The sun and air are life’s essentials,
And they are free.
Break a bone and your friends come rushing to see you,
And they are free.
Without the internet, life today is incomplete.
Why, then, is it not free?
Accompanying this song, originally sung in Hindi, a television commercial shows children freely running through a field. Young Indian students raise their fists in excitement while browsing their phone’s Internet from a truck’s flatbed. A mass of Indian activists gather, chanting, “free, free, free.”
The ad, promoting Internet.org — Facebook’s attempt to spread affordable Internet access to the developing world, depicts to Indian viewers an Internet that is not just monetarily free, but is also a path to freedom.
The Facebook mantras of freedom, connectivity, and progress came to headlines yet again in mid-February, when CEO Mark Zuckerberg released his “Building Global Community” manifesto. He believes that his “social infrastructure for community” can address humanity’s deepest issues from climate change to terrorism.
The manifesto’s “global community” vision and the advertisement’s “freedom” optics borrow from an ideology born with the invention of the railroad and reincarnated in the imagination of the Silicon Valley. By reducing structural problems to easily-curable bugs in a computer system, the Valley postulates that collective power born from our right to information and content creation is a cure-all to the world’s problems. The illusion of technology as a foolproof antidote to these problems masks how its implementation inherently shifts political dynamics, carving out space for new powerful actors.
According to technology theorist Leo Marx, before the 1840s, the word technology defined mechanical artefacts — the spinning jenny, the power loom, or the steam engine — and connoted a tool with which we could potentially achieve social and political progress.
With the advent of the railroad, the concept broadened to encompass the new wide-scale social system that accompanied this invention. As the term expanded in connotation, it also began to constitute and embody notions of inevitable progress.
Later, the conclusive link between technology and progress entered popular usage with the Second Industrial Revolution. The dominant narratives around human advancement in children’s textbooks and museum exhibitions reimagined history as a linear progression of technological discoveries. This comforting theme, University of California, Berkeley professor Paul Diguid said, rests on the “unassailable [assumption] that we think technologies are inherently good and technology will promote their inherently good ends.”
The techno-optimistic claims of the 19th century also introduced the seductive idea that technological advancement enables society to dispense with politics as a primary means of directing social change. Since its birth in the 1960s counterculture moment, the Valley has championed the Internet as a space without authority and hierarchy, distancing technology companies from brick-and-mortar governments and championing fast “disruption” over bureaucratic inefficiencies.
The “hazardous” concept.
It would be silly to argue that technology produces no advancement at all. But, the vision of an inevitable, technologically-driven, egalitarian future and its derision of government impotence obscures the emerging pockets of underlying power and control.
It is here where Marx argues that the concept of technology has become “hazardous.” Its “abstract, indeterminate, neutral, synthetic-sounding” nature disguises the technological system’s intangible, social components as an “objective, autonomous character” existing “independent of its human creators.”
As technology is intertwined with notions of “progress” and “freedom,” it acts as a screen behind which creators and owners of the technology exercise levers of power. The human actors responsible for technological developments are, in many ways, constructing the public order for generations to come, much like legislative acts or political foundings, said media professor James Curran.
According to Curran, “Networks are not inherently liberatory …We must avoid assum[ing] the existence of a framework of politics in which in principle every voice could be heard, without giving attention to the very structuring of those frameworks and the ways in which the visibility of subjects is structured.”
Diguid corroborates this, arguing that software code is not too different from legal code in its ability to “prescribe and limit and control people’s behavior.” He goes on to say, “Technologists are becoming unacknowledged legislators of the world,”
Facebook’s embrace of benign concepts like “freedom” and “community governance”, coupled with Zuckerberg’s continuous usage of an ambiguous “we” in his manifesto, camouflages the new distribution of power. The cosmetic of the “global community” replaces the true proposition: a global community on Facebook.
Beyond Zuckerberg’s cherry-picked positive social connectivity examples, his response to the negative tradeoffs of communication freedom (live-streamed suicides, bullying, harassment, etc.) unveils the true character of the technology: “Artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach. We are researching systems that can look at photos and videos to flag content our team should review.”
For every review Facebook conducts “for [its] community”, it enters an ideological battleground where the balance between “community standards” and individual control must be adjudicated. Facebook could work to build AI that could tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda, as Zuckerberg outlines, but ultimately, it will be Facebook who defines and categorizes ‘terrorists.’ The façade of an automated plebiscite obscures the underlying power structures.
Similarly, the Indian advertisement’s claims of free Internet and freedom through the Internet mask the main actor of backroom authority: Facebook decides what websites are allowed onto the Internet.org platform and therefore what version of the Internet users can see. Consequently, the Indian government banned the platform.
In his book, entrepreneur Peter Thiel defines technology as “any new and better way of doing [things].” “Humans are distinguished from other species by our ability to work miracles,” he states. “We call these miracles technology.”
Thiel and other Silicon Valley power players butcher the concept of technology. Technological innovations are not god-sent miracles, and doing things a “better way” is not a feature inherent to technological systems. Rather, choosing to do things a “better way” is the result of value judgments made by technology creators, expressed through their seemingly-neutral products. We must not lose sight of that in the haze of the imagined technological utopia.