Race to wire the world may end up re-wiring us

n this Thursday, March 20, 2013 file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg  at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The race to bring Internet connectivity to the rest of the world has begun in earnest. The latest venture is a Facebook-led project called Internet.org, which plans to bring the Internet to “the next 5 billion” via a combination of cheaper phones, better data plans and more efficient smartphone apps. And that follows on the back of Google’s own quixotic plan (Project Loon) to bring Internet connectivity to out-of-the-way locales by connecting Wi-Fi antennas to giant helium-filled balloons. Leaving aside the question of whether or not these two projects are examples of Silicon Valley philanthropy or just a pragmatic way to add a few billion new Internet users, what will be the real legacy of bringing the Internet to the rest of the world?

While not all the details have been released on the new Internet.org site, it all sounds like the rest of the world that doesn’t have the Internet will soon get a version of “Internet lite” – cheaper smartphones that aren’t quite as good as what we have in the West, limited (but cheaper) data plans that don’t quite give you as much data as what we currently get with Verizon and AT&T, and a slower, more cumbersome Internet (Wi-Fi, not 4G) that’s good for sending text messages, but that’s about it. As Zuckerberg hinted, it may mean that the developing world may have to forgo much of the functionality of the apps we have today. People in Africa or Southeast Asia or Latin America may even have to shift to a text-centric Internet without all those bandwidth-hogging photos and videos we love to share in America.

In other words, who cares if the next 5 billion get smartphones with all the latest bells and whistles, as long as they’re signed up for Facebook and updating their friends with text messages on cheap, open-source phones? No wonder Bill Gates scoffed at Project Loon, Google’s first venture to bring Internet connectivity to the world, with the simple observation, “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you.”

The interesting thought experiment, though, is to consider what will happen when the rest of the world – “the next 5 billion” – actually does have the Internet and they’re texting and sharing and connecting the way Facebook, Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Nokia expect. No doubt, “the next 5 billion” will begin using the Internet in ways that we’ve never imagined and they will be devising solutions to problems that will seem truly innovative to us.

At that point, they will begin re-wiring us. It will be 5 billion people using the Internet in a certain way vs. 2.7 billion people using the Internet in another way. It doesn’t take a lot of back-of-the-envelope calculations to see what will happen, that things will “tip” in favor of the developing world.

We’ve already seen a foreshadowing of this when it comes to healthcare and finance in the developing world. In Africa, they’re actually ahead of the West when it comes to using mobile phones as the backbone of the financial system, especially for sending money via a peer-to-peer network. They’re ahead of the curve in using mobile phones to help doctors support populations in far-flung rural locations. The reason is clear: the developing world is starting with a mobile-first conception of the world, in which everything they need and know must be contained on a tiny screen and capable of working under iffy Internet connectivity conditions.

In a similar way, we’ve already seen what happens with our cultural exports to the developing world. Now that total film grosses depend on success in emerging markets like China, the Hollywood hit-making industry has radically changed gears to create the type of content that appeals to foreign audiences – noisy special effects, limited dialogue, and no confusing romantic scenes that might be difficult to explain to a culture with vastly different values. In short, Hollywood thought that it would change the Chinese, and the Chinese ended up changing us. The same thing might happen with Silicon Valley – we give them Facebook and cheap Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson phones, and they might give us an Internet that we recognize but that many of us didn’t expect.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Dominic Basulto | August 23, 2013