Last week Facebook in partnership with other big names announced the Internet.org project which is aimed at connecting the next 5 billion to the Internet. Many similar initiatives for increasing Internet access exist and include Google’s Project Loon for spreading signals via floating ballons and another by Zuckerberg – Facebook for Every Phone that minimizes Facebook data consumption in developing countries.
Access to information has been considered as a tool for empowering those who have been hitherto neglected. It is therefore understandable when projects aimed at improving connectivity in all countries spring up. Majority of individuals targeted by these projects are in Africa and Asia. The developed world too still has a significant number of people who are yet to be connected; for example it is estimated that 20% of adult population in the US do not use Internet in the office, at home, neither via mobile devices. Connecting everyone on the planet is certainly beneficial as this connectivity will increase knowledge sharing and generation of new knowledge and opportunities through the web. Companies trading online will also expand the customer-base as markets in developed world is nearing saturation so Google, Facebook and others must look elsewhere for new customers. Zuckerberg is well aware of this. “There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy. Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it” he said.
If all without Internet access get connected, then these people are likely to get access to resources and markets that they are currently blind to. However, critics of the project including former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates have pointed to the dilapidated circumstances the developing countries are under that should be sorted out first. Bill Gates recently criticized Google’s Project Loon in an interview with Businessweek, saying “when a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”
Taking Internet to world’s poorest is a noble cause, but it won’t do much good unless people also have the resources to use it. Projects that target poverty eradication, improvements in education, stabilization of health provision and job creation are necessary before Internet to everyone is justifiable. A commentator in one of the blog sites compares giving out Information Technology products to the poor to “those d-bag art students that were giving homeless people glitzy signs. Sure it’s nice to have [glitzy signs], but it still doesn’t solve the most important and basic problems”, that is, homelessness.
In my opinion, what makes the points championed by critics stronger is that Information Technology alone does not create wealth; rather, it helps in wealth redistribution. Technology in general aid in lowering the raw material conversion costs, particularly Information Technology helps in identifying resource markets, educating producers on the most up to date and efficient resource conversation processes, and to both producers and consumers it helps identify the market locations. However, physical resources to be converted into finished products must be provided, transformed into goods and services, and final products made accessible through well developed infrastructures. Having a mobile phone with free Internet access while hungry, wearing tattered clothes and walking in an emaciated body is mockery.
This then means that those who have attacked Bill Gates position have not got the point. I doubt if Gates, having been a Technology guru for decades, cannot see the immediate benefits that access to information provides. Studies have been done that reveal how Information Technology has helped individuals fight diseases, hunger, and poverty in general. But society should never forget Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Real food must be provided to an hungry wo[man]. Real drugs must be given to cure Malaria. Real shelter must be given to the homeless. Better transport infrastructure must be constructed to enhance movement of goods and services. Industries must be developed to stabilize economies in developing word. Solutions to these, however, will not come from Facebook and Google. Governments and stakeholders in control of underdeveloped economies must pull up their socks in bettering their citizens’ standard of living so that Facebook’s and Google’s projects do not become a mockery.
After basic wants have been satisfied, we will be more than happy to receive 100% Internet connectivity.