when internet evangelism tries to go global
As we all know, the developing world faces plenty of challenges from widespread and endemic corruption at pretty much every level of government, epidemics of various diseases, ethnic conflicts, and crumbling or just plain nonexistent infrastructures. But while billions of people in developing nations are struggling to find jobs and provide for their families, and hundreds of charitable NGOs are raising billions to bring in vaccines, start construction projects, or fight corrupt officials, a former rocket scientist from SpaceX decided that what’s really needed in the poorest and areas of the world is to quench the people’s thirst for information. And to ensure that subsistence farmers and residents of far flung slums don’t have to forgo internet access, he’s buying an old geosynchronous satellite owned by a company in major financial trouble to use as an access point for a wide swath of land close to the Pacific Rim. I suppose that when your greatest fear is losing access to news on your smartphones and being unable to read your e-mail, your project for the developing world is bound to come with a hefty share of tech evangelism and be better suited for an effort slated in the next two decades.
Before you start thinking that it’s rather ironic that someone whose work absolutely requires a stable, reliable internet connection is criticizing a plan to bring free internet to the masses, let me say that I don’t think that it’s unnecessary to give developing nations the capability to get online. If anything, it could be a benefit for foreign direct investment because companies can build factories and set up offices knowing that they’re going to get an internet connection even in the middle of nowhere. But the big stumbling block to internet access, and one it seems being looked over by the NGO in question, A Human Right, is that to get online, you’ll need a steady flow of electricity and internet-enabled electronics. In countries where electricity is a luxury and blackouts and brownouts are fairly common, internet access is going to be sporadic at best, and limited only to people who already live in cities with decent grids and can actually afford a computer, something most of those who exist on less than a dollar or two a day are very unlikely to afford. We can say the same thing about a wi-fi enabled mobile device. Mobile phones are one of the most widely used pieces of hardware and they’re often deployed in areas with very little communication infrastructure, but most of them are not exactly iPhones or BlackBerrys, just very simple and cheap phones meant only for texting and making calls.
One of the NGO’s justifications for wanting to provide internet to the masses is that 7 out of 10 people are not able to get online. All right, so how about the fact that a third of the world doesn’t even have basic sanitation? We’re going to change societies by giving them information when they don’t even have toilets or running water to wash their hands or take a shower? Many developing nations have alarmingly high illiteracy rates, meaning that even if we were to distribute free laptops across all the poorest areas of the developing world, something like half of the new potential web surfers can’t even read, and all this access to information would be useless to them since they’re illiterate. So before we start thinking of how to give developing nations their free internet, raising tens of millions for a satellite, maybe we should spend some of that money on helping existing efforts to teach them how to read and provide them with running water, medicine, electricity, and food? I understand that a rocket scientist with lofty goals probably isn’t too worried about having the basics necessary for survival and essential sanitation, and probably has his head in the clouds, inspired by tech evangelists’ speeches on the power of the internet to change the world, but in reality, there are more than 2 billion people who struggle with the very things he doesn’t even have to think about when he wakes up in the morning. And I’m sure they would much rather have a decent roof over their heads, a bathroom, and some food in a fridge before they’re worried reading the latest news online. Provided they were fortunate enough to learn how to read.