Internet: third wave colonialism*

I was reading this article in the New Yorker: The World Cracks Down on Social Media spending some time also contemplating Kuntsman and Stein in more depth.

“Of course, Zuckerberg… has focussed less on the potential usefulness of these countries to his business than on the potential usefulness of Facebook to their citizens.”


“Internet penetration is even lower—but also growing—in Africa, where Facebook this year opened its first office, in Johannesburg.”

Picture this, a white, Western, male goes abroad to teach English, improve the water quality, or build a school in a community that has little infrastructure. Many would applaud and pour out their capital to fund internships, scholarships, and “Global Gap Years” for young humanitarians intent on furthering the US project of civilising (re: imperialism) the indigenous people of color. I will accept I am alone in making this point against the expansion of Internet and data firms in places which have been historically and presently dispossessed by the West and are vulnerable to violence and settler colonialism by foreign governments. Searching through the first one hundred or so Google results of the expansion of Facebook, a for-profit firm, into Johannesburg, South Africa, yielded (not to my surprise) very little pushback. In fact, the media applauded the expansion as “potentially useful to countries” much like Johannesburg, a narrative, I argue, steeped in anti-Blackness, an updated, all too familiar, neocolonialist perspective once used to impress, inter alia, Christianity, aggressive heteropatriarchy, and capitalism into new places. The parallels are too obvious and yet are being overlooked.

Zuckerberg’s humanitarian effort, for instance to alleviate poverty in the developing world, centers the expansion of Internet as integral to the development of these countries. This innovation, I have come to learn is a repurposing of lethal warfare, “be they balloons or drones — to bring high-speed Internet access to “underserved” communities“. The “balloons” in this example would provide Internet to “dark zones” and is currently being lobbied by Facebook and Google.

I am pointing out, drawing upon much of Kuntsman’s literature on “nercopolitics” how this justification for expansion and the use of Black bodies to accumulate wealth is a vicious retelling of settler-colonialism. The more value (profits) Black labor produces, the more Black lives are valued. So, the more potential for super profits from governments or the potential for profit in expansion – the more Black life is fungible. Appealing to how untapped countries could benefit from the expansion of Internet has a vile aftertaste embedded in how military intervention can appear humanitarian.

However, preserving Black life for its potential to produce capital has neither eradicated anti-Blackness, nor has it done anything to end the assault and extermination of Black bodies. In my view, the expansion of the Internet justifies the ephemerality of Black bodies (and cultural wealth created by Black people). It does not secure that Black bodies will survive in the physical being. Photographs can be taken of arts and crafts and records can be scanned and uploaded for safe keeping but this does not protect against those who are displaced by the erection of US owned and operated tech firms abroad. The Internet does not protect against the elimination of Blackness, yet the Internet has simultaneously been carefully crafted as a space where Blackness can exist. So this is what I find interesting about Facebook’s algorithms that hides or removes certain posts from circulating, because even while Blackness is allowed to exist within this space, there is still racist power dynamics, whether that is a by concerted state actors or a freelance actor, such as Zuckerberg.

I definitely acknowledge the expansion of Internet into militarized or oppressed zones as intentional tools to combat, at least digitally, a military project bent on exterminating its opposition. But I am wary of state and private sector cohesion when it repurposes the methods of colonialism into a globalized and accepted  phenomenon. I think we should remain critical even as we occupy our own ambiguities and contradictions in using a tool that could very well kill us.

*I estimate the first wave of colonialism as settler-colonial projects; the second wave as gentrification and the creation and destruction of the ghetto; and the project of digital colonialism where the information we share/create is invested in the project of colonialism and the theory of decolonizing?

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