So What Do We Lose If We Don’t Have The Internet?

Posted on February 20, 2010

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So what do we lose if we don’t have the internet?

This isn’t a trick question. I’m currently in Sri Lanka, a country which has had a long and interesting history of telecentres/community technology initiatives (they call them Nenasalas).

The most recent program, launched in 2004 with major funding from the World Bank under the auspices of the newly formed Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA) the program I was told, had been responsible for the creation of some 600 telecentres throughout Sri Lanka. I was further told however, that of these 600 only some 100 were still operating and many of those had shifted over to become for profit ventures more akin to cybercafés than to public access telecentres.

The larger context for this is that Sri Lanka is a heavily rural society 78% of the population according to UNESCO with some 13,000 villages.  Thus even if e-Sri Lanka had succeeded with its telecentre program it would have only represented a drop in a very large rural bucket towards broad based Internet access and a “crossing of the digital divide”.  On the other hand Sri Lanka, as with all the countries of South and South East Asia have taken to mobile communications with an overwhelming passion (60% overall penetration in 2009 —as compared to 4.7 % Internet penetration (ITU).

And this should be seen in the context of some quite significant comment and critique by very knowledgeable Sri Lanka communications analysts http://lbo.lk/fullstory.php?nid=1024820944 and http://lirneasia.net/2009/10/sri-lanka-a-nenasala-telecenter-%E2%80%93-the-story-of-two-photos/ .

This is all completely consistent with my own impressions from some travels in and about rural Sri Lanka (in fact, everywhere outside of a few pockets in Colombo) where the Internet was virtually invisible (i.e. no public access facilities, no Internet access visible in shops, no URL’s as part of shop or billboard advertising, irritated negative responses to queries in hotels and so on and so on. The only Internet access was available through the quite sparsely distributed cybercafés which were dominated by 16-24 year old males rather loudly playing games. It was rather like traveling in other parts of the world some ten years ago when the Internet was a relatively new and somewhat exotic phenomenon for most people and markedly different from country such as Malaysia and Vietnam which seem to have gone over some invisible digital height of land and are now cruising forward and building outward into underserved areas and populations from an almost pervasive Internet/digital infrastructure.

Meanwhile it should be noted that every farmer in the field and every passenger on the bus seems to be in more or less constant and animated communication with someone via their mobile (one other element that should be noted here is that the cost of mobile communication both voice and text in Sri Lanka and even internationally from Sri Lanka is astoundingly cheap – at least for someone coming from North America – with rates per minute more in the vicinity of skype charges than what I am accustomed to).

So there is the question, given that the major program for bringing Internet into the countryside was not only inconsequential in terms of the requirements, had visibly failed but it is also in the process of sunsetting along with the overall-Sri Lanka initiatives of which it is a part; and given that mobile communication is moving towards universality in Sri Lanka (and not incidentally that the mobile operators are moving towards providing broadband access for those willing to pay for it); is there, then a reason to still be concerned with providing Internet into rural areas of Sri Lanka (and by extension into somewhat national contexts such as South Africa and many if not most other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa?

Or to put the question another way—what do we lose if we (or rural Sri Lankans) only have mobile communications with optional access to the Internet and we by-pass the personal computer completely? What happens if that becomes the communications paradigm for a range of countries such as Sri Lanka who, having not managed to effectively respond to the digital divide to this point, decide basically to give up the fight and leave it all to the ambitions and creativity of the mobile operators.

I spent most of an afternoon tossing that question around with Chanuka Wattegama of LIRNEasia and Isura Silva of FUSION a division of Sarvodaya of which I will write in a later blog—two of the most knowledgeable people in this area in the country. I won’t presume to put words in their mouth so what follows will be my reflections on and subsequent to our discussion.

The first thing that is lost is the most obvious but perhaps of the most impact and that is the absence of the PC with the simple office programs—word processing, spreadsheets, presentation etc.—software means that the diffusion of the skills that go along with the use of this type of software is absent.  The effect of this may be limited for those in subsistence economic situations but it does limited the possible “professionalization” of the range of economic and administrative activities for those who otherwise would be unlikely to move in that direction without some external pressure or incentive.

This may be of particular significance in the context of primary and particularly secondary schooling where those with direct access to computing (and the Internet) particularly in the home but in the absence of this through some public access facility are able to produce better looking assignments, undertake research assignments better, follow up on course work as might be useful and so on.  So the abandonment of public access computing may be a further form of discrimination placed upon low income and rural school attendees as compared to their higher income and urban counterparts who inevitably have better access to these facilities.

A second thing that is lost is the access to the broader range of information, news, opinions, personal contacts that are so readily accessible via the Internet.  Mobile communications of course allow for all of this either through one to one communications or via mobile Internet but in the first instance there is the need to already have knowledge of what it is one is seeking before one establishes the contact (knowing someone’s name and number as a minimum requirement) which limits the range of access/reference that is likely to occur. Similarly the incremental cost that would go with exploration on a mobile would almost certainly restrict most users from going much beyond the usual restricted pathways for obtaining information.

From a “developmental” perspective there are additional limitations.  “Development” is increasingly being seen as a holistic if incremental change that is change occurs on a number of dimensions at the same time or in close proximity to each other.  Hence the  newer approaches to development that focus on literacy, health, women’s rights, as well as income/employment and so on. From this perspective the relatively narrow channels through which messages and information necessarily must flow in mobile communications – point to point, individual to individual, transaction centric and so on – is a restriction on the developmental influence of the device.

Computing with the Internet allows for a much wider range of communication and interaction including video, radio, multi-party, global reach and so on. Thus creating a developmental program or initiative including an PC and Internet based component and f2f components are able to address multiple issues related to the desired goal rather than only narrowly focused and primarily transaction or person to person interaction based ones.

But over all of this there is a question as to whether a country like Sri Lanka can in fact enter into the modern digital era without extending digitization and digital literacy much much more widely into the larger population.  Each of the particular specific applications, or information units, or transactions that one might wish to see become universally available in say rural and low income Sri Lanka may, if one is sufficiently clever and determined be programmed in such a way that they can be provided exclusively through the use of mobiles.  However, it is the overall creation of a digital platform, a digital awareness and set of expectations and assumptions that is lost when “you don’t have the Internet” and it is these ultimately which provide the foundation from which digital creativity and innovation can flow and by means of which a country like Sri Lanka can go through that phase change to shift from a pre-digital society to a digital society and thereby lay the foundation for transitioning into an Information Economy.