If you’re reading this, you’re part of the 40% of the world’s online population. While it may be hard for you to remember a time before you answered all unknown questions with, “Just google it,” 4.4 billion people have never used a search engine.
In depth studies on internet access have been released in the last few months, including “Offline and falling behind” written by McKinsey & Co. (based on research in collaboration with Facebook) and the “2014 Digital Inclusion Report” by mobile development promoter GSMA. It might be that online companies want to increase internet access so they can access their next billion users, while non-profits want everyone to have access to the opportunities the internet provides. But no matter the motivation, we’re excited about efforts to bring people online.
But why does it matter?
In the comments section on both NPR’s and Mother Jones’ articles about this lack of access, several people had comments along these lines: “That’s because those people are in extreme poverty. They don’t have clean water or food. Why don’t we worry about that instead of worrying about them having the internet?”
In some ways, it is easy to dismiss these naysayers. As we work to eliminate extreme poverty worldwide, the internet seems to offer an incredible ROI for our efforts. Information is one of the most valuable resources imaginable. When I consider what has most influenced my life, my beliefs, and my prospects for the future (apart from close family and friends), I think of books and of reading on the internet. But most people in communities with high levels of poverty don’t have books. They are expensive and rarely available in local dialects with subject material of local interest. Technology – particularly mobile phones and the internet – provides a revolutionary avenue to provide people with vital, potentially lifesaving information.
In Kenya, people can buy chlorine to purify their water for just pennies, but hardly anyone does so. Having access to the internet could allow people to understand why this is so vital. 6,000 children die each day of diarrhea. Most of those deaths are preventable, not only through health education about clean water and the spread of diarrheal diseases, but also by the use of an extremely simple and cheap rehydration solution which you can quickly find out about online: mixing a little salt and sugar in water. Millions of Filipinos work overseas; for most of them, online social media networks are their lifeline home. If they are taken advantage of, threatened, or abused, the internet can be used to bring help and rescue. But its use is limited by the fact that two out of every three Filipinos remain offline; families could raise red flags in concern about a loved one if they had this access.
Economic and development benefits could also be tremendous for countries. In another report, McKinsey & Co. estimates that by 2025 the internet could account for up to 10% (US$300 billion) of Africa’s total GDP and greatly boost economic development.
Page 14 of the GSMA report contains powerful quotes to demonstrate the value of the internet to real individuals: “With my phone I can get information about farming. I can gather information about any crop related diseases, or find information about the quality of seeds, or information about market prices. […] we’ve doubled production in our Bajra and sugarcane crops. Regarding my family’s health, we’re now also in better contact with doctors. Small domestic sicknesses, the ones related to children also, we get immense relief with regard to those. The mobile internet tells you what injections should be given to small children right from the start, in what month it should be taken. All this information can be found.” Rajendra, Lakhori Village, Uttar Pradesh, India
Of course, however, just making internet available – as great as that would be and as great a challenge as that will be – will not cause an overnight revolution. In fact, 85% of people are currently covered by 2G, but a variety of barriers still prevent connection and use of the resource. And that’s just connection; actually using the internet to research and determine what information is valuable and what is myth can be a difficult task even for people who are accustomed to using it. In a recent Gallup poll, 17% of Americans named Ebola as the biggest health concern facing the USA, even though only ten people have been treated there (eight of whom contracted it outside the USA). A whopping 15% of Americans are offline, but even taking that into consideration, some percent of people who have access to a wealth of information are still tremendously influenced by media and societal beliefs, so much so that they are more concerned about Ebola than diabetes or heart disease. Additionally, the internet has been used to spread myths and inflame hysteria about the virus worldwide.
While I definitely hope for widespread, affordable availability of the internet, I also hope that people recognize the road to constructive usability is an equally important and likely even more challenging one.