On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it, along with a coalition of several mobile technology companies, was launching Internet.org, an organization aiming to dramatically increase Internet access to "the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected."
For those familiar with Mark Zuckerberg's mission for Facebook, this new enterprise is a natural extension of his goal to "make the world more open and connected."
While in the past many have read this mission as a vague but harmless ideal, in the aftermath of the NSA revelations, it is easier to see just how ideologically charged it is. By not sharing a larger purpose for which "openness" and "connectedness" might be marshaled, the statement implies that these are ends in themselves. It suggests an inherent link between "connectedness" and "progress," all while avoiding any clear explication of what exactly this "progress" is advancing toward.
Alexis Madrigal, in an excellent analysis of the one-minute Internet.org promotional video, rightly points out that in a post-Snowden world, any claims about "openness" and "connectedness" leading inexorably toward peace or progress have a ring of absurdity.
While the techno-utopian underpinning of Internet.org is interesting, I've been particularly fascinated with how its argument for expanding the Internet parallels early-20th-century discourse about spreading literacy internationally. "Literacy" at that time -- much like the Internet in our time -- was reified as something of intrinsic value, something with innate powers to stabilize and democratize. However, history as shown that these rosy characterizations of literacy were entrenched in questionable ideologies. By using this history of literacy as a lens through which to view Facebook's recent announcement, we can see how many of the same misguided assumptions are at work in Internet.org's enterprise.
Spreading literacy globally wasn't just about teaching people to read, it also imposed values about how and what people ought to read.-- Phil Nichols (@philnichols) August 23, 2013
Many of our ideas about literacy first took shape in the mid-20th century when historians and anthropologists began to develop theories to explain the differences between literate and non-literate societies. These theories suggested that wherever literacy is introduced, it yields broad and ubiquitous changes in people's cognition, rationality, social development, economic mobility, and capacity for scientific analysis. These changes were understood to be inevitable consequences of literacy. That is to say: "literacy" had an autonomous quality that gradually molded pre-literate populations to take on the distinct characteristics of literate peoples. It is from the ensuing gap between such societies that this theory takes its name, "the Great Divide."