If you are one of the 1.5 billion people with access to the internet, congratulations. You are in the minority. More than 4 billion people still aren’t connected — but Mark Zuckerberg wants to change all that. At this year’s F8 developer conference, he unveiled Terragraph and Project ARIES, two low-cost means of transmitting Wi-Fi to underserved areas all over the world.
While this is an admirable mission statement, Zuckerberg’s plan would essentially change Facebook from a social network to an unregulated global utility. In developing countries, Facebook would be many users’ only gateway to the digital world, creating a hypothetical monopoly. Which begs the question: is Facebook trying to take over the world?
“I think they have a very altruistic view of their mission, to keep the world more open and connected,” says Peter Fasano, Global Consulting Partner at OgilvyRED. However, he also acknowledges that there is the potential for this utopia to become something of a walled garden further down the road, asking: “Once we have this open and connected world, will we close it off like AOL did 20 years ago?”
The company’s “connect all” mission has already been the source of some controversy, with the Indian government opting to ban Facebook’s Free Basics on the grounds that it violates net neutrality principles. “The Indian government believes in open access,” says Fasano, “and believes that selectively enabling companies to present their content isn’t fair; they think [Facebook] should allow full access to it.”
Mark Zuckerberg made some oblique digs at Donald Trump during his F8 keynote, framing openness and connectivity as a far more productive alternative to separating communities by building walls. And Facebook is walking the walk; the company has made huge investments in hardware and software, developing a range of engineering resources that are not in line with its business model. Case in point; the Aquila drones which will be used to beam Wi-Fi to remote locations.
At the same time, Facebook is looking at ways to conserve energy and cost. Over 70 per cent of people who don’t have internet access live within 5 miles of a major urban centre; Project ARIES boosts energy efficiency and stretches bandwidth in these areas, sidestepping costly rural infrastructure and minimising the footprint of what the planes have to achieve.
Is world domination on the agenda?
A cynic might ask why Zuckerberg wants to connect a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa for free. Will he maintain his vision once he has the other half of the world lit up with data? Will his successor? Fasano lays out some simple rules for judging whether or not Facebook is morphing from a social network into an all-consuming empire, and they centre on openness.
Throughout all of this engineering and research, Facebook has maintained strong relationships with the open-source community. “They’ve been a massive contributor to GitHub, where source code is published for people to use to build out new pieces of software,” he says. “They want people to have more content.”
For example, when faced with unsustainable hardware in the arena of photography, Facebook created its own prototypical 360 camera which enables users to capture 3D “spherical” video. “They don’t want to be in the camera business,” says Fasano, “they’re enabling entrepreneurs and founders to do a lot with the foundational things they’ve built through their open-source initiatives.”
The crucial question here: is Facebook retreating from open-source and contributing less? If the company ever lessens its focus on openness and interconnectivity then it might be time to worry. Or, is it continuing to contribute to this community at the same pace? That, according to Fasano, is an important indicator of whether or not to continue trusting Facebook.
Will Facebook shape the future of mobility?
“We think about apps when it comes to mobile,” says Fasano. “In the near future, 2020 maybe, will we be so focused on interactions with brands via apps? Or are we moving towards this more verbal, contextual environment which is more AI-driven?” The attention Facebook and other companies are lavishing on chatbot technology is answer enough.
Right now, as Fasano puts it, there is a barrier between the customer and their experience — an app has to mediate between the two. Facebook is starting to think about how to layer more of the user experience into Messenger in a way that is comfortable and unobtrusive, in much the same way that we saw in the film Her. The perfect chatbot will be “a strong retailer brand personality that knows exactly what you need, and that you come to depend on.”
With the release of its AI bot builder, Facebook is also enabling developers to create their own chatbots with unique context and language. “It’s a very forward-looking position they’re taking, and it’s a winding road to get there,” says Fasano, “but they certainly have the assets to facilitate that.”