Internet giants such as Google and Facebook have long been expansionist in their attempts to colonise an increasing amount of our lives and to define the ways in which we build our identities through providing platforms on which people construct their identities. Recently, however, they have taken on projects which demonstrate a different logic to their previous attempts at empire building. 

Both Facebook and Google are developing philanthropic projects designed to bring the benefits of Western technological advances to developing countries (see here, here and here). Google are rolling out their “loon” project in which they are providing free or low cost wi-fi to areas of the developing world which currently do not have the physical infrastructure to provide high speed internet connections. To achieve this they will launch hot air balloons which will hover over areas almost literally as internet “clouds”. Facebook is leading other companies through its project which also seeks to enable cheap access to the internet in developing countries with one of the key aspects of the project being the allocation of Facebook access as “zero rating data traffic” meaning that access to Facebook is not charged against a data plan.       

On first assessment these projects may seem simply philanthropic and charitable or as a form of “primitive accumulation” or the preparation of new territories for capitalist exploitation. Neither, however, capture the reality of the situation which is such that the charitable and the capitalist cannot be separated. The key to understanding this situation is the complex relation such companies have with labour. 

I recently attended the Society for Social Studies of Science (aka 4S) conference in San Diego. One of the many fascinating papers which I heard was by ShinJoung Yeo who presented work from a study on how Google’s data centres are being built in towns with vacated industrial sites which have been reconfigured as new digital production sites. One of her many salient points was that Google and other Internet firms, with help from state and local governments, negotiate tax breaks and favourable conditions for their data centres on the promise of bringing employment and economic prosperity to often economically distressed communities, but the data centres require relatively few workers to maintain them (usually 20-300). She suggested that labour is being reorganized to serve digital capital.

On first analysis labour seems to be reduced in significance. But labour is still the key factor in the production of value in Google’s model, the only difference is that they have found an ingenious way in which to extract surplus value from labour without payment at all. In the Google model of capitalism we all work for nothing. This has been called the “click economy” or the “like economy” (Tiziana Terranova has been exploring this phenomenon for longer than most) . Platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter generate revenue largely through advertising this means that they require masses of meaningful data in order to attract advertisers. 

Previously marketers and advertisers employed market researchers who would produce typologies of consumers and profiles of types of people in order to predict to whom they can most profitably target their products. This required gathering data on people’s preferences for one product over another through surveys or focus groups which could then be used in order to divide the population into different categories.  Google (as well as Amazon or Facebook) are able to predict what products we may want to purchase through storing and analysing data on what we search for, buy or “like”. Through creating online profiles and tagging our comments with searchable metadata such as hashtags we are doing much of the work of marketers for them by placing ourselves in ever more detailed and sophisticated categories and typologies. 

 This model of value creation is largely in-line with the characterisation of contemporary developed economies as being dependent on “immaterial labour” as described by members of the Autonomia. This is a kind of labour which produces the “informational content” and “cultural content” of a commodity, that is, the cultural values or meaning attributed to it often through public opinion or popularity. The value creation in Google’s business is not in the construction or maintenance of data centres, this is necessary infrastructure, but in the work conducted by users. In order to enable this labour these companies need to make the work as easily accessible and desirable as possible. This is not a form of labour into which workers can be coerced; rather they need to be seduced. In order for this labour to remain “free” (meaning unpaid) it cannot be associated with work, instead it is presented as a form of freedom. This occurs in, at least, two ways:

as a form of free expression of identity; increasingly identity is constructed through the very same means by which we are categorised and targeted for marketing, particularly for digital natives.

a more troublesome association of “free” labour with political freedom in the philanthropic projects of Google and Facebook. 

Google “loon” and are crucial tools in the effort to gain access to another couple of billion workers for their dispersed “like factories”. This is not a cynical deception by the companies but is indicative of the extent to which capitalist expansionism and “charity” have become entwined. In their epochal book “Empire” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri claimed that “Empire” had taken on a new form in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While previous global expansion had taken place for the purposes of conquering and exploiting new lands or for religious enlightenment and conversion, today empires are built in the name of freedom. The intervention of western state powers into other countries, they suggested, is conducted with the justification of bringing democracy, peace, human rights and prosperity. Expansion is conducted on the basis “international right” in the pursuit of “perpetual peace”.

It is not sufficient to claim, for instance, that the Gulf wars were simply motivated by oil. Rather, there was a genuinely moral motivation which, nevertheless, cannot be separated from the business and political interests. Similarly, today’s expansionist corporations do not do so simply on the basis of exploiting new markets or increasing profits but from a moralistic standpoint. Alongside the launch of Mark Zuckerberg published a paper titled ‘Is Connectivity a Human Right?’. Their project, however, remains imperialist in its attempt to export particular values to the rest of the world. These cannot even be claimed as Western values, they are more partial than this, perhaps something akin to the “Californian Ideology” in which liberterian freedom and technocratic solutions are prized above all else. 

The projects discussed will no doubt bring some significant benefits to those countries being targeted but we must be aware that political and economic systems are being subtly installed alongside the technologies.