On Google, China and neo-informationalism

By | October 16, 2010

Remember the Google and China issue? I recently came across part of the text of a keynote address delivered by Tricia Wang, ethnographer and PhD candidate in sociology at UC San Diego, at the New Direction in the Humanities Conference, UCLA. Her take on the China and Google saga is encapsulated in this excerpt:

And here’s the kicker – in leaving China because the Chinese government wouldn’t conform to their rules, Google reproduced the very imperialistic behavior that have characterized the greatest imperial powers: leaving a country or region when they couldn’t get the natives to abandon their own way of thinking or adopt a new way of behaving

What’s emerging is a new rhetoric of development and globalization in what I am calling neo-informationalism: the belief that information should function like currency in free-market capitalism – border-less, free from regulation, and mobile. The logic of neo-informationalism rests on an moral framework that is tied to what Morgan Ames calls “information determinism,” the belief that free and open access to information can create social change. This moral framework of neo-informationalism is so naturalized that Google and like-minded companies work their way around the world unquestioned for their position on open information. Phrases such as “information wants to be free” reflect the techno-anthropomorphizing of information, a necessary step in naturalizing any neo-informationalist agenda.

Neo-informationalism is a re-visioning of a non-redistributive laissez-faire ideology of modernization theory transplanted into Western technologies that assumes surely people cannot be self-sufficient without unlimited access to the tools that connect them to the world wide web. Underlying this ideology is the notion that information openness and market openness are inseparable and non-mutually exclusive. Information openness can only be achieved through free-market conditions.

This is a model of social change that puts faith in objects, not in governance processes. Neo-informationalism and neo-liberalism work symbiotically to create what Wendy Brown calls the governed citizen who seeks solutions in products as opposed to the political process. While Wendy wasn’t speaking of technological objects per se, I make the case that this is indeed a variant of the hacker ethic; social change is made through direct programming of software code and interaction with technological devices while maintaining distance from the state.

What I want to point out is that while this is a very reasonable process being accomplished by very reasonable people — Westerners creating products and policies for Westerners – I am not comfortable with pushing this belief on others in the name of a “higher calling.” This is a simply a redux of cultural imperialism that says “we know better than you, and if you don’t believe us, too bad you have no choice, because we’re offering you emancipation by giving you access to our Internets.”

We should question any ethical system that reproduces a familiar trope of colonialism. Whereas past waves of imperialism used Religion, Science, or Globalization as a rhetoric of development, the new rhetoric of neo-informationalism is used as a guiding principle for entering new regions—ethical principles that can be used as proxies for pushing our belief system onto other people. As a result, the work can be less about free information and unlimited compassion and more about desires for free-access to new markets and new commodities.

The whole article is here.

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