This is not just a problem of false equivalence, in which journalists cover both sides of an issue without taking a stand on hard facts. Rather, Grossman, like so much of the public sphere on both the political left and right, simply finds himself unable to resist the grand ambitions of Silicon Valley late capitalists. After run-ins with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, a Deloitte report commissioned by Facebook, and an anthropologist studying Facebook in Tonga, Grossman pretty much gives up: “Zuckerberg can be both enriching himself and other people, both expanding and consolidating Facebook’s dominance and saving lives, all at the same time.”
Saving lives is a stretch, but Grossman’s conclusion touches the heart of the issue. The larger problem is that we, as both American society and as global elites seem unable to put up any substantial opposition against large corporations and gazillionaires fortifying their skyscrapers of inequality as long as they can make even the flimsiest case that they’re contributing to the public good. Sandberg says, “The next decade is helping connect the people who are not yet connected and watching what happens” [emphasis mine]. We have no meaty critical response to this—no defense against powerful people running hobby experiments that affect millions of others, and “watching what happens.”
“Watching what happens” fits right in the sweet spot of the secular, pluralistic, do-as-you-please individualism that the Western world has so long clamored for, and from which politics—American politics, in any case—is singularly unable to escape.
Yet, secular, pluralistic, do-as-you-please individualism is exactly the problem. Internet.org is development without representation. As Grossman notes, “It’s not as if anybody asked two-thirds of humanity whether they wanted to be put online.” Actually, if you do ask some of them, as I have done many times as part of my research in various parts of South Asia and Africa, what you hear is confusion. Most dollar-a-day people will tell you over and over that what they most want is better earning opportunities for themselves, healthcare for their families, and education for their children. Yet time after time, they will also spend what little income they have on mobile phones and value-added services such as “caller tunes,” in which you pay a fee each month so that the people who call you hear the music of your choice while they wait for you to answer. Meanwhile, many local cultures and church communities oppose the Internet because so much of the dominant use is by young men playing video games and watching porn.
Here again, knee-jerk post-neoliberal kicks in: Well, isn’t that people using the Internet as they please? Who are we (or any religion) to tell them what they can’t do with it? Yes, of course, individual freedoms should be honored, but freedom is the wedge by which the entire machinery of what author Jonathan Franzen calls “neotechnofeudalism” enters in. Freedom is the basis by which corporations seduce unsuspecting consumers so long as it isn’t causing them biological harm. I’m not suggesting that we should forbid poor people from using the Internet if they want to, but not forbidding something is a very different thing from pushing it into their lives unbidden. As those of us who are already online serfs in the developed world know, once all your friends have Facebook, it takes active discipline to avoid it.