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Demons of the Digital Divide: The Internet As a Fundamental Human Right in the Modern Age

By Adi Chowdhury

Mind Map Team - Illustration

 

What is the Internet? Is the Web a tool? A hindrance? An impediment? A propeller of anti-social behavior? A path towards enhanced freedom and justice? An educator? Something we should further develop? Something we should repress? Something we should be worried about?

As the administrator and author, I would like to bring up that the vast majority of this site’s readers—perhaps including you—are Westerners residing in the Americas or Europe, based on our online stats. Take a moment to realize that you are reading the words of two regular students halfway across the world, in the underdeveloped state of Bangladesh, who can communicate effectively with you through the Web and the Web only. Regardless, it is imperative to grasp the idea that millions of young writers and innovators across the globe have only the Internet to use as a medium for expressing shared thoughts and values. Social dogma and political repression may hinder such expression, but the World Wide Web provides a plane for shoving such repression out of the way and leveling the playing field—allowing for various ideas to be accessed and expressed. The same is true (especially) for all of us at The Bangladeshi Humanist.

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An oft-repeated and pervasive claim dancing on the tips of the tongues of many people worldwide—more commonly among older generations—is that the Internet is a hindrance, an obstacle, a propeller of laziness and intelligence stagnation, an emblem of the anti-social and absent-minded nature of teenagers, a blank and useless hub for sharing selfies and tapping out hashtags, an excuse for shunning work and avoiding social duties. It is easy to believe such accusatory remarks when your perception of the World Wide Web is based off of baseless stereotypes. It is easy to perpetuate such myths when you turn a blind eye to the rapidly accumulating data solidifying the Internet’s position as a mediator of democracy, a tool for social justice, a resource for innovation, and a basis for economic growth. Denigrating and demeaning the World Wide Web as a “useless”, “anti-social”, or “lazy” excuse only impedes humanity’s path to securing a connected and progressive globe—a dream that can be realized through worldwide online connectivity, free exchange of information, free expression of ideas. Novel notions made possible by the Internet.

The BBC article The Digital Age of Rights laments the widespread perception of the World Wide Web “…as if it was simply a conduit for delivering the sort of mindless entertainment provided by most films, TV programs and popular music” as opposed to the reservoir of global potential that it truly is. The digital rights campaigner Cory Doctorow was vigorous in his defense: “The Internet is the only that wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press in a single connection. It’s only vital to the livelihood, social lives, health, civic engagement, education and leisure of hundreds of millions of people (and growing every day).” Indeed he is spot-on in his 2008 article for The Guardian, asserting the vehement need for a reformed perception of the Internet as well as higher regard for the security of online content. From here comes the idea of the “digital divide”, the notion of the gap between those with Internet access and those without. This gap can be in terms of economic regress, educational shortage, or lack of social progress.

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The Internet is an innovation, not just in the field of Information Technology, but also in the advancement of human rights and social justice. The World Wide Web makes possible public access to a pantheon of knowledge and reservoirs of information, placing an entire digital universe of data at your fingertips. This elegant resource nurtures an ecosystem of free exchange of opinions, penalizing none for their expressions. Depriving a nation of access to the Web is depriving them of a platform that makes possible the advancement of education, social justice, progress, and communal edification.

2013 marked the publication of a renowned “manifesto” by innovator and entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg, titled Is Connectivity a Human Right? The document explores the tremendous impact that the Internet has on economic progress. Zuckerberg goes on to call for the provision of Internet access to underdeveloped and developing regions of the world to advance economic and social development, accruing studies and data from the McKinsey Global Institute as a backbone for his bold but admirable advocacy. His tone is strident as he lays out his plan and perspective for this pressing issue:

“I’m focused on this because I believe it is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be profitable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.

There is no guarantee that most people will ever have access to the internet. It isn’t going to happen by itself. But I believe connectivity is a human right, and that if we work together we can make it a reality.”

The powerful document is written in simple, understandable layman’s terms, and can be read here.

Zuckerberg makes a compelling and strong case, explaining how the Internet can prove to be a valuable economic resource. He points out that the information provided by the Internet is a non-zero-sum resource, which means that it can be shared between people and people groups, as opposed to zero-sum resources (such as an oil field, or a cow, or a factory) that can only be owned by one person or people group.

“Before the internet and the knowledge economy, our economy was primarily industrial and resource-based. Many dynamics of resource-based economies are zero sum. For example, if you own an oil field, then I can’t also own that same oil field. This incentivizes those with resources to hoard rather than share them. But a knowledge economy is different and encourages worldwide prosperity. It’s not zero sum. If you know something, that doesn’t stop me from knowing it too. In fact, the more things we all know, the better ideas, products and services we can all offer and the better all of our lives will be.”

The manifesto cites studies by the McKinsey Global Institute that show that, in many countries, the Internet accounts for more economic growth than agriculture and energy. According to the research, 21% of GDP (gross domestic product) growth in developed nations can pay thanks to the Internet for the production of radical new jobs and resources. Zuckerberg believes that the world economy is “going through a massive transition right now. The knowledge economy is the future. By bringing everyone online, we’ll not only improve billions of lives, but we’ll also improve our own as we benefit from the ideas and productivity they contribute to the world.”

