A response to an essay about mobile access not being real access to the Internet

Posted on November 5, 2013  /  1 Comments

This is not to dismiss the idea of connecting via mobile phones. I have spent the last few years researching the challenges of pulling together real connectivity and access for the poorest, and it’s no picnic. Infrastructure constraints, high taxes on imported computers, low income levels and connectivity problems all make the internet extremely challenging for the poorest to access. But is this a reason to give up entirely and focus on mobile instead as policymakers and researchers seem to be doing? At the Internet Governance Forum in Indonesia last week, the prevailing view was that the developing world would use mobile, end of story. But here’s a thought experiment: if you had only a smartphone and no access to a computer, what would your career and your life look like? Would you have been able to achieve whatever you’ve achieved so far? And what would you be planning to do next? The answer is probably not much. People in high-income countries wouldn’t choose to lose their computer: the Oxford Internet Institute’s recent survey of British internet use found that just 34 of 2,083 users were using a tablet instead of a PC. If you offered those tablet users just a mobile phone instead, one can assume even they would say no.

The mobile internet is great. But it can’t be treated as an end in itself. On even the best smartphone you can’t develop software, build anything new, or even produce meaningful amounts of content. You can use, but you can’t generate. Without the power to generate content and code, how is the next billion supposed to help develop the web and make it representative? But the most important argument against being satisfied with the mobile internet is that the internet’s about more than fun apps and social networking. It’s a library of Alexandria with open membership, and no one should be stuck outside, looking at it through a chink in the wall.

Above is an excerpt of a longer blog post by a thoughtful scholar. I found it because she had kindly linked to our work. Her essay should be read, not because it is right, but because it is a good example of a widely held wrong position. It’s a debate we keep engaging in, only to find the misconception re-emerging among people of good will. I laid out the argument in full to an academic audience in 2010, but who reads academic journals these days, even if they are available on the web for free?

The principal flaw is the thought experiment described above. Try applying the same thought experiment to books, instead of to the Internet. Does everyone use books in the same way; especially in the way that people who make a living from knowledge do?

I, and the author I am disagreeing with, belong to a special class. The books we read, most people do not. Rarely do normal people consume as many books as we do. The books that we read, we tend to read in odd ways: sometimes starting with the references; sometimes attacking the content through the index (the books we read tend to have these oddities unlike the popular fiction that most people read). It would be considered odd to generalize from our book reading behaviors to the general population, but that is exactly what the author is asking us to do with regard to the Internet.

The Internet is a metamedium, the most complex medium ever developed by humans. To expect everyone to use it the same way is wrong. There have to be as many ways of using the Internet as there are people, and perhaps more.

The second major flaw is the generalization from the capabilities of present technology. The smartphone I use now has more computing power than the Kaypro that I used in the mid 1980s. The software that is on my phone makes writing text easier than with the MTS word processing software that I used to write my dissertation on a dumb terminal in the early 1980s. I would be considered silly if I were to base claims on ease of use of either computing or word processing on those primitive technologies. But then why are we making general claims about technologies for connecting to the Internet based on a static snapshot of what today’s technologies can do?

Yes, some people need lots of bandwidth, low latency, negligible packet loss, etc. But for lots of other people, especially the people whose teleuse my organization tries to understand through surveys and qualitative research, the choice is not between high latency and low latency; it is between some connectivity and none.

I grew up in a country where people had to submit false medical certificates stating they had heart problems in order to obtain an unreliable fixed phone at high cost. Now pretty much every household has voice connectivity, and perhaps one in five (probably four by now) of my compatriots access the Internet, mostly over wireless platforms supplied for the most part by mobile operators.

Contention ratios cannot be controlled as in fixed networks, so, yes, quality is variable. But it is better than having no connectivity and it’s better than having to depend on a government Telecenter or a cyber café. We have workarounds for the problems we face; we have people in and out of government working on the changes needed to improve service quality; but even more, we have confidence that the dynamism of the competitive forces unleashed by liberalization will give us increasingly improved connectivity over time.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for your reply – these are all good points. As you note, this debate has been ongoing for some years in ITID and other fora, and it would be even better if it moved further into the public sphere in the countries which are still establishing internet access. The populations who are now coming online for the first time are going to use the internet in a huge variety of ways, and it’s important that mobile technology should continue developing rapidly to answer their needs. I would argue that mobile connectivity, telecentres, private internet cafes, school, business and home internet connections all have to be part of the picture as connectivity spreads, and that none should be disregarded. The resources available in different countries mean that some modes of access will take precedence over others – as mobile is clearly doing at the moment – but I would argue strongly that this should be a stepping stone rather than an end-point for policy, as some are claiming.
    I’d reiterate that it’s the *discourse* about mobile connectivity that may be problematic. One would have to be crazy to argue against increased connectivity and access – but it would also be unfortunate to stop pushing for more than just mobile connections. The mobile internet is both hugely important, and largely tethered technology. The phenomenal advocacy and evidence gathering LirneAsia conducts seem only to support the argument that more connectivity, and more options for internet users, are essential, and that people will make innovative use of whatever options become available. Thus more is more – I’m not sure we disagree on this.