The Global Connector (1934)
In 1992, philosopher Andrew Feenberg made a significant contribution to the philosophy of technology by coining the term ‘subversive rationalization’, a term to describe the way in which technologies are adopted and used differently over time. Importantly, as Andrew claims, such a metamorphosis results in a “democratizing trend that may convert a given technology from an instrument of social control to one that is guided by democratic social forces”. To substantiate his claim, he often refers to one of the zeniths of the digital age: the Internet. Clearly, he would say, the Internet has shown to possess quite a liberating effect. Most recently, it has contributed greatly to the toppling of North-African dictatorships in the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ of the Arab Spring.
Only two years after Andrew introduced his concept of technological empowerment, Chinese computer scientist Qiheng Hu decided to bring the Internet to her home country. In 1994, that is, she became responsible for setting up the first TCP/IP connection in China, coupling her country with the ‘Global Internet’. Less than three decades later, China has become the country with the most Internet users worldwide.
Madam Hu, as she is charmingly addressed by the Chinese, started her career in the 1980s at the Institute of Automation after graduating from the Moscow Institute of Chemical Machinery in 1963. After being promoted to Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1988, she got involved in talks at the National Science Foundation that eventually led to the setting up of the first Internet connection in 1994.
Eight years later, Qiheng’s devotion to the Internet had not withered, seeing her co-found the Internet Society of China (ISC) in 2001. This civil society, of which she is now the President, remains to dedicate itself to the promotion of Internet access and application for school students in the peripheral and disadvantaged areas of China. As she would say during her Internet Hall of Fame induction speech in 2013: ‘The Internet has dramatically accelerated the stepping forward course of my country’. Thanks to the efforts of Qiheng, 58% of the Chinese people now actively make use of the Internet.
However, whether or not the Internet is as ‘forward stepping’ as Feenberg claims is a topic of continuous debate: has the Arab Spring made life better for citizens after all? Do Tech Giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter determine what we know? The Chinese Internet equally remains to be tightly controlled by the Communist Party; frequently used for the dissemination of one-sided propaganda. In response, philosophers have claimed that subversive rationalization is a myth: the Internet is repressive, rather than liberating. Just like any technological invention, the Internet also has its dark sides. Nevertheless, Qiheng remains committed to the idea of strengthening it: protecting user rights, reducing the digital divide and raising public awareness throughout.
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