Can the Internet ‘fix’ society? That certainly seems to be what Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook thinks with the ‘Internet.org’ campaign.
What is it?
Launched in 2013, ‘Internet.org’ is a campaign lead by Facebook, as well as a variety of other mobile phone and infrastructure companies. In 2015, Internet.org ran a glossy advertising campaign on Australian television calling to end the digital divide and resolve economic-based access issues in the developing world: “4.5 billion people have no access to the Internet… Get them and their families online and who knows what kind of magic they’ll create”. The campaign tells several individual ‘stories’, and imagines an online utopia of knowledge and advancement: “Neesha isn’t connected yet. But once she is, think of all the new things she’ll learn. Think of what she’ll teach the rest of us.” Throughout the Internet-saturated developed world, we all shiver in feel-good anticipation.
What does it assume?
Suffused in the Internet.org campaign is a clear assumption that if the world’s disenfranchised had access to the Internet, their lives would be tangibly improved. For the people profiled, there is no question that the poverty, disadvantage and underdevelopment which underscore their lives would be magically alleviated with access to online spaces. The ‘natural’ talents of those profiled, developed against the odds, are celebrated in a patronising, paternalistic fashion. For example, two young girls, talented ‘inventors’ living in the Bolivian wilderness, might aspire to better lives by subscribing to a youtube channel.
But what’s wrong with this?
The Internet.org campaign is underscored by a clear expression of digital determinism. Here, emphasis is placed on the ‘impacts’ of technologies, how their presence helps us, or equally how it hinders us. While technologies, (such as MRI machines), no doubt do have tangible benefits for individuals, determinism of this type refers to a wholesale neglect of context and broader social structures on peoples’ lives.
And digital determinism such as this is by no means restricted to the Internet.org campaign. There are many examples, like this recent article epitomising a generalised fear of social media technologies, decrying their apparent over-use and calling for a wholesale ‘switch off’.
Then why do it all?
The Internet.org campaign represents extra market penetration for Facebook and others (and this has been heavily criticised). Here, we have powerful business interests cynically shielded as a compassionate social mission. However, the campaign also relates to broader questions of the impacts, both good and bad, of technologies in peoples lives. The question of individual agency is all too often neglected, as well as the complex tapestry of other structural agents and their role in individual lives. The appeal of the Internet.org message harks back to deeply embedded assumptions that the ‘magic’ the Internet can indeed solve many of society’s problems.
So will access to the Internet solve the problems of the developing world? Sure, access to the Internet and a range of technologies would definitely be a good thing. But will it help others with similar stories to those profiled in the advertising campaign, like the seemingly isolated music lover and proprietor?