Unequal Web Access isn’t the ‘Third World’s’ Problem

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Considering the many rights which we routinely see trampled upon in the news today, making the case of access to the internet seems a little frivolous. After all, this the era when millenials are pilloried for avocado toast on Instagram, whilst we’re told by a succession of psychologists and journalists that smartphones are destroying the kiddywinks (an idea that, for the record, is less sound than the moral panic behind it would suggest). Sherry Turkle, one of the great pioneers of ethnography online, has become one of the most vocal critics of the digital and its much vaunted murder of conversation/friendship and so on. Amongst her arguments are that by choosing to disconnect from Facebook and the rest of the usual suspects, we can achieve a higher quality of living.

There’s an assumption here that we’re all equally free to log off or ‘jack out’, to use the old cyberpunk expression – that we live in Turkle’s world of digital dualism, in which you and the cursor on the screen are separable. It rather ignores those whose livelihoods rest upon the connection to the internet: think of an Uber driver deciding to up and disconnect one day. Offline me-time – even if it were better than online me-time – is just not a possibility for many. But perhaps even more distressing is the failure to account for those unable to access the internet – not for playing Angry Birds with neighbours or posting holiday snaps, but for the very real reason of accessing work and the resources for self-betterment.

The image of the internet desert, when its mentioned, is usually in the context of the great undifferentiated ‘Global South’. Think of the massive swathes of rural India, where internet penetration still remains very patchy. And yet in Britain and America, these deserts are shockingly prevalent. Nearly 20 million Americans are locked out of broadband, according to a Motherboard piece from a few months ago: equivalent to nearly a third of the British population. Most of them are also in rural areas, worsening the understandable perception that urban elites don’t really care about the country. And in the UK, the same scenario is played out, albeit on a necessarily smaller scale.

The opportunity to participate in a global tech boom, engage in e-commerce and e-payments, or to even just receive the news about events going on outside of a small community are all undeniably valuable parts of the internet – and the opportunity remains unrealised for so many in the ‘developed world’. The US National Broadband Map (which ran until 2014) paints a sobering picture of this reality: outside of major metropolises, large parts of America remain caught in a largely pre-digital era.

And that maps with work done on news deserts, spaces where local (print) papers, unable to scrape together money from advertisers or from subscriptions, have simply had to close down. Some have been bought out by conglomerates like Gannett, a few have banded together at a local level, but many have already died out (and many more are likely to do so). For rural communities losing the traditional lifeline to news in the form of the small town paper, the failure of broadband providers to support them seems a double-whammy. For a populace to be well-educated on complex political issues, it will take more than platitudes and hand-wringing from urban centres.

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