social mission in showing off its Internet delivering drones it is absolutely fair to say: “actually, this is really all about you and your profits.” Or, to use the apt terminology in this regard from philosopher Slavoj Žižek:

“Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.” (Žižek, 22)

Though, technically in this case the humanitarian mask is really just Facebook’s “thumbs up” icon.

Granted, it will likely still be a while before Facebook’s drones are bravely delivering the opportunity for even more people to have Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp accounts – there are still various legal hurdles that Facebook will have to overcome and the deal between Facebook and Titan is still in the “negotiation” phase. Likewise it remains to be seen if some of Zuckerberg’s acolytes in Internet.org will see in this move the “mission” of Internet.org being used as a convenient smiling cover (a “humanitarian mask”) for the business machinations of Facebook.

Yet, at the very least, this deal will represent one very important global transformation. Now, a “Facebook drone” will be something flying overhead, not something that a person becomes after spending all day on Facebook.

More on Facebook

Consolidating the “Open” World

Control and Commodification – Facebook turns 10

A More Connected World (to mine for data)

Surveillance!? We’re Shocked! Shocked!

Facebook Home is Not Your Home Away from Home

Works Cited

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence. Picador, 2008

Image Information

The image of the Titan Drone comes from the Titan AeroSpace “Media Kit” it was edited by The Luddbrarian.

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About TheLuddbrarian

"I won't explain myself because I hate common sense." librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

3 comments on “It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No…It’s a Facebook Drone.

  1. Pingback: Oh, What the Zuck!? | LibrarianShipwreck

  2. Pingback: A Virtual Reality or A Virtuous Reality? – Facebook buys Oculus | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: The Less Things Change… | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on March 7, 2014 by in Capitalism, Drones, Monopoly, People With Lots of Money, Social Networking, Technology, The Internet and tagged , .

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