Spreading Literacy, Spreading Internet

The Atlantic

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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.

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."

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 Internet.org project. For example, the main argument that Internet.org 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 Internet.org'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.

In 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 Internet.org'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.

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