The world is celebrating the 25th birthday of world wide web (more specifically, the conception of the www rather than the birth). To join in the celebrations researchers from Pew Research Center in collaboration with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Project conducted studies titled Web at 25 summarizing the impacts and uptake of Internet over the years mainly in US and Digital life in 2025 that offers predictions on how the Internet will be in 2025.
A number of websites have summarized the report by Pew Research Center and wrote articles on the same. Some of the articles on Digital life in 2025 can be found here, here, and here. In a nutshell, experts have predicted that in 2025, the internet will offer increased awareness of own self and self of others through information sharing via platforms such as social networks, availability of information in the go – people won’t seek information but will be in the information, breakage of geographical barriers due to increased interactions and communication between people in different parts of the globe hence governments may lose control over own people, and free access to education materials (Khan Academy is an example – by the way you need to enroll for a course in Khan Academy as they offer high quality training on a number of course for free. Wikiversity is also trying to cope up). These points can be summarized that internet is envisioned to enable:
- A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things.
- “Augmented reality” enhancements to the real-world input that people perceive through the use of portable/wearable/implantable technologies.
- Disruption of business models established in the 20th century (most notably impacting finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts, and education).
- Tagging, databasing, and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms.
But is is not all rosy. It is also being predicted that the internet will continue to cause threats to individuals and nations thanks to increasing institutionalization of cyber attacks and cyber wars, eliminate privacy, create loneliness and the worst of them all increase the gap between the rich and the poor. These negative impacts of the internet that are envisaged to escalate over the coming decade is my interest for today. How can we, as a society, kill these negatives impacts of the Internet? Let’s start with wealth inequality.
Negative impact of the Internet on wealth gap
When I first read the report and saw the prediction that the Internet could lead to widening the gap between the rich and the poor I was taken aback. Among other predictions, it is being foreseen that more and more people will get connected online as the years progress and these people will be enabled not only to get more information (e.g. the type of information available on this blog site and Wikipedia) but also access free but quality education via portals such as Khan Academy. It has also been taken for granted that access to education and information lowers poverty levels hence reduced wealth/income inequalities. Internet also offers opportunities for individuals and businesses in terms of being able to obtain information necessary for inventions and innovations, marketing, research, and connectivity. These are not only opportunities for individual/corporate economic growths but also opportunities for accessing resources that have hitherto been available to the haves only.
So I really do not understand how increased connectivity to the internet among people and institutions will contribute to widening, instead of shrinking, the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The only reason why anyone would foresee a widening of the gap is the concept of digital divide. Digital divide has existed primarily because of affordability of both the gadgets (and the entire infrastructure) for accessing the internet and the internet itself. For example, at the dawn of 21st century, internet access in a country like Kenya was a preserve of the wealthiest in the country. During the years prior to 2008, it would be prestigious of anyone to say that they had Internet at home. To access internet services, one had to visit a cyber cafe and pay over shs 10 per minute.
But since 2008 onward, thanks to fiber-optics roll-out and provision of internet by all the telecos at affordable rates, many Kenyans not only have internet at home but also access internet services on the go via their mobile phones. Internet access via mobile phones continue to increase especially as the cost of smartphones continue to lower (well it used to lower before the VAT bill), so we expect many Kenyans and Africans in general to acquire smartphones and have internet access at an increasing rate.
The cost of internet access has also decreased although it has not reached a level where everyone can, without minding about the budget, access internet contents ranging from high quality videos to simple text based web pages at will 24/7. Organizations such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Ericsson and others are talking about lowering the cost of Internet and potentially connecting the other 5 billion people online in the next few years. Their approaches include lowering the cost of mobile devices, creating apps that consumer less data, and providing some of the content for free e.g. free Wikipedia or free Facebook on mobile devices.
Given the availability of programmes and policies to address digital divide, I strongly believe that the Internet will not, in any significant manner, contribute to widening the wealth gap but could significantly lower the same due to the aforementioned opportunities the internet offers. We only need to accelerate the adoption of the programmes in order to kill the possible negative impact of the internet on wealth gap.
Negative impact of the internet on social life
Ever since the inception of social media the internet has been blamed for making people isolated, anti-social, and lonely freaks who only have virtual friends. An individual, for instance, can spend hundreds of hours online chatting with unknown friends or playing online games with unknown people in total disregard of attention needed by physical friends and family. There are those I know who have been forced to settle domestic squabbles every now and then as they spend most of their time playing games with strangers for hours yet cannot take a moment to enquire how their spouses spent their day or notice the change in hair style. In addition, individuals are not making new physical friends at the rate they are making virtual friends whom they hardly meet.
But as much as there are valid grounds to have fear on the negative impact the internet has on social life, the research by Pew Research Center reveals a contrary finding. Pew Research Center reports that “Most internet users think online communication has strengthened their relationships” as “67% of internet users say their online communication with family and friends has generally strengthened those relationships, while 18% say it generally weakens those relationships.” The internet, as tool for enabling communication between family members even when one of the family members is away, has also contributed greatly to helping the “strangers” e.g. Kenya for Kenyans and the contributions during Westgate attack. Personally I got my first job solely through the Internet, managed to travel across Africa for work related purposes, and performed other work related duties online without physically meeting my employer or any of my work colleges. Even after working for the same company for over five years, I left the job before I could physically meet my employer or any of my workmates.
How can we therefore kill the negative impacts of the Internet on social life? I think we only need to hope that the education people get online will include education on how to balance between online experience on the one hand and family and friends on the other. This balancing cannot be achieved through any policy or legal frameworks.
Privacy and security concerns
It will reach a time when data about you will just be available online even without your input. There were days when people did not have electricity, then there was time people didn’t have phones, then there was a time they did not have mobile phones, then there was a time they didn’t have the Internet…as they got these technological inventions, they suddenly realized they cannot live without them. Today, it is easier to live without television but quiet impossible to live without the mobile phones let alone the internet. Before phones, privacy was guaranteed. Phones came and people learnt how to live with their phone numbers being available in public directories – it wasn’t a big deal.
Then the Internet came and more information about them became available online. Then mobile phones and Facebook and Twitter and Google came – now guys are worried about their information being available online but as at now we can quarantine the type of information we avail online. But smartphones have come alongside other wearable smart gadgets like Google Glass, Smartwatches, Fitness bracelets, and numerous others that automatically gather information about us and store the very information online in an era where we have NSA, Snowden, and Wikileaks. However, just as we felt comfortable with our landline phone numbers being available on public directories, we shall be able to cope with privacy issues when 2025 comes.
On security, what I think we should do is to de-commercialize the Internet security industry. The anti-viruses, security vaults and other network security systems like those provided by Cisco and Microsoft should be institutionalized by governments same way governments provide security via Police and Army services. But if online security remain a commercial venture, online security providers will always ensure there are security threats to make you opt in for their security services.
What other negative impacts of the Internet do you think are out there and how can we kill them?