The Internet and Illusions of Grandeur

The enduring understanding from week five of the second COETAIL course is bugging me.

 The communication tools that exist today are powerful mediums to help spread positive change and global awareness.

I don’t disagree with it.  That is not my problem.  I totally agree that the internet is an extremely powerful tool for communication and as a source of knowledge.

My problem is the assumptions that people are making with such a statement.  It worries me that people may even be unaware of the assumptions they are making in the first place and I think this can be very dangerous.

What makes the internet so powerful?

If you are reading this, chances are that you already know the answer to this question.  When I was in high school in the 80’s, doing research meant going to the library.  I was a bit of a geek at school in the old fashioned sense of the word, meaning that I liked books.  The only day I ever “wagged” school, was to go into the city to the state library to work on a paper for History.  But libraries were limited to the books that they contained.

Right now, sitting in front of my computer in my comfy chair at home, I have access to every library in the world.  My only reason to wag school has disappeared.

The internet is more than just a massive library though.  It is also a communications tool which is unparalleled in history.  The ease of with which you can keep in touch with people you know and reach out to people you don’t, makes for a whole new world.

What assumptions are we making?

With statements like the understanding I mentioned above, we are making two very big assumptions.

  1. Internet access is widespread if not universal
  2. The vast majority of human experience is captured in one form or another on the internet

Below is a map indicating global internet access taken from The World Bank.

Global Internet Usage

As you can see, the dark continent is not living up to its name on this map.  What I found surprising from these statistics is that Asia, which is far more developed than Africa on many levels, is also pretty much unplugged with the exception of Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

To put this in terms of numbers, the chart below also created from statistics provided by the World Bank, shows the three most populous countries in the world compared to the world average for the number of people in every 100 who have internet access.  I also included Ghana as an African representative as it has one of the strongest economies of the sub-saharan African nations and although the majority of African countries have figures below that of Ghana, I wanted to present the best case scenario for the region.  I also just love the country!

Internet Usage by country

 The world average is 33 people per 100 having internet access.  China rates just above the world average and India is well below yet their populations combined is almost half the world population.

There is a common misconception about the ease of internet access across the developing world and this is due to the explosion of mobile phone usage in these regions.  And it is true that I had better mobile phone coverage in Ghana than I still do in Australia where my mobile doesn’t work at my mother’s house, one hour from the city of Perth and 20 minutes from the nearest urban development!  But just to be clear, the phones that people (especially in rural areas) in Ghana are using are these.

nokia 6210 7250i 1110 6300

They are definitely not these!

iPhone vs. iPhone 3G

They buy credit for their phones in one dollar amounts and basically use the phone to “flash” (see number 20 for the definition) people rather than actually call them because talking uses up their credit too fast.

You can purchase dongles that use the mobile phone network to connect your computer to the internet but this relies on having a computer in the first place which is just not the case for the majority of people.  The dongle uses the credit the same as the mobile phone and this is just an expense that most people can’t afford.

Be aware of the limitations of the internet

So when only a third of the population has access to and can communicate using the internet, how does that change the validity of the enduring understanding we have for this course especially when the phrase global awareness is included?

Where I come from in Australia and I suspect for the majority of people who come from highly developed countries, people are blissfully unaware of the realities of life for millions of people, especially those living in the world’s poorest countries in Africa and Asia.  The problem is, we don’t realise that we are unaware.  On the contrary, we think that we are well informed because of media reports and information that we can gather from the internet.  I certainly did.

Don’t be complacent.  Don’t think that because you have this amazing, awesome, powerful tool at your finger tips, that you can find out anything, that you can experience everything, that you can know what is to live anywhere or be anyone.

The internet has limitations.  Until a vast majority of people have access to it, you are not seeing the whole truth of human existence.  With two thirds of the worlds population, the only way to really understand their lives, is to unplug, get off your arse and physically go to them.  Talk with them, sing with them, eat with them, work with them, live with them and most importantly, learn from them.  It will definitely change your life and if you are very, very lucky, in some very small way, it might change theirs too.

7 Replies to “The Internet and Illusions of Grandeur”

  1. Hi Merilyn,
    I came across your blog as i was looking at some readings from Coetail course 2. I agree with all that you have to say however I do want to add that I really think that communication tools are gettimg powerful and cheaper and accessible. I should know and I understand how internet is not within reach of all people, being an Indian and living in my own country. I want to share with you my experience two years ago. I was visiting a remote village in the himachal region with a group of our students as part of our annual minicourse program. The village is managed by a group of women. These women learned to operate a computer and now have videos on math and care of cattle and plantation that they watch and learn from. The material is being sent to one government operated centre that is an hour from this village and then reaches them on a CD. I thought this was awesome, possible today because communication has become powerful, it requires much less effort to create videos, customize them and get it to the right people. These same women are seen milking the cows and cutting grass while talking on their mobile phones.
    I really think a very positive and powerful change is starting today.

