White Man's e-Burden: Can Facebook & Google Save the World?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 5/12/2014 12:30:00 AM
Don't fret; the male and pale will sort out us backward colored people with tech.
There is an outdated naivete behind the conceit that the world's social problems can be solved by technological fixes. In development studies, this idea exemplifies the modern idea that "progress" has put in mankind's reach solutions to problems our predecessors could not solve. I certainly wish that were the case, but the world is infinitely more complicated than that. For a number of years now, tech people have fixated on the notion that the Internet is as close to a magic bullet to sociopolitical woes as you can get in this day and age. If the "digital divide" were bridged, then us unenlightened coloreds could be just as civilized as they are.

Despite the abject failures of OLPC, "Twitter revolutions" and all sorts of schemes to improve the plight of humanity, we keep going back to the same modern premise that a game-changing technology is all it takes to solve all sorts of sociopolitical problems. Even if most Americans have moved on to a Battlestar Galactica view of the world, Silicon Valley bigwigs that matter are still in Star Trek mode. Hence this space cadet competition between Facebook and Google to come up with increasingly outlandish ideas for providing Internet access to benighted places of this world. Witness Google's plans to fly balloons over Internet-challenged parts of Africa. Not to be outdone and to be even more up-to-date, Facebook plans to fly drones instead. Behold, variations on the white man's e-burden:

Iain Marlow captures the ludicrousness of the idea that Silicon Valley can remotely pilot development from African skies in order to not get involved with, gee, real live Africans. I've heard of top-down development thinking that views poverty as a technological problem, but these grand plans will literally take it to new heights. When Google Maps currently slights Africa because there are not enough Starbucks in the Sahel, wouldn't it make sense to be at least concerned with what's happening on the ground so commerce worthy of Google's attention finally brings recognition to the continent?
[T]he ideas gain outsized attention (and funds and credence) by playing on simplistic assumptions by people who know absolutely nothing about the situation on the ground. There are thousands of smart Africans already working in technology in Africa, and doing amazing things, and I don’t hear many of them talking about balloons and drones (except those other sorts of drones)...
Why do Google and Facebook want to soar over extremely complicated but opportunity-rich countries such as Nigeria, Mali and the Central African Republic? The answer is obvious: They want to avoid the messy realities on the ground...

Like with the one-laptop-per-child idea and other lofty “connectivity” schemes, the ideas and goals of these types of ideas tend to misdiagnose the problem and then dramatically over-promise on results. By the time these plans come to fruition, everyone has generally moved on to something else, and the original euphoria is forgotten.
There are two unexamined premises here IMHO. The first one Marlow brings up elsewhere in his article is that Internet access is not yet available to those who need to make use of it--especially in Africa. The second one I am more concerned with is that Internet access automatically implies development. Once more, aren't there potentially more cost-effective fixes that directly tap into the local knowledge and ingenuity of Africans and others in "emerging markets" instead of remotely piloting progress? There is no mystery about the popularity of TEDx to crowds of mostly white people where glib and slick presenters proffer tech fixes to problems us thick coloreds haven't been able to come up with since we are so technologically backward. What would their reception be outside of NorCal among people who have to live with the complexities of everyday life in the third world?

Speaking of which, for people so keen on changing the world for better, I suggest that they look at what's happening in their own backyard, the Bay Area, to see whether their presence is making a positive impact. It seems to me that these tech types are merely reinforcing the inequality and racialization they profess to abhor in NorCal as their transportation and even their garb are continually under attack.

How does the saying go? Think globally, act locally. If these tech firms have worsened rather than improved social problems in their own communities, what makes them think they can fix problems on a global scale? It is typical American hubris unaccompanied by any track record to back it up.

UPDATE: Google now discloses that its employees are predominantly male and white. I am unsurprised especially given their naivete in addressing poverty issues.