During my university years in Costa Rica, I used to be quite involved in student politics. You know, the usual stuff, marches, protesting, political parties, advocacy, but mostly sitting around talking about politics at the Law School’s cafeteria. I used to have quite a good collection of t-shirts, some with political messages of the time. Free Nelson Mandela, Save the Whales, etc. I even used to have a “Rock the Vote” t-shirt which I had acquired during a trip to the USA. I was really proud of it, I thought that it made me look cool and cosmopolitan. I recall that a person at a meeting asked me about the shirt’s meaning, and I informed him that it was a campaign from MTV and musicians in the US to get young people to vote. I still remember his response:
“¡Ay mae, sus problemas no son nuestros problemas!” (Dude, their problems are not our problems).
I wanted to protest. Of course we want young people to vote! It’s a good thing that Madonna and Aerosmith are telling people to register! But I stayed quiet because deep inside I saw the point. We don’t have voter registration in Costa Rica, anyone with a valid ID can vote, so our challenges were different, it was defeating apathy and getting out the vote, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers and R.E.M. weren’t going to help.
I was thinking about this episode recently when I was reading some of the backlash against the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”. I won’t go into any details here, but there has been quite a lot of criticism about it, in part because they interviewed mostly white male tech-bros, and just a few women. But most importantly for the purpose of this article, all of the interviewees were from the US, or were based there. Once again the Internet is treated as an entirely American medium.
This should not come as any surprise, if the Internet was a country, it would be an American colony.
Part of this colonial dominance is historical, there’s no doubt that the Internet started out as a US-centric communications network, and it has been a central element of the network’s infrastructure which lasts to this day; social media companies, tech giants, service providers, intermediaries, most of the companies in that space are American. But the US colonialism of the Internet is also cultural. This again is partly understandable in some part, as the US cultural dominance pre-dates the Internet. but in a global network it should be easier to try to overthrow the shackles of cultural imperialism, while the exact opposite is taking place.
One could argue that the word “colonialism” is loaded, but it is necessary to understand the nature of our current predicament, and it works well to describe our situation. US-based companies control the Internet with little opposition, and these companies are often created and run with very specific philosophies that seep into many aspects of the global network. I would list these foundational characteristics as follow:
- Maximising profit and shareholder value is the ultimate goal.
- Venture capital allows companies to run at a loss for a large period of time, destroying competition.
- Lack of regulation, or wherever there is regulation, it tends to be light touch, or act on behalf of the Internet giants.
- Successful startups from other countries get swallowed up by the US giants.
- No respect for privacy.
- Almost complete absence of data protection legislation.
- The only limit is intellectual property.
- “Move fast and break things” is a prevalent philosophy.
- Whenever there’s an ideology informing decisions, it is often techno-libertarian.
- Ethical considerations either ignored or done for show/PR.
- Prevalent techno-solutionism.
- The ideals, likes, dislikes, and biases of the tech-bros of Silicon Valley become embedded in the system.
Of course some of these characteristics are not uniquely American, but they become the default setting in tech development with little or no oversight, or even recognition that there may be a structural issue with creating a monoculture that is exported to the rest of the world as part of this colonial dominance.
The underlying infrastructure of the tech industry is bad enough, but one of the most baffling aspects of the digital colonialism for me has been the entrenchment of US culture’s dominance. American cultural hegemony goes back to analogue media with the prevalence of its music, TV and film everywhere. Many of us who saw the dawn of the modern Internet believed that it would bring a more diverse cultural environment, people all over the world communicating with each other and sharing each other’s cultural expressions. What happened was that the infrastructure advantage translated into the continuing export of the US internet culture.
This has had an interesting effect. Social media has spawned a global culture that speaks the same American Internet language of memes, streams, music and show references. And even when we get more representation and diversity, it tends to be entirely US-centric. I loved Black Panther, but I couldn’t get past the fact that Wakanda was an American idealized version of Africa with a Kendrick Lamar soundtrack. Netlfix has become the standard provider of culture around the world, Apple acts as the technological filter, and the Emmys, Oscars and Grammys continue to give us the standards to aspire to.
I know these are old complaints, intellectuals around the world have been critiquing US cultural dominance for decades, but I think that the current colonial dominance over the Internet is having a more pervasive and detrimental effect than lack of cultural diversity.
The main effect has been the export through social media of the toxic US culture wars to the rest of the world. American culture has become extremely divided, and politicians have learned to use that division, encouraging the polarisation in order to maintain power. Social media is an important element of this phenomenon, and Steve Bannon’s playbook for winning elections through culture wars has now been exported around the world to nefarious effect. Get people to be angry online all the time. Outrage, click, outrage, click, outrage, click.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the rapid spread of dangerous conspiracy theories such as anti-vaxxers, Covid-denialism, anti-masks, QAnon, white supremacy, etc. Most of these theories were hatched in the US and spread like wildfire, sometimes prompted by the very power of some select cultural influencers that repeat them.
Perhaps a less publicised effect from the negative effect of the export of the US culture war is in part what inspired me to write this blog post, and it is that we are also importing causes that often have less relevance to the rest of the world. I have been struck by the swiftness of the global response to the tragic murder of George Floyd, and the sudden global adoption of BLM. Anything that can help to shine a light to existing injustice and attempts to destroy racism has to be welcomed, but I can’t help but feel that most of the response outside of the US has been performative and tokenistic, lots of lip service, lots of hashtags, a few toppled statues, little concise action. As someone who has been the subject of racism in Europe as an immigrant, I saw very little in some of the official responses that addressed my experience, it seemed to be centred on what was happening in the US. This has led to a worrying backlash that could prove to be very detrimental. Racism is real, pervasive, and corrosive, and it needs constant challenge, I find the clicktivist nature of the social media’s American-centric response to be often counter-productive outside of the US.
The colonialism is replicated not only in the culture war, but in the way civil society and academia think about these problems. In academia, US scholars are cited disproportionately more than others, and this often translates in more visibility and opportunities. I can’t count the number of times that I have seen US academics invited to comment on European legal subjects at conferences or the press. Even the emphasis of discussion in online circles about how to regulate the Internet tend to begin and end with the US First Amendment and section 230 CDA, and often derision against solutions such as the GDPR.
And even the legal cultural icons are often exported. Can you name the top female judge in your country?
There is also an astounding blindness in civil society to outside voices, and often the agendas match the needs of the Silicon Valley funders. Agendas such as AI ethics are given disproportionate attention, and techno-solutionism becomes the standard response to any issue. Need to fix corruption? Have you tried a blockchain?
But it’s not all doom and gloom
I see growing recognition about this digital colonialism, and global voices are rising up in protest. The coronavirus response in the US has helped to emphasise that we should get used to the American decline, and start organising an Internet without it. We have to stop the spread of the US culture wars to other countries. We should continue to look at options to bypass the colonial dominance of the Internet giants. And of course, we should be mindful not to exchange American colonialism with a Chinese one.
We should continue to ask questions when we see another US-centric trend in our timelines. Is this relevant to me? Is this relevant to my society? Have I been consuming local culture? Have I helped to crowd-fund a local project?
But perhaps more importantly, be mindful about your own cultural consumption, and who you choose to centre in your advocacy. Remember, their problems are often not our problems.