    1. Hi Anjana

      Things are changing – you are right. However, in rural sub-saharan Africa, that change is really slow. This is mainly because people have other priorities like water, sanitation, food and fuel. My last trip to rural Ghana was in 2012 and I was impressed when someone in the town I was in, pulled out a laptop whilst we were all sitting under a mango tree. The laptop was for his work. Nobody had smart phones though and that was the only laptop I saw amongst non-professional people (the vast majority). I’m going back in July so it will be interesting to see if things have developed further.

  2. Dear Merilyn,
    I love your post and want to thank you wholeheartedly for writing it (a while ago I know!)
    We are so immensely privileged as teachers in International schools and we need to be reminded that 1:1 iPads and Broadband as wide as our arms can stretch are not the norm. On a recent trip to the Philippines it was humbling to see so many people crowded around 1 Dell computer eagerly chattering away about a website whilst one person navigated it. The computer alone looked like something from a museum let alone the number of users it attracted, all in a rickety looking pre-fab really.
    At school (in Shenzhen, China) we are really lucky (and blessed with an AMAZING Director for eLearning & eCoaches) to have a HK server. So, our internet loads quickly and we can access YouTube, FB, Twitter etc. But you just have to step outside to see that this isn’t the case outside in real China. Ok, different issue, (censorship) but let’s consider the fact that here in the motherboard-land where Foxconn makes and assembles 80% of Apple goods and iPhonies (no mistype!) are 10 a sen, most school children still don’t have internet access or a decent ratio of class computers.
    Yes, things are changing -it was exciting to read about Indian farmers using sms and phone apps to check on crop diseases and the optimum time to harvest each year because of weather conditions etc.– but we need to stop being smug and spoilt in our declarations about ‘global digital citizens’ and the like!
    And what a great final paragraph! Let’s get out there once in a while and connect with real people in a real life setting with or without technology- to learn from others. The best thing I saw in the past 2 years – again in the Philippines – was my children and four of their friends reading books and playing games with children at a school on Malapascua island. A visit to deliver some donations and supplies we’d collected at our school turned into a spontaneous lesson – the height of invention present was a ballpoint pen! (And they loved it so much, they went back every day for the rest of the holiday.)

    1. Hi Louise! Thanks for reading my post and commenting on it. I feel very strongly about this topic as it is close to my heart so it was really sad that no one commented on it! It sounds like you’ve had some of the same experiences as me with Ghana in the Philippines.

      China must be a country full of contrasts and really interesting to live and work in. What amount of the population would have access to the internet in their homes? I imagine there is a huge disparity between rural and urban populations.

      Anyway, thanks again for your comment. I enjoyed reading it!

      1. Hi Merilyn,
        Yes It is immensely cool to be in China! After 5 years I still catch myself on the way back from the mall or something and I think ‘I’m on a bus IN CHINA!!’
        Yes, there is a huge disparity between city and country- and most of the young people have moved to the coast or the major cities. It’s weird in the country it’s full of old people and really young children! Lots of people call Shenzhen ‘China lite’ because it is an immensely wealthy city with a young migrant population with disposable income. Yet you can travel 3 hours and you really step back in time and access to technology. Statistics from 2012 say 42.3% internet access. That’s about 591million people I think a lot of this is on phones which people are permanently glued to! (I need to post a photo I took of an elderly woman on the bus in Yunnan, in full ethnic dress with a chicken in a basket and she was texting!)
        We get HK English language radio (and un censored news) and it’s heartening to hear the impact that ‘netizens’ have in China. Maybe they really can be a powerful force for change. Maybe Weibo CAN have an impact. I hope so.

  3. Great points, Merilyn! I’m wondering how quickly some more of these countries will “catch up” – is the pace of change faster now or just the same as when you lived in Ghana, for example? I know I was surprised at how much access I had to the internet in Burma this past December, where I thought it would be much more difficult. Maybe this is because of the location, the surrounding countries and their access and therefore the expectations within Burma itself, or just because they are able to “leapfrog” technology-wise faster than in Africa (for example).

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