On Friday, I learned that Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is leading an initiative called internet.org “with the goal of making internet access available to the next 5 billion people.” Zuckerberg and company argue that internet connectivity is a “huge [barrier] in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” and to an extent, they are correct. As I discussed in my last post, the “Digital Divide” in the United States and other developed countries does not refer to who is connected and who is not. Almost everyone is connected, but the ways in which they use the internet constitute the Digital Divide. In third world countries, we still see the Digital Divide as one between those who are connected and who are not.
Zuckerberg’s initiative looks good on the surface, but it brings up a number of important questions. I began putting some thoughts together on Friday, but then I found an essay by Phil Nichols that brilliantly captures exactly what I wanted to say. Therefore, I will now use Nichols’ piece to help guide my own thoughts on this subject.
When we refer to “connectedness,” we are essentially referring to “literacy.” With the advent of digital technology as an integral part of our lives, “literacy” has taken on a new meaning. In my opinion, being literate is a two step process. The first, of course, is the ability to read and comprehend what you are seeing in a print publication or computer screen. But it seems to me that a second phase has now emerged that requires us to be literate in the ways in which we use print and digital technology to find information that is relevant to our needs. Where do I go to find useful information? Who made my computer? How did they make it, and what do I need to know so that I may be able to improve its usage or fix it if it malfunctions? Being able to read is step one, but knowing your technology and using it as a source of empowerment is a necessary step two. When people refer to “digital literacy,” this is what they are referring to.
But as Nichols’ points out, literacy is connected to power. What appears to be benevolent philanthropy almost always hides what is actually an attempt at social control. “Spreading literacy,” argues Nichols, “is never just about teaching people to read, it is also about imposing specific values about how and what people ought to read. In the this same way, we might question whether Internet.org’s goal of spreading ‘connectedness’ isn’t also tied to a desire for people to ‘connect’ in a specific way.” In other words, Zuckerberg may be sincere in his efforts to spread “connectedness,” but those efforts will undoubtedly be underpinned by a desire to spread the Facebook brand and its associated business interests to a global audience.
When big money and big ideas get thrown around by big philanthropists, big questions need to be asked. Why are you willing to spend your money for this particular cause? How will the money be spent? How much autonomy will the receivers of this money have in determining how this money will be spent? How will the philanthropist benefit from this? Putting Zuckerberg’s philanthropy in historical context may provide us insights into how these questions will be answered in the future, if not at least helping us understand how they’ve been answered before.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated over $40 million to build public libraries in 1,412 communities across the United States, according to Siobhan Stevenson [Stevenson, “The Political Economy of Andrew Carnegie’s Library Philanthropy, with a Reflection on its Relevance to the Philanthropic Work of Bill Gates,” Library and Information History 26 no.4 (December 2010), 237-257]. Stevenson points out that Carnegie attempted to use public libraries and the drive for more “literacy” as a way to promote his own anti-union, capitalist ideology to the laboring classes. At a library dedication in Braddock, Pennsylvania in 1889, Carnegie stated the following:
More knowledge on the part of capital of the good qualities of those that serve it, and some knowledge on the part of the men of economic laws which hold the capitalist in their relentless grasp, would obviate most of the difficulties which arise between those two social forces, which are indispensably necessary to each other…If this library can be instrumental in the slightest degree to spreading knowledge in this department, it will have justified its existence… There is no means so sure for enabling the workman to rise to the foremanship, managership and finally partnership as knowledge of all that has been done and is being done in the world-today in the special department in which he labours…Here in the rooms of this library, there is, or I hope will soon be, the whole world’s experience brought right before you down to recent date. In any question of mechanics or any question of chemistry, any question of furnace practice, you will find the records of the world at your disposal… Men have wasted precious years trying to extract education from an ignorant past…obtaining knowledge of such languages as Greek and Latin, which are no more practical use than Choctaw.
(That last part is significant because it mirrors the same rhetoric being thrown around today about the impracticality of humanities studies in our economy today.)
Andrew Carnegie advocated for literacy and knowledge consumption through his public library initiative, but he cloaked those positions with his own ideological philosophies that supported his economic interests. The actual success of this initiative is mixed. While many communities today are undoubtedly indebted to Carnegie for the establishment of the first public library in their area, many of Carnegie’s own workers and other laborers around the county at the time were ultimately left out of these libraries. Forced to work upwards of 16 or more hours a day, six days a week (and sometimes seven), these people had no time to educate themselves thanks to the monopolization of their free time with work, even though their tax dollars went to supporting these libraries after Carnegie’s donations ran out.
Mark Zuckerberg’s initiative may help to close the Digital Divide with regards to internet connectivity, but I believe this initiative is also cloaked in a desire to promote Facebook abroad. Questions of how third world users will use the internet once they get it and whether or not they will be able to use it for their own needs and “knowledge consumption” will most likely not be addressed through internet.org. This is not to suggest that these new users are incapable of using the internet to their benefit. Rather, I am suggesting that the key to “connectivity” will require an endless barrage of advertisements and web products from what my friend Homer Smith calls “the Distraction Industry.” Furthermore, internet.org is also working to promote the tech industry as a benevolent machine for promoting peace and progress, as Alexis C. Madrigal points out. Whether or not that is actually true remains to be seen.