Spreading Literacy, Spreading Internet | The Atlantic

On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it, along with a coalition of several mobile technology companies, was launching, 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 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 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’s enterprise.

imageMany 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.”

While some of these scholars — Claude Levi-Strauss, Jack Goody, and Marshall McLuhan, to name a few — tried to avoid making value judgments in their comparisons, the dualities they employed nevertheless imposed “lesser” labels on non-literate societies: primitive versus civilized, simple versus advanced, pre-logical versus analytical, concrete versus abstract. Even though it was against their intentions, over time the idea that literate cultures were morally and intellectually superior became sedimented as an inaccurate but widely believed commonplace.

In the 1980s the view of literacy as an autonomous, benevolent force for social development came under attack. Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole’s research about literate and non-literate Vai in Liberia found no significant cognitive differences that could be categorically linked to literacy. Likewise, Shirley Brice Heath’s work in two neighboring Carolina towns indicated that while certain literacy practices are more widely endorsed in schools, there is no evidence to suggest that literacy, in itself, guarantees increased intellectual aptitude or social mobility. Synthesizing and extending these studies, Brian Street concluded that our ideas about “literacy” are often wrapped up in ideology, and as such, even when it is shared or spread under the guise of altruism, there is always a dimension of power involved, one that is often interested in increasing social control and preserving social hierarchies.

It’s worth pointing out a few striking similarities between the autonomous view of literacy and the latent assumptions in the project. For example, the main argument that uses to justify its vision relies on a binary distinction between “connected” and “non-connected” societies, a duality that mirrors the divide between “literate” and “non-literate” peoples. Furthermore, in the same way that such distinctions were often used to reinforce the superiority of “literate” populations, there is a similar sense of superiority in’s mission “to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today.”

This mission is worth unpacking further. Perhaps the most glaring problem is that it appears to reduce “opportunity” to “connectedness.” The subtext, in other words, is that the reason why some parts of the world have more opportunities than others is because they are connected to the Internet. Not only does this take a reductive and condescending view toward the actual obstacles that impede opportunity in less “connected” countries, but it also doesn’t consider the possibility that “connectedness” itself might be complexly intertwined in a larger cycle of development — that it is just as much the product as it is the cause of “opportunity.” Instead, the Internet, like “literacy” before it, is touted as a panacea, an autonomous cure-all for any social and developmental woes.

imageIn his critique of the “Great Divide” theory, Brian Street argues that casting literacy as an autonomous, benevolent agent often hides an ideology that is interested in social control. Spreading literacy is never just about teaching people to read, it is also about imposing specific values about how and what people ought to read. In the same way, we might question whether’s goal of spreading “connectedness” isn’t also tied to a desire for people to “connect” in a specific way. Though we often ascribe an innate democratic and participatory spirit to the Internet, almost all of our Internet activity today is mediated through platforms whose protocols impose a very specific logic on the ways we use sites and connect to one another. And the data generated from such activity — much like the information spread through the teaching of literacy — can be used to exploit just as easily as it can be used to liberate.

This essay originally appeared at Over the Counter Culture.

And here’s Alexis Madrigal’s analysis of the (above) video…..

What’s Promo Video Cut From the Kennedy Speech It Quotes
The tech industry continues to make soaring declarations about connectedness, which sound increasingly out of tune in the post-Snowden era


Extending affordable Internet access to everyone in the world who wants it is probably a worthwhile endeavor. Information has economic value, after all.

Today, 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, 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’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 towards 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 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 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 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’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 is trying to do. The public facing-side of 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.

via TheAtlantic


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