Droning On

Neither Zuckerberg nor the Pope, but international digital socialism.

Day Donaldson / Flickr

Recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave Pope Francis a gift: a model of one of his new solar-powered Aquila drones, hyped to be the way to spread Internet access and by extension his empire of likes, selfies, and unwanted posts from relatives throughout the globe.

The press made it out to be a benign event, a far cry from last year, when Zuck got dunked on by Chinese president Xi Jinping, who rejected his request to give his unborn child an honorary name. Zuckerberg, ever the overeager humblebragging helicopter child, reported that it was cool just to be there speaking Mandarin.

But as any anthropologist will tell you, gift-giving is a ruthless endeavor, especially when it takes place in public. It’s a competition over who can show the most magnanimity, who has the most to give while having the least care over what they lose. It’s also an opportunity for symbolic intervention, one seized by Bolivia’s Evo Morales when he presented the pontiff with a hammer-and-sickle crucifix. It was a classic wedge maneuver, underscoring the political commitments of the slain Jesuit priest for whom Francis had earlier prayed.

So gifts are power plays, and this August’s was no different. These men are rivals: Zuckerberg’s empire of 1.7 billion followers surpassed the Catholic Church’s back in 2014 (stalled out at a measly 1.2 billion). His Holiness claims dominion over millions on Twitter (where Zuck hasn’t ventured since 2012), but lacks the alpha and omega of thinkfluencer status, the blue verified check, in Zuckerberg’s home turf, where even that false idol the Dalai Lama has one. The Facebook drone Aquila, named after the Latin word for eagle, symbol of the Roman Legion, fascist Italy, and the United States of America: could this gift be anything other than a threat?

Drones themselves have swept through the public imagination, primarily by their military use in the “war on terror.” Giving bored conflict reporters a hip cyberpunk angle to mine, drones are also emblematic of the Obama era’s gussying up of Bush-era policies with pantomime moral seriousness (those furrowed brows over each week’s kill list) and technocratic efficiency — all of the war, none of the mess. And like so many of the facades of the forty-fourth president, this one was rather thin: as with all aerial bombardment, drones kill a lot of innocent people, and their pilots, even while seated in air-conditioned facilities thousands of miles from the battlefield, suffer crippling PTSD.

Now drones are making that storied leap from military innovation to everyday civilian use, just like cargo pants, assault rifles, and the Internet itself before them. On the same day of Zuckerberg’s meeting with the Pope, the Federal Aviation Administration began granting licenses for the commercial use of drones. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s dream of replacing the postal service with a swarm of automated delivery copters is just around the corner, especially now that it’s illegal to shoot them down. “One day,” Amazon vows, “seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road.” Say nothing of the mail carriers!

These schemes, like those of driverless cars and private interplanetary travel, reveal the latest chapter in the unfolding saga of Silicon Valley’s Californian Ideology of individual empowerment through technological means. It is a vision of society organized along the lines of what libertarian philosopher Friedrich von Hayek called “catallaxy”: “the special kind of spontaneous order produced by the market.”

Rather than any kind of plan rationally designed for the optimal good of citizens, Hayek argued that the greatest good is achieved by everyone doing whatever the fuck they want, and letting the market shake it out in the long run. Of course, in the long run, we’re all dead, perhaps incinerated in a space tourism accident or killed by an autonomous car as the outcome of a real-life Trolley Problem Meme.

These new technologies herald something far worse than an opportunity to play out banal utilitarian scenarios. They are part of a much larger project to privatize the world’s infrastructure. You won’t need the pesky government, with its public accountability, unionized workforce, or mission to benefit all citizens to provide you with your essentials. Instead you can rely on a self-appointed cabal of capitalists who will permit you to communicate, send goods, or travel as long as they profit, just as increasingly we must rely on them for basic needs such as water and electricity.

As crimes against humanity such as those in Flint, Michigan show, running essential services like a business is a recipe for corruption and disaster. Now with the so-called “Internet of Things,” the already-existing corporate control of communications infrastructure — cables, data centers, and social media platforms — extends into more corporeal matters, such as shitting and sex toys.

As does Zuckerberg’s seemingly benign solar-powered flying WiFi connection. The replacement of public infrastructure, and the abandonment of any promise of its democratic organization, poses an even greater danger where such infrastructure doesn’t exist. For decades the United States participated in destroying and undermining modernizing governments in Africa, leaving the continent underdeveloped and wracked with war and violence. As in so many other places around the world, the problems weren’t the lack of US presence, but stemmed from US involvement itself.

Now our wise thought-leaders present “entrepreneurialism” as the solution to this problem, a solution that seems to benefit everybody, including the world’s wealthiest. No longer content to benefit from this situation by using the continent’s children to supply it with its necessary rare earth minerals, high-tech capital now sees Africa as an investment opportunity, especially with Western economies seizing up from overcapacity. Articles hyping African tech are already a cliche, with ravenous venture capitalists plowing cash into “accelerators,” hoping to carve out a lucrative piece of emerging markets for themselves at the ground level.

As Forbes said about Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative, “It is a socially responsible investment of corporate scale, and will probably make Microsoft a lot of money in the long run.” And one that seeks, like Windows before it, to lock millions into a monopolized infrastructure to secure rents in perpetuity.

The groundwork for these business initiatives has been laid by international aid schemes that encapsulate tech-driven neoliberalism. NGOs route around “inefficient” governments while foisting dodgy technologies like personal cell phone chargers and individualized water filters on “emerging economies” as solutions to their lack of basic infrastructure.

It’s not just another example of well-intentioned “technological solutionism” running aground on the hubris of the charity-minded. It also serves economic and political functions: a great way to dump crap products in exchange for grant money, while simultaneously inoculating a generation of Western do-gooders against the values of development taking place at any level of social organization larger than a village. And since many of these programs are run like a multi-level marketing schemes, with locals tasked with pushing ineffective solar cookstoves on their neighbors, it’s an iron cage of “entrepreneurialism,” completely reliant on fickle capitalist largesse, from top to bottom.

It is into this ideological river that Facebook wants to wade. It’s looking to the continent to drum up its waning appeal among Western youths, while pitching its mass-surveillance and journalism-destroying services as a herald of economic development and future prosperity. It’s development for Facebook too, of course: kids in the Global North just don’t supply the click-work surplus value like they used to, and African kids won’t unless they can log on to Facebook for free.

As its first private satellite went up in flames with the delightful explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, Zuck mourned the loss for Africa’s entrepreneurs. It is but a temporary setback, he assured us: Facebook’s drones will soon join AFRICOM’s in darkening the skies south of the Sahara.

Pope Francis might want to add a few drones of his own to the swarm. As Catholics worldwide lapse faster than Millennials jumping from Facebook to Snapchat, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the only regions showing any growth. For both Holy See and CEO, Africa is the future: its future market. And the gifts these organizations bestow come, as gifts always do, with a price: control over Africa’s future.

What’s the alternative? We could insist that vital functions, such as internet connectivity, be treated as a right, and regulated as a public utility. There have been some (slightly) encouraging moves on this front. And at the same time, we need to recognize that the people of poorer nations deserve these rights and protections too, along with the ability to determine their technological futures themselves, not according to the good graces of billionaires.

Neither Zuckerberg nor the Pope, but international digital socialism!