The real colonialism of Silicon Valley

Technically Incorrect: Marc Andreessen was excoriated for calling India's rejection of Facebook's Free Basics service immoral, but his spontaneous reaction reflects much of what the Valley stands for.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Facebook's efforts to reach into developing countries may or may not feel like colonialism, depending on your view.

Screenshot by CNET

Mastering the universe isn't easy.

Ask Stephen Hawking. Ask the hawks on Wall Street.

You think you've got things all sorted in your head and then some Black Swan turns up to ruin the social order or, at least, the orders you'd like to give society.

One or two people in Silicon Valley might have experienced that last week.

When the Indian government decided to say "thanks but no thanks" to Facebook's Free Basics service, some folks associated with the company seemed upset by the very, well, freedom of such a decision.

Free Basics, aka Internet.org, is Facebook's attempt to give free Internet to people in developing countries, with the slight catch that Facebook decides which parts of that Internet they can have.

How dare a government tell its people what they can or can't have? That's Facebook's job.

Indeed, Facebook board member Marc Andreessen was so upset that he called the decision "morally wrong."

It's quite odd that a valley renowned for enjoying a morality at least as libertarian as it is liberal would reach for such concepts as morality.

After all, libertarianism tends to simply place the "best" out front and let the also-rans run behind until they're tired and fall over.

Andreessen rose to even greater moral heights after he was criticized for supporting colonialism.

"Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?" he snorted on Twitter. (The tweet was subsequently deleted.)

Naturally, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disavowed Andreessen's comments. They were bad for business. Even Andreessen apologized and acknowledged that perhaps he didn't know everything about everything.

The incident won't, however, stop Silicon Valley from believing that it does, in fact, know more about more things than anyone else and has the data to prove it.

The Valley is a collection of those who believe they have the biggest brains around. They are, after all, making the world a better place.

If the Valleyites discover that there are somehow still fine brains outside their sphere, they lure them in with lucre.

They know, being aspirant masters of the universe, that pesky entities such as governments have failed to corral technology's inexorable push toward dominant rationalism.

There was something quite quaint about the British government squeezing an actual 130 million pounds (around $185 million) in taxes out of Google last month and later witnessing the company's senior European executive mutter that he had no idea how much he earned but could provide the figures if someone were that interested.

The Valley exists to ensure that everyone falls within its system -- only that way can it attain the systemic perfection of which Valleyites dream nightly.

A perfect system is one that governments cannot control and that people are attached to far more than they're attached to, say, anything else.

Google's idea of self-driving cars, for example, needs to have that perfect system. Otherwise, if the robocars find humans on the road behaving in some random human fashion, they crash into them.

Andreessen's frustration seems to stem, at least in part, from the notion that the supranational system Facebook is building was halted by an institution as archaic as a government and, worse, one from a developing country.

What do they know about progress? They're more famous for slumdogs than for millionaires.

The deal that Facebook offered India is nothing new. It's the same deal that so many around the world have already agreed to.

The Valley gives you something for free. In return, you open the whole of yourself to the Valley's data-swallowing machinery and then behave in the ways the system sets out for you.

You never knew how much you needed to "like" things until Facebook gave you the option, did you?

The Valley gets frustrated when you don't play along. It tells you it needs your phone number, as well as all your email addresses -- for security purposes, you understand -- when in fact it wants your phone number to identify you more perfectly and attach every element of your behavior to your "profile."

That "profile" is most important, at least for now, in selling your every detail to the advertisers whose money the Valley's system needs.

One day, though, when everyone is part of the system, the Valley might start to dictate even more. Its algorithms can subtly expose people to selected news. It can direct them to looking at one political view rather than another.

That way, perhaps you'll vote for governments that are a little more friendly to, say, the Valley. This is a far more subtle colonialism than, say, the British ever managed. The question is whether anyone will ever rise up against it and what might make them do so.

In the end, the people always rise up against their stifling masters. Don't they?