Thomas Friedman, Global Ethics, and the Digital Divide


When I was invited to contribute a column to MediaCommons about the digital divide, my thoughts perhaps should have remained on these shores, concentrating on the disparities in wealth, education, privilege and access that compromise the utopian promise of Web 2.0. And then I got mad (a natural state of being for a postcolonial critic). Thomas Friedman’s friend returned from an overseas adventure having earned colorful footwear as an expression of gratitude for granting (magnanimously) universal access to his knowledge and wisdom. The essay Friedman wrote excited a flurry of agitated responses (of which this one gathers the best) varying in levels of invective. It was another salvo in the battle of ideologies in which MOOCs represent the bridge across many digital divides: not just between the haves and the have-nots, but between the haves over here and the have-nots over there.

I would like to be hopeful. The University of the People seems an ideal opportunity to bridge the digital divide, and by bridging it, offer unparalleled educational access to people who otherwise would never be able to set foot in US and European classrooms and to access the caché that these universities possess. Cheap admissions fees, no tuition costs, small classes, and online coursework mean that the only divide is digital, and that division is easily surmounted by the near ubiquity of the internet.

It would be nice. In a new chapter to his book The World is Flat, MOOCs, UoP’s larger, sprawling, more “democratized” cousin, represent for Thomas Friedman another mechanism contributing to that flattening. But the ideology is so flawed. Not only does it fail to include institutions outside the US and Europe as reputable contributors to course offerings, but the bridging of this particular digital divide represents the spread of the same, tired models of cosmopolitan capitalism—more of the changing same. It follows the well-worn paths of the same neoliberal incursions by capital as the corporation: we step foot in these backwater countries with our knowledge and technology, leave them better off than we find them, and then move onward to the next country. We have plenty of proof positive that this model is dysfunctional at best, and destructive at its worst: the DuPont plant explosion in Bhopal; suicide seeds and the defense against patents on life in India; factory fires killing scores of people; suicides in Apple factories in China; the obscene levels of violence in the Congo. Friedman’s paean to MOOCs ignores complicated cultural terrain. It commits the same cultural infractions that have always plagued ventures of this type.

The problems that Friedman elides in his thinking are the same as those that surround KONY2012 and the reception of the videos in Uganda. In the global North, accusations of slacktivism tainted the effort. Meanwhile, in Uganda, the reception of the videos revealed two critical missteps that drained the videos of any pretense toward legitimacy. There was a mismatch between the political terrain into which the filmmakers hoped to intercede, revealing that their demand for action was ill-informed; meanwhile, the need for internet access made viewing the videos difficult for many. This means that the very people to be helped not only missed the message but were also insulted by their exclusion from the conversation about their lives.

I will end my thoughts about the digital divide by turning to a model of those seeking to bridge it, not via the outreach of the corporatized university, but by leveraging its more chaotic undercurrents. At the same time that China had been asserting land rights in the South China Sea, Chinese hackers had been attacking websites in Vietnam and the Philippines in response to protests against the expansion. Incensed, Vietnamese hackers launched #OpFuckChina2012 in retaliation, declaring with the obligatory blustering bravado characteristic of Anonymous rhetoric, “We do not want a fight. But you started it. We are not afraid. You can never scare an idea. China is a communist wannabe, fascists [sic] country. You started the fire, we'll end it with dust.” A lengthy list of defaced sites follows this call to rally all Asian/Southeast Asian anons to Anonymous Vietnam’s operation.

An uncharitable critic might dismiss the hacking and counterhacking and the rise of Anonymous Vietnam as so much chest thumping over a few flyspeck islands in the South China Sea. However, Anonymous Vietnam imports the hacktivist tactics and ethos of the Anonymous movement, moving it abroad and applying it to South East Asia’s political terrain—a terrain made volatile not just by violations of sovereignty, but by oil and mineral rights. Anonymous Vietnam is the epilogue to Parmy Olsen’s excellent study of the movement’s birth and they steer the conversation toward its transnational future. This iteration of Anonymous is one that taps the power of the name, channels the movement around a specific political objective, and uses Anonymous’ recognized tactics of cyberaggression as vehicles of protest to bring international attention to South East Asian political exigencies.

Until the identities of the Viet Anons is revealed, we will never know whether the movement is homegrown and reaching out via proxies, or whether it is a group of angry Vietnamese expatriates, or whether it is a mix of the two operating in coalition with other Southeast Asian clusters of anons (the most likely scenario). However, they offer a potent retort toward those who believe that the monetized MOOC represents the most iconic bridging of the digital divide. 

Image on front page by Ano Lobb @healthyrx  and available on Flickr. 

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