As Internet penetration levels continue to rise, there is a danger of complacency if we assume that digital connectivity is an equivalent for genuine inclusion.
The 21st century is facing a ‘digital deployment paradox’. The Internet was supposed to herald a new era of inclusion and citizenship. The ubiquity of Internet access was expected to provide unprecedented levels of transparency, participation, legitimacy and equality around the world. And it has on some level, with more three billion now using the Internet, up from about 700 million in 2000, with more people coming online every day.
But there is also a sense of growing division and distrust about our institutions and the technology powering them. According to Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer, while the college-educated elite demonstrate increasing levels of trust and confidence in major institutions such as government, business, NGOs, and the media, the remainder of the population – 85% – is losing faith fast.
According to a recent Oxfam study it’s not only trust that is in decline; the proportion of wealth owned by the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, representing a drop of 38%. During the same period, the wealth of the richest 62 has increased by more than half a trillion dollars to $1.76 trillion.
This is the essence of the digital deployment paradox; despite – or even, due to – the manner in which Web connectivity is being propagated globally, it is doing little to close the gap between the prosperous and influential, and the rest. And this isn’t simply a philosophical debate; such inequalities inflict a cost on everyone. According to research recently published in the Harvard Business Review, societies with sustained and pronounced inequalities are systematically and measurably less content than those with a more equitable distribution of resources. The study affirms that as the incomes of the 1% pull away from those of the rest, people’s overall life satisfaction is lower and their day-to-day negative emotional experiences are greater in number. These symptoms are not limited to the disadvantaged, however; as other research confirms, unhappy workers tend to be less productive, they are more likely to take longer sick leaves, and to quit their jobs.
So, what is the role or (fault?) of the Internet in all this?
Firstly, given the abundance of ‘upward sloping’ penetration and deployment graphs amongst the so-called ‘tech savvy’ classes, there is a huge risk of complacency. Internet deployment per se, is not an equivalent for genuine economic and social inclusion; simply put – a Web connection should not absolve society from continuing to address inequalities at all levels.
Secondly, Internet access still represents one of the most effective ways to bridge social and economic divides; but revised regulation, policy or business practice may be required to transform connectivity into a real force for inclusion. For example, recent studies have shown that mobile broadband is much more expensive in developing countries than developed ones (in absolute and relative terms). Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf recently warned that governments risk fragmenting the Internet and its openness by imposing too many different and incoherent regulatory regimes and laws.
Thirdly, none of the above represents a conflict with either national or commercial interests. On the contrary, non-inclusion exerts a measureable cost on the whole of society in terms of wellbeing, productivity, competiveness etc.
Finally, the above is a ‘new science’ we are in genuinely unchartered territory; but the issues and opportunities are global. Issues such as the optimal number of operators per country from a societal perspective, the ideal level of governmental intervention and regulation to achieve genuine inclusion, the role of business and commercial interests in the debate, and any technical barriers (or opportunities) relating to the same, are all on the agenda. And the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Various regions are coming up with different answers based on their respective cultural, social and economic differences. American operators are urging regulators to allow the top four U.S. telecom providers to merge into three companies. On the other hand, the head of European operator Orange has said that the past 20 years of regulation and pro-competition policies in Europe have left the continent’s telecoms operators “in a fragile state” compared with their international peers and that industry consolidation is necessary for investment.
Whether and how policy makers, equipment vendors, operators, content providers, NGOs and other interested parties collaborate to address these issues will shape – not merely the Internet of tomorrow – but the entire society of tomorrow.