Extending affordable Internet access to everyone in the world who wants it is probably a worthwhile endeavor. Information has economic value, after all.
Today, Internet.org launched, a new industry coalition that includes Facebook, Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, Opera, and Mediatek. It's fronted, at least for the launch, by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
The initial goal of the organization, as it laid out in a press release and associated New York Times article, are to "cut the cost of providing mobile Internet services to one percent of its current level within five to 10 years by improving the efficiency of Internet networks and mobile phone software."
Right now, Internet.org features exactly one thing above the fold on the site: a video of scenes from around the world, cut in Facebook's characteristic style. A piano tinkles in the background as we see children playing in Africa, agricultural workers in south Asia, people playing games, chasing pigeons, swinging on an amusement park ride, hair blowing in the wind. Friends bicycling along a road in Latin America. Et cetera.
And over the top of these scenes of the globe, we hear John F. Kennedy's New England oratory. He's talking about peace. Here's a complete transcript of what he says in Internet.org's video:
I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace. This will require a new effort, a new context for world discussions. It will require increased understanding and increased understanding will require increased contact. So, let us not be blind to our differences -- but let us also direct attention to our common interests. Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
Who doesn't want to cheer after that? Let's go to the moon!
And who knew that John F. Kennedy delivered such a perfectly crafted speech to emphasize the importance of communications to the concept of practical peace: "a new context for world discussion." Why, that sounds like Facebook! Or at least one of those peculiarly apt quotes you see on Facebook after a major world event.
So, I looked up the speech from which these lines are drawn. It was given at American University on June 10, 1963. The video is cobbled together from lines across the text.
And what's left out is fascinating.
For one, it's stripped of all context. Kennedy gave the speech in the middle of the Cold War. The world was seven months out from the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy frankly acknowledged that "the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need to use them is essential to keeping the peace." These were nuclear weapons, of course. And that was back when saying billions meant something more like saying hundreds of billions now.
Kennedy asked the graduates of the school to look inward, and contemplate their own attitudes toward peace. This was not a general peace, but a specific one designed to stave off nuclear apocalypse. And it's not that Kennedy's words cannot resound beyond their original intent, but rather that their global scope and heft comes from those stakes. As he makes clear earlier in the speech, peace had to be maintained because human technologies had, for the first time, made the actual destruction of the world possible. ("[War] makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War.") The humans had to contain the possibilities of technology ("Our problems are manmade--therefore, they can be solved by man.").
Now to the speech itself. The excerpted portion begins: "I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream." Then, the following line is cut, "I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal."
The video returns to the speech for this line, "Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace." But then cuts the rest of that paragraph:
based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions--on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace--no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process--a way of solving problems.
This cut is important because it elides Kennedy's actual answer for how to attain peace -- "a series of concrete actions and effective agreements" -- and replaces it with the kind of "single, simple key" that he warns against: "a new context for world discussions."
And here is the context for the context line itself:
This will require a new effort to achieve world law--a new context for world discussions. It will require increased understanding between the Soviets and ourselves. And increased understanding will require increased contact and communication.
This will require a new effort to achieve world law. How different that sounds from, "This will require a new effort, a new context for world discussions." One is a call for a program; the other is a call for a platform. And what's strange about this moment in the Internet's cultural evolution is that we were presented with a platform, but it turns out it was also a program, "a new effort to achieve world law."
Within the United States, we might be able to cling to the rather flimsy safeguards we have for preventing the NSA from collecting data Americans submit to Internet services. But in a discussion of global Internet access, that is no comfort, however cold. The hard fact is that what is in web companies' self-interest -- getting more people using the Internet -- also expands the reach of American surveillance. That may not be Facebook or Google's fault, but it is the reality we're all living with now. And just like the average person has to adjust, so do these companies, in rhetoric at the very, very least.
The Internet.org video cut another bit from Kennedy's speech to make the end punchier (the cuts are bolded).
So, let us not be blind to our differences--but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.
The hint of politics -- the "means" of resolving differences -- and the hint of doubt that underpins wisdom, are both gone. And so is the line about making "the world safe for diversity." These lines complicate the simple story Internet.org wants to tell about the universality of the human experience. So, they don't belong in this slide deck.
In a post-Snowden world, the kinds of soaring declarations about connectedness that we see in this video just don't feel right. They sound a little absurd even. Simply look at the comments on the Internet.org YouTube video for evidence:
"Nice try, Facebook, NSA."
"Yup! FREE! FREE! FREE! but more advertising to Connect The World, that's how that make $ --don't see that coming hah?"
"It's all about money, once again. :)"
"Its all for money , for your money actually dont pretend to be saints, we are not stupid"
And that's really the point here: Don't pretend to be saints. We are not stupid.
Because the narrow scope of Internet.org's actual mission sounds both reasonable and, perhaps, attainable, given the 60-year decrease in costs associated with all semiconductor-based technologies.
Not even a grump could take issue with an industry trying to make itself cheaper, so that more people could use its products.
But that's only one level of what Internet.org is trying to do. The public facing-side of Internet.org is not satisfied with looking and sounding like an industry collaboration to increase technical efficiency. It's also working at an ideological level to reinforce the idea that connectedness means peace, that Internet access means progress (or even Progress), that working for a tech company is about making the world a better place.
At some point, it may (may) have made sense to associate Facebook with peace. But that time is over.
The thing is: People love the Internet, and they'll hop on it if it's available, even given all privacy concerns. The tech business is safe. But its leaders also want our adulation.
And we shouldn't have to worship web products, or the people who make them, or the values they hold, to use the Internet.