By SRINIVAS BALAGOPAL
Editorial & Web Editor
Many a “back in my day” story has begun with an anecdote about the arduous journey of a physical letter from one person to another. Today, communication is as easy as hitting the Home button on our iPhones. We are enabled to talk with others regardless of distance. FaceTime dominates our personal networks with those close to and far away from us, and video conferencing is emerging as the new norm for the professional workspace. In short, we have advanced significantly in the realm of face-to-face connection. But who exactly is “we”?
According to the United Nations, more than 4 billion people, or three-fifths of the world population, lack access to the Internet or any form of social media, and in the U.S., that number lies at a startling 60 million. Worldwide access to the Internet has been propounded as a cause similar to solving world hunger or feminism. But what would our world actually look like if we all had access to the Internet?
Let’s imagine that in the future all 7.4 billion people had access to the Internet, and by extension, access to the various social media that bind only some of our communities today. The idea of one global connection seems like an impossible dream. But let’s take this further: imagine that, in the very distant future, humanity had technology that would allow us to instantly recognize and interact with any person, anywhere in the world, at the tips of our fingers. Not only would we be able to connect with people we knew well, but we could also connect with others whom we didn’t know well but who had similar interests as us.
For example, a doctor in the U.S. could work with a miracle doctor in a remote village of a developing country, who held the cure for cancer but simply did not have the means of communicating his or her findings to the world. Social activist movements would expand ten-fold across the global stage. Rather than only publicizing movements that begin in Washington, D.C., news companies could more publicly broadcast smaller movements that start in Cameroon, for instance.
Let’s hit closer to home: Silicon Valley is world-renowned for the sheer number of startups that both succeed and fail. With complete global access to the Internet, individuals who live in countries of lower socio-economic status could create their own startups. The idea of Silicon Valley could exist in every country on Earth to cater to a worldwide audience. The wealth of knowledge amassed by individuals currently without the Internet or mobile communication would be too great an opportunity to be missed.
But the negative possibilities are also tremendously great. Governments would have increased access to every individual in the world. Jokes about the NSA’s intrusive surveillance on us civilians could very well become our reality. If every individual had an increased global presence, our privacy and Internet rights could be severely compromised. Even today, the regulations surrounding net neutrality have made the Internet a place for corporations to flex their monetary muscles. In the future, wars could not only be waged with arms, but also on the Internet. Countries’ strength would be measured not by their military might, but by the complexity of their Internet operations. Nations like Russia and North Korea could literally reign supreme. With a complete worldwide audience, ordinary cyber bullies could transform into Internet despots and threaten to destabilize countries.
For some of us in the world, the Internet has become a life necessity. There is no doubt that people of both developing and developed nations need to have access to mobile communication. We would have to more than double the number of people in the world who have Internet access today. We could be tapping into a gold mine for humanity. But we could also be creating humanity’s nightmares: oppressive government surveillance over the world, or global anarchy. The Internet will continue to shape our future, but we cannot let our privacy rights hang in the flux. An executive at a World Economic Forum meeting once said, “Governing the Internet is trying to govern human nature.”
We can only begin to imagine how true that