This is a slightly edited version of my original piece for the Discussion Lab Criticality Questionnaire.
Buzzwords like “immaterial labor” and “virtual economy” make it seem that dot com companies like Google and Facebook simply took advantage of the potentials of the World Wide Web to succeed. Innovative entrepreneurs just put up online services and the consumers of today’s “global village” simply took notice and patronized their sites. In fact their success depended mainly on their ownership of material infrastructures like research labs, physical servers, computer networks, and business process outsourcing sites and offices that any ordinary internet user cannot possibly possess. The same criticism can be thrown against the labeling of the Internet and other digital forms of communication as a new church or religion. Far from simply existing in a bubble its hegemonic presence has a material foundation.
Today up to 60 percent of the world’s wealth and economic production is in the hands of the eight most powerful monopoly capitalist countries led by the United States. On the other hand, the rest of the world has been divided among these world powers as colonies and semi-colonies that serve as their source of cheap labor, natural resources, and semi-manufactures as well as a dumping ground of surplus manufactured goods and surplus foreign capital through direct investments, loans, and aid. This unjust global system has bred chronic crisis, extreme inequality, in the dependent countries like the Philippines wherein 76 percent of the GDP growth is in the hands of the 40 richest families while 65 million Filipinos live on less than $2 a day.
The breakneck speed with which information and communication technologies have developed and the possibilities it opened up for quickening the pace of business transactions only furthered this dynamic of “imperialist globalization” as the production of computer and digital products, the dominant internet service providers (ISP), and other virtual services, are controlled by a handful of monopoly corporations. As John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney notes, some of the biggest US corporations like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Verizon, Amazon, Comcast, Intel, Facebook, Qualcomm, and Oracle, are digital monopolies.
The rise of the Internet and other forms of digital communication can moreover be contextualized as a major component of “neoliberal financialization,” the explosive growth of speculation in the financial sector which has massively increased the wealth of the capitalist class in recent decades. This relied heavily, said Foster and McChesney, on the securitization of household mortgages, the immense expansion of credit-card usage, the growth of health insurance, pension funds, student loans, and other personal financial elements — all integrated into enormous data banks and high-speed computer networks.
In short, the widespread dissemination of social media, mobile phones, and other information and communication technologies are promoted as part of the world capitalist system’s drive for super-profits. It accelerates the concentration of wealth in the hands of multinational corporations in the metropolitan centers.
The propagation of various distractions embedded in new information and communication technologies seek to build a bubble that keeps realities of social injustices away from everyone’s attention. As cultural theorist Jodi Dean points out, we don’t anymore need spectacles staged by politicians and the mass media to do this. “We can make and be our own spectacles – and this is much more entertaining. There is always something new on the internet. Corporate and state power need not go to the expense and trouble to keep people entertained, passive, and diverted. We prefer to do that ourselves,” said Dean. It serves as another means for the propagation of consumerist lifestyles, middle class aspirations, technological determinism, and unbridled individualism to the peoples of the world.
In semi-colonies like the Philippines wherein the economic base is backward, agrarian, pre-industrial, and tied to foreign monopoly capital, internet penetration is low at 29.2 percent while computer penetration is even lower at 10 percent according to Digital Media Across Asia. Nevertheless, the figure of around 29 million internet users is a significant portion of a population of over 104 million. While mobile penetration is relatively high at 69 percent, mobile internet access is still low at 11.5 percent. Some of the leading online behavior by internet users include communicating with people interactively through chat, email, and online games, visiting social networking sites, and online gaming.
The Internet and other digital forms of communication are primarily the stronghold of an urban-based petty bourgeois population which according to Amado Guerrero is characterized by relative economic self-sufficiency arising from particular skills, special training, or the ownership of small means of production. This is by virtue of the petty bourgeois’ possession of some cash savings that enable them access to the flood of surplus gadgets and devices marketed primarily in the cities and the main urban centers. This class include the intelligentsia such as students, teachers, low-income professionals, and office clerks; small businessmen; and relatively well-paid skilled workers.
The consciousness and daily activities of this segment of the Filipino population have become increasingly captive to the virtual world. This has gravely affected their perception of the world and the way they become socially aware and involved in politics. Rather than providing a locus for middle class integration with the basic masses it has for the most part become a “weapon of mass distraction.” Rather than encouraging social involvement, it is capturing people’s energies and diverting it to mundane concerns from worshiping showbiz stars, criticizing another country, or promoting charity or some other “harmless” advocacy like tree plantings or coastal cleanups. Critical thinking, saying no to an oppressive and exploitative system has been reduced to the convenient liking of Facebook causes.
But the Internet and digital communication also had the unintended consequence of giving ordinary people a weapon to unmask the half truths and lies peddled by the ruling order and the mainstream corporate media to legitimate their rule. Social media has become a novel tool to expose social injustices, oppression, and exploitation, to mobilize for causes, and organize resistance. Social activists have adeptly utilized social media to advance a diverse set of causes from the opposition to environmentally-destructive mining, the campaign to end violence against women, and demanding respect for human rights. For example, social media helped in mobilizing for the massive protests against the corruption-laden pork barrel system and the BS Aquino regime’s patronage politics in recent months.
But despite its potentials, social media is also fraught with limits that prevent freedom of expression advocates and activists from relying solely or primarily on it for their work. Websites that are critical of ruling regimes are regularly blocked. Online freedom of speech is suppressed. Cybercrime law legislations have been pushed by governments for this purpose. Social media accounts are effective tools for electronic surveillance with its wealth of raw data about vocal critics of government policies and programs. Mobile phones can pin-point the locations of activists. The list of friends and photos uploaded on Facebook provide precise information on their networks. Tweets and status updates can provide the latest information on their whereabouts. The May 2013 expose by Edward Snowden is only the tip of the iceberg of the US National Security Agency’s massive spying on the world’s wired population.
Yet the Internet and digital communication is pregnant with subversive potentials. We must not allow this medium to become the new opiate of the wired middle classes. As the examples of “Textpower” in the 2001 Edsa Dos popular uprising that overthrew the corrupt Estrada regime or the use of Twitter in the 2011 Arab Spring movements that overthrew powerful dictators in the Middle East, the combination of online and offline activities, of virtual and real-world interventions, can be a potent weapon for change. The use of social media can complement but not replace the hard work of organizing people face to face to fight for their rights and demand justice from those in power. In the end, it is people not Facebook that make revolutions. In the words of Chairman Mao, “It is people, not things that are decisive.”
Amado Guerrero, Philippine Society and Revolution, Luzon, Philippines: Central Publishing House, 1996.
“Digital Media in the Philippines,” Digital Media Across Asia. Singapore Management University, 2012.
Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney, “Surveillance Capitalism: Monopoly-Finance Capital, the Military-Industrial Complex, and the Digital Age,” Monthly Review, Volume 66 Number 3.
Luis Jalandoni, “The Filipino People’s Struggle against Imperialist Domination and Repression,” Irish Anti-Imperialist Forum of 2013. Belfast, Ireland. June 14, 2013.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.