What can we take away from the landmark document outlining Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for a digitally connected world? It is imperative that we take close note of the fact that the Internet is not just a mode of entertainment or conduit of socialization. It is a very real and very valuable contribution to the advancement of the economy. Underdeveloped and developing nations unable to utilize the Web as a mode of economic growth are being deprived of a tool that could potentially and radically transform the future of world finances, as our economy shifts from industrial and agricultural to digital and informational.

In an analysis titled The Economy and the Internet: What Lies Ahead? by the prestigious think tank Brookings Institution, the Internet’s impact on the economy is explored in detail. Six key areas of economic potential is explored that can be realized by the Internet revolution. Just some of these “distinct but mutually reinforcing” fields of possible improvement are:

  • Significantly reducing the cost of many transactions necessary to produce and distribute goods and services. The World Wide Web makes possible inexpensive, convenient, and swift transmission of information. Routine and everyday transactions, such as fulfilling payments, registering and transmitting financial data, and maintaining records, can be handled inexpensively with online resources. Utilizing web-based technology, many firms, “especially those in data-intensive industries such as financial services and medical care”, can reduce their cost of production.

This extends to medicine and patient management as well, surprisingly. Online and digital records of a person’s health and medical status can be accessed and adapted easily and conveniently. As Brookings proceeds to elaborate, “[medical] providers would then be able to access the patient’s full medical history quickly and enter their own observations and treatments.”

“If prices of well-specified goods and services are available on-line, buyers can shop for the best deal over a wide geographic area and sellers can reach a larger group of buyers.” Indeed this is a method easily and conveniently utilized by the World Wide Web to provide a more efficient and systematic path towards a more competitive market.

The Web puts forward a platform users worldwide can use to select and ask for specially designed products, all from the comfort of a keyboard. Online stores and commercial institutions such as Amazon.com have visibly revolutionized shopping, drawing in masses every year.

Let’s draw our sight to Africa, a continent previously and presently plagued by economic deficit and accruing notoriety as underdeveloped in terms of digital progress. The future may look drastically different, studies suggest, and this is thanks to the Internet. As the McKinsey Global Institute explains:

“Under this scenario, increased Internet penetration and use could propel private consumption 13 times higher than current levels. Demographic trends—including urbanization, rising incomes, and a huge generation of young, tech-savvy Africans—will drive this growth.

More than half of urban African consumers already have Internet-capable devices. Basic smartphones have already fallen below the “tipping point” of $100 per unit, and companies are introducing new affordable models specifically geared to the African market. Africa’s smartphone penetration, currently at 2 to 5 percent, could reach 50 percent in leading countries and 30 percent overall. This translates into 300 million new smartphones being sold in Africa in the decade ahead. PC, laptop, and tablet penetration could double, to 40 percent.”

 

There is a range of various other areas the Internet plays an enormously beneficial role. One is education. The Web provides a platform of gaining access to massive reservoirs of information. Wi-Fi access can combat dismal literacy rates in rural regions of the world. Connectivity offers a method of remaining in touch with teachers and educators hundreds of miles away, and exchanging lessons and practices.

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Even in urbanized areas, the Internet brings a lot to the table in terms of education. Programs such as Khan Academy, OpenCourseWare, Coursera, and vastly more offer extensive coaching and assistance. In April 2006, UC Berkeley announced its plan to put complete academic courses on Apple’s iTunes U, beginning one of the largest collections of recorded classroom lectures in the world. In October 2007, the school launched UC Berkeley on YouTube. According to Benjamin Hubbard the Manager of Webcast at UC Berkeley, the program has over 120 million downloads since first sharing videos online.

blog-pic-4What does the Internet bring to the discussion table when it comes to the push for social justice and progress? The Web provides a platform for the free expression and promulgation of opinions and views, putting forward social networks, forums, and discussion sites to make this possible. Information is more readily available. While the Web has admittedly also initiated a channel of emotionally driven hyperbole as opposed to facts, the provision of free and accessible information is at an all-time high. With reservoirs of data at our fingertips, today’s youth harbor the potential no other generation has enjoyed—the potential to freely and swiftly conduct research on any topic or issue. With the access to information emerges the ability to enter and maintain informed and open discussions online with peers.

 

 

So, to restate my initial question:

What is the Internet? Is the Web a tool? A hindrance? An impediment? A propeller of anti-social behavior? A path towards enhanced freedom and justice? An educator? Something we should further develop? Something we should repress? Something we should be worried about?

Yes, the Internet may have its drawbacks. (Every innovation does.) But in the naive effort to label the Internet “a waste” or “a trap”, let us not overlook the massive potential lurking within, much already utilized–but most yet to be realized. In terms of furthering education, economic development, and social progress, the Internet is secure in its well-deserved mantle in the pantheon of human innovation.

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One thought on “Demons of the Digital Divide: The Internet As a Fundamental Human Right in the Modern Age

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