Vaporcare: Mark Zuckerberg's nebulous plan to bring Internet to the developing world

Rob Walker
Yahoo! News
Mark Zuckerberg Reveals Plans to Bring the Internet to the Rest of the World
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Mark Zuckerberg Reveals Plans to Bring the Internet to the Rest of the World (ABC News)

In technology circles, “vaporware” refers to a gadget or computer program that is announced by a company but never actually materializes, that is unveiled only to benefit the company in some nebulous way: hardware or software that is as substantial as vapor.

Now, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s dubious announcement on Wednesday that he plans to bring Internet to the entirety of the developing world, we have a new term to add to the tech lexicon: “vaporcare.”

“I believe connectivity is a human right,” the Facebook founder declares in this 10-page essay, “and that if we can work together we can make it a reality.” He goes on to outline, in what can only be described as a mind-bomb epiphany, a “rough plan” for making the Internet available to “the next five billion” (that is, the majority of the world’s population that presently lacks Web access), announcing the formation of a new entity called Internet.org dedicated to this cause.

This grand pronouncement has attracted significant attention, including an exclusive interview with CNN. But wading into the details of the plan, it’s less than clear what’s actually being announced here, beyond a firm conviction in a general idea (Internet access!) that nobody really disagrees with. The “plan” pretty much entails carrying on with precisely the business strategies Facebook and its announced partners in this consortium will need to pursue to keep growing its customer base, but positioned as some sort of massive humanitarian undertaking.

In short, it sounds like vaporcare.

In a way, this seems in line with the current vogue for Big Unlikely-Sounding Idea projects like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop or Google’s Project Loon. Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a super-train for San Francisco to L.A. in half an hour, or a network of floating-balloon broadband transmitters? Sure! And now back to business. (Bill Gates, who knows a thing or two about the difference between business and humanitarian efforts, summed up the limits of such schemes recently: “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you.”)

At the moment, however, the Internet.org initiative lacks even a nutty conversation-starting focal point. Instead, partners Facebook, Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia, and others (working together “as an industry”) pledge to try and make the relevant technology more affordable; improve data efficiency; and invent business model variations appropriate to the developing world.

You can judge this an effort to “pair humanitarian goals with the profit motive,” but to me it just sounds like the profit motive. And of course there is no shame in that: The profit motive isn’t inherently at odds with human rights or humanitarianism. In fact, the explicit case for pursuing developing-world business goals that happen to have positive humanitarian effects has been most convincingly made in the late C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune At the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits.

Perhaps Internet.org will develop into something more specific and significant over time; the “partnership” is apparently supposed to involve nonprofits and “local communities,” but at the moment it lists only tech firms. And even Zuckerberg’s essay basically acknowledges that this is all a belated and dressed-up announcement of strategy his company has been pursuing for a while: “Facebook has already invested more than $1 billion to connect people in the developing world over the past few years,” he writes, “and we plan to do more.” As The New York Times reported mere weeks ago, Facebook has worked diligently for a couple of years on a lightweight version of its service aimed explicitly at the developing world. “In a lot of foreign markets, people think that the Internet is Facebook,” one observer told The Times.

That comment actually sounds pretty depressing, and slightly ominous. And maybe this is what explains the repositioning of a sound business strategy as humanitarian-sounding vaporcare: Instead of talking about what it would mean if “the next five billion” experience the Internet primarily via Facebook, we can talk about connectivity as a human right. And thus a business strategy is converted from something that might seem worrisome into something that everyone can “like.”