How is the web going to shape knowledge amongst the world’s poorest people? Perhaps through services offered by mobile providers such as Airtel, which announced yesterday that Wikipedia will be available via SMS to Kenyan mobile phone subscribers. This is an important step forward: Kenya has been a leader in channelling services and applications through mobile phones for lowest-income people, having started with the world’s most successful and high-profile mobile money service. It’s the leader in devising ways to get content and services to those who previously had no access at all.
This announcement also has implications, though, for the way that the web is likely to shape knowledge, research and innovation in low-income countries, and it’s not all good news. While of course people without access to computers and broadband internet, not to mention libraries and education, should have access to all the information it’s possible to channel in their direction, the problem is just that: that the internet is being channelled rather than opened up. So this announcement provokes two important questions. First, is the mobile internet really the best that can be done? And second, if it is, what does that say about the possibility of ICT-based development in low-income countries?
Jonathan Zittrain has offered a great explanation of why some devices are more open-ended than others in terms of the access they offer to the internet. Tethered modes of access such as Apple devices, the X-box and AOL, channel the user into a world where a certain view or set of products predominates, sometimes to the exclusion of all others. Similarly having access to apps on your mobile phone, or just to SMS as a channel of information from the web, provides a highly filtered view of what’s available and doesn’t allow people to search, to explore and to produce their own content. Airtel’s new service, for example, won’t remedy the lack of African contributions to Wikipedia. User contribution is what makes Wikipedia useful and relevant. For most developing countries, the top search term (according to Google trends) is the name of the country itself, suggesting that people start from the point of wanting information about domestic and local issues. What will it be like to receive inaccurate articles about your own country by SMS, without being able to edit them or produce better ones?
The surveys of ‘bottom of the pyramid’ internet users conducted by LirneAsia’s network shows the effects of this app bubble. Mobile internet users frequently report that they are not internet users, but also say that they are using Facebook via a mobile connection. Many use ‘Facebook’ as a synonym for the web itself. So is the internet for the ‘next billion’ users going to be nothing but skeletal access to a collection of shortcuts to social networking sites?
This is not to dismiss the idea of connecting via mobile phones. I have spent the last few years researching the challenges of pulling together real connectivity and access for the poorest, and it’s no picnic. Infrastructure constraints, high taxes on imported computers, low income levels and connectivity problems all make the internet extremely challenging for the poorest to access. But is this a reason to give up entirely and focus on mobile instead as policymakers and researchers seem to be doing? At the Internet Governance Forum in Indonesia last week, the prevailing view was that the developing world would use mobile, end of story. But here’s a thought experiment: if you had only a smartphone and no access to a computer, what would your career and your life look like? Would you have been able to achieve whatever you’ve achieved so far? And what would you be planning to do next? The answer is probably not much. People in high-income countries wouldn’t choose to lose their computer: the Oxford Internet Institute’s recent survey of British internet use found that just 34 of 2,083 users were using a tablet instead of a PC. If you offered those tablet users just a mobile phone instead, one can assume even they would say no.
The mobile internet is great. But it can’t be treated as an end in itself. On even the best smartphone you can’t develop software, build anything new, or even produce meaningful amounts of content. You can use, but you can’t generate. Without the power to generate content and code, how is the next billion supposed to help develop the web and make it representative? But the most important argument against being satisfied with the mobile internet is that the internet’s about more than fun apps and social networking. It’s a library of Alexandria with open membership, and no one should be stuck outside, looking at it through a chink in the wall.