"More than machinery, we need humanity."
For those with a speedy Internet signal and a multitude of sleek technological toys at their (non-metaphorical) fingertips it can be easy to forget that much of the world (billions of people) lacks Internet access. While it may be called the “world wide web” the simple truth is that the spider has not woven with equal intricacy in each area, there are some sizable gaps. Clearly, those without Internet access miss out on a fair amount of what passes (in the connected countries) for contemporary culture, but if the mantra of capitalism is “more!” than it should hardly come as a surprise that these unconnected multitudes represent an irresistible market opportunity.
Granted, it would be in somewhat bad taste for a tech company to describe it so transparently. When making a grab for billions of new customers, a company does well to make it seem like there is something more than greed about the move.
Thus it should come as little surprise that Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook) and his benevolent tech world compatriots are putting a humanist gloss on their newest technological endeavor. Simply put: they intend to deliver Internet access to many of the billions of people who currently go without, joining forces under the moniker Internet.org. The new group’s website is somewhat elegant in its simplicity, taking as a guide the sites of non-profits instead of the blaring content of most tech companies, indeed the site (with it’s white text over a purple background) seems almost like a bit of a joke, as if at any moment one would find proof that the site was actually the work of The Yes Men or a similar band of pranksters. Yet the site is no joke, and therefore the three main goals that the project seeks to address should be treated seriously, they are:
“Affordability – No one should have to choose between access to the internet and food or medicine.
Efficiency – Transmitting data—even a text message or a simple web page—requires bandwidth, something that’s scarce in many parts of the world.
Business Models – Connecting billions of people will be a massive global effort that requires ongoing innovation.”
And these three goals lead nicely to the tech utopian acknowledgement that:
“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’s partners have come together to meet this challenge because they believe in the power of a connected world.”
The three goals and the tone of the mission statement have much about them that is respectable, or at the very least worth a moment’s reflection. After all, it is a worthwhile thing to recognize that Internet access is not distributed equally (even within the connected world) and it is not an unworthy goal to want to give more people access. The Internet provides people with a trove of potential information (“potential” because, once online there is no guarantee that people will read the news instead of watching cat videos), and it does not seem unfair to recognize that giving people a way to discover information and keep in contact with one another has some value to it. One need not be a tech utopian to grant that point.
Indeed there is a fascinating aspect to this idea of “a connected world;” however, it is advisable to treat this shiny corporate dreaming with some measured skepticism. Zuckerberg and his pals are hardly impartial observers in this matter, they represent the technology world putting forward technological solutions to problems largely created by (you guessed it) technology. Rather the endeavor of Internet.org seems to resonate with the words with which Theodor Adorno ended his essay “On Popular Music” where he wrote:
“To become transformed into an insect, man needs that energy which might possibly achieve his transformation into a man.” (Adorno, 468)
Or, to put that quote in a proper context, the amount of money and energy that needs to be poured into a project to turn billions of people into smart phone tapping Facebook fiends (oops, I meant to write friends) could also be used for other projects that might more adequately address human needs. Of course “human needs” is a contentious concept, but it seems that such things as food, air, water, and shelter can be agreed on as basic needs. Yet to return to one of the goals of the project “affordability” it is necessary to highlight that many people do not have access to food and medicine (food is essential for life, medicine frequently is, the Internet…not so much), which raises the question: why are these companies focused on providing Internet when this money could go to providing clean water, medicine, food, etc…
Indeed the most troublesome goal of the project may be “affordability” for the other premises are largely buried within that goal. If a person accepts the gloss of “affordability” than “efficiency” and “business models” follow relatively easily, which is why it is important to question the bizarreness of putting Internet access on the same level as “food and medicine.” It is a travesty that people are forced to choose between food and medicine (especially as many don’t really have a “choice” here, and what they wind up with is neither), but the Internet is not equivalent. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs you need to address the base (where you would find things like food and medicine) before you can move to a level where something like Internet access would be found (you need to secure the real needs before you can address the culturally constructed needs).
Furthermore, one needs to ask the question: who will make these new “affordable” devices? Looking at the labor practices of the tech industry does not give one much reason to be optimistic, while the cycle of planned obsolescence and the growing mountains of e-waste do not provide terribly much in the way of reasons to be hopeful.
All told it would be easier to view Internet.org as a selfless act of humanitarian good will if these tech companies were banding together to address primary human needs, instead of pulling a bait and switch wherein they define access to the Internet as a primary human need. Selling “affordable” phones and devices, installing “efficient” bandwidth, helping set up new “Business models,” and in the process getting billions of new customers may have a do-gooder’s smile but this is a smirk being directed at a bought off public while the companies wink at their investors. This plan is good marketing and good business even if the actual goals are at best questionable and at worst severely wrongheaded.
It takes no stretch in contemporary society to “believe in the power of a connected world” but one must approach this by recognizing that such a fact is not automatically an ethical good. Who stands to gain more power from an ever more “connected world?” The individual, the tech company, or the surveillance state? Power, after all, can also be the power to repress, and a more “connected” populace (as the NSA revelations show) can also be a more easily monitored populace. Access to the Internet is not synonymous with free speech, and having five hundred friends on Facebook isn’t worth a damn if you don’t have access to clean water.
Zuckerberg has been at the frontlines of redefining and mutilating the concept of privacy, maybe he and his friends have lost the moral authority and ethical fortitude to talk to the world about human rights. After all, if they had a better grasp on ethics, Internet.org might not provoke a droll laugh.
Granted, as with so much in technological society: the joke’s on us.
[for an excellent response to Zuckerberg’s “Is Connectivity a Human Right” I recommend reading Jen Schradie’s “Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg”]
Adorno, Theodor. Essays on Music. University of California Press, 2002.