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Thomas Friedman's Digital Imperialism

A recent editorial about the promise of MOOCs ( Massive Open Online Course) by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times voices a recognizable Friedman-esque idealism that masks a peculiarly digital form of imperialism. Consider the colonial overtones of his suggestion that 

“(f)or relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take an online course with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic” ( Friedman, “Revolution Hits The Universities,” New York Times, Jan. 27, 2013.)

The “any Egyptian” to whom Friedman refers suggests the imperialist gaze at a faceless mass awaiting the evangelism of American course syllabi. Friedman’s language evokes a commercialized store-front learning center with a murky source of capital. Whose ways of thinking will be privileged in Friedman’s rented spaces? How do we elicit ethically-conceived ideas of free universal access to quality education that resist the trading of local culture as capital, and a hegemonic globalization as the export? What can be done to problematize a MOOC discourse arising with its own acculturating conventions? 

Friedman’s rental space in Egypt is a symptom of an ahistorical approach to culture, to race, and to class that traditionally characterizes the study of literacy in the academy, according to Victor Valenzuela (“The Politics of Literacy Across The Curriculum”.) The liberal arts’ traditional Platonic divide between the mind and the material divorces class from political economy in Valenzuela’s view, and creates an intellectual environment where literacy can “easily be set aside as an academic responsibility” (167.) Or, the Platonic mind-set can authorize someone like Thomas Friedman to giddily throw the blanket of technological progress as “universal good” over a truly ethical engagement with all the issues of literacy in its newest digital form. 

The program for this year’s Theorizing the Web conference states an important mission for the digital humanities that links to sentiments and projects familiar to those who think more broadly about literacies and ways of knowing in the academy:

“The Web is not some new, virtual space, but a technology situated within a society that comprises real people with real histories, bodies, and struggles” (TTW, Statement of Purpose, 2013)

What is crucial here is the broader approach to who is included in developing theories of digital literacies. It’s not that an economist like Thomas Friedman should not lend his voice; his economic knowledge should be part of the discussion, and likewise, his knowledge might be moved and changed by hearing from compositionists and others who think deeply about the social justice issues embedded in the history of literacy.  As TTW’s Statement of Purpose declares,  “We expect an audience not just of academics but also of activists, artists, and anyone else who is interested in the event” (TTW SOP.)        

The historicization of the discourses and the importance of a circulation among communities within and outside the academy is congruent with the way composition and Writing Across the Curriculum/Communities educators think about confronting dominant forms of language and texts. Michelle Hall Kells points to the way “language contours our spheres of belonging” (87) in her essay “Writing Across Communities: Deliberation and the Discursive Possibilities of WAC,” calling for a “Writing Across Communities” model that focuses on “student diversity” and the “cultural ecology of (a) regional environment” (89.) As a college professor in the ethnically diverse environment of New Mexico, Kells sees the tension between “compositionists intent on protecting the primacy of essayist literacies in the academy” and “ethnolinguist and textual (or genre) diversity” (92.) In her critique of traditional Writing Across the Curriculum programs, Kells sees the approach as essentially assimilationist, “socializing” students into “existing systems...”

“By contrast, Writing Across Communities as a cultural ecology approach seeks to cultivate critical awareness of the ways that literacy practices are shaped by ever-shifting sets of economic, political, social, cultural, and linguistic factors” (93.)


I would argue that a Writing Across the Curriculum/Communities as a "cultural ecology" approach to thinking about digital literacy would facilitate the development of policies and pedagogies inclusive of the many communities traditionally included in theorizing about literacies in general and digital literacies specifically, many of which exist outside of the academic, with interests wide-ranging and near, contingent and unexpected. These are the issues Friedman seems oblivious to in his rush to export American networks of knowledge, ones that are on the minds of many serious digital humanists.


Kells, Michelle Hall, "Writing Across Communities: Deliberation and the Discursive Possibilities of WAC." Reflections, 11.1 (2007): 87-108.

Valenzuela, Victor, "The Politics of Literacy Across the Curriculum." WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs (2001): 165-178


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