What does it mean to have access to the internet? It’s an apparently simple question that gets complicated when we consider the wide variety of ways people access the web and products from the web. Indeed, the question is wrapped up in recent debates about zero rating, net neutrality, “the next billion” and numerous initiatives designed to bring people from the developing world online.
At Theorizing the Web this year, I presented research that combined my fieldwork and personal observations in developing world internet contexts like rural northern Uganda, urban China and rural Philippines with emergent research and journalism on the use of sneakernets–the physical transfer of data using devices like USB sticks or Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones–in places like Mali, North Korea and Cuba. These latter formed the basis for my talk and a recent paper in The New Inquiry, in which I draw from Jan Chipchase’s writing on binary thinking about connectivity and how this ultimately overlooks the vast diversity of ways that people do access the web and its products.
But what exactly is this binary of connectivity? Attendees at my talk asked me to define it, and I’d like to propose a working definition:
The connectivity binary is the view that there is a single mode of connecting to the internet — one person, one device, one always-on subscription.
The connectivity binary is grounded in a Western, urban, middle class mode of connectivity; this mode of connecting is seen as the penultimate realization of our relationship to the internet and communications technologies. Thinking in a binary way renders other modes of access invisible, both to makers and influencers on the internet and to advertising engines and big data, and it limits our understanding of the internet and its global impact.
I can imagine at least two axes of a connectivity spectrum: single vs. shared usage, and continuous vs. intermittent access. For many readers of Cyborgology, single usage, continuous access to the web is likely the norm. The most extreme example of this might be iconized in the now infamous image of Robert Scoble wearing Google Glass in the shower–we are always connected, always getting feeds of data our way.
Here’s how other sections of those axes might map to practices I’ve observed in different parts of the world. Imagine these at differing degrees away from the center of a matrix:
- Shared Usage, Continuous Access: I saved up to buy a laptop with a USB stick that my family of four can use. We take turns using it, and our connection is pretty stable.
- Single, Intermittent: I have a low-cost Chinese feature phone (maybe a Xiaomi), and I pay a few dollars each month for 10 MB of access. I keep my data plan off most of time.
- Shared, Intermittent: I walk all day to visit an internet cafe once every few months to check my Facebook account, listen to music on YouTube and practice my typing skills. I don’t own a computer myself.
For the purposes of simplicity, I’m assuming that we’re talking about devices that have one connection. But, of course, some devices have multiple connections (think of a phone with multiple SIMs) and some connections have multiple devices (think of roommates sharing a wifi router).
We can further diversify a connectivity spectrum by looking at other axes. Many users in urban China, for instance, might have single usage, continuous access to the web in some contexts, and intermittent access if they need to download and share sensitive material. In other spectrum, we can make a distinction between 3G access and SMS access, the latter made possible by SMS modes for certain web sites like Twitter and Wikipedia. These axes are necessarily reductive, but thinking through all the variables can give us a better vocabulary for articulating a spectrum.
Where Spectrum Meets Policy and Outreach
I make a distinction between the web and products from the web, especially when talking about sneakernets used in regions where formal, telecom-centric connectivity to the web either doesn’t exist or is extremely limited. It would be difficult to argue that viewers of South Korean soaps in North Korea are accessing the web; it’s more accurate to say they are accessing products from the web.* However, I think their mode of access should still be considered part of a (very broad) connectivity spectrum. I emphasize this because a better understanding of this spectrum can inform more productive policy and strategy decisions around reaching communities with different forms of communications technologies available to them.
What does this look like in practice? Right now, much of the global debate about internet access in developing contexts is focused on zero rating–the practice of providing free data usage for a limited number of services–, which includes but is not limited to Internet.org. Regardless of where you stand on these policies, it’s clear that zero rating hews closely to a single usage, continuous access view of connectivity, one that is expensive and logistically demanding. There are compelling examples of people and organizations operating effectively outside of the connectivity binary who are making an impact on a much shorter timeframe.
Activist strategies to spread media in North Korea are a recent, compelling example. With USB sticks and media viewers, activists are able to share digital products that don’t require a telecom internet to view and access. I’ve seen similar practices in urban China, even when telecom access is available, because this sneakernet strategy renders access to sensitive information invisible to internet monitors. Applications, of course, don’t have to be political; in rural India, store-and-forward programs leverage existing transportation networks to collect and share data in rural areas. Buses and other vehicles that regularly travel to rural regions can collect data from kiosks and then transfer those data to the broader internet when back in an urban setting.
In both rural Africa and urban North America**, mesh networks can connect a community with each other. JR Baldwin’s Tidepools project has brought connectivity to a community in Red Hook , and Steve Song’s Village Telco does the same in rural parts of developing countries. In these examples, there might be a node or two that connects to the broader internet, but most people’s day to day access exists primarily on the mesh networks. Indeed, mesh networks can exist alongside the telecom internet in other interesting ways. Though Firechat usage in Hong Kong was likely not as popular as many media outlets proclaimed, discussion around its usage revealed another compelling, if potentially insecure, use case.
And then there are programs that leverage other communications technologies that might be considered passé in a Western urban context. RapidSMS, implemented by UNICEF’s U-Report [link:https://www.rapidsms.org/projects/ureport/], takes advantage of the popularity of SMS on mobile feature phones to reach out to small communities and collect data. This SMS strategy is reflected in Twitter Samvad, a new initiative to make Indian politicians‘ tweets available via SMS, even for folks who don’t have Twitter accounts. At RightsCon Southeast Asia, Noemi Lardizabal-Dado and Jane Uymatiao talked about activists leveraging fax networks to quickly spread information in regions where people have limited direct web access.
There are many examples worth considering; these are just a few that help show the possibilities of meeting people where they are technologically, and not just where we think they should be. They show what’s possible when we think of connectivity as a spectrum, rather than as a binary.
We Need Better Maps
At Theorizing the Web, Nick Seaver asked about the unknowability of sneakernet research, i.e., that by its very nature, a sneakernet is difficult to map and fully understand. He’s right, of course: unless we interview absolutely everyone with a Bluetooth-enabled phone or a USB stick, we can only make general observations and not get into the level of specificity that a traditional network analysis might allow. I responded that the unknowability is part of what makes these practices beautiful, as they lie pretty much outside the realm of traditional data gathering methods.
In a follow-up Medium post, I called for graphic designers to make better maps of the diversity of ways the world accesses the web. As anyone who studies cartography knows, maps reflect the perspectives and biases of their makers. Maps of the internet often reinforce the connectivity binary, and, in particular, “dark spots” in these maps suggest that no form of access is happening. However, the internet and its products are having a surprising impact in parts of the world where formal, telecom-centric connectivity doesn’t exist or remains limited.
Ultimately, humans are visual creatures, and my goal in defining the connectivity binary is to help policy makers and strategists think past the telecom-centric view of the internet. Words help, and it’s been gratifying to see people responding so positively to the original paper and to my talk. However, I think images can have an even greater impact. Thus, I close this essay with a simple call-out to graphic designers: a map could help carry this story farther than an essay or talk can by themselves. The goal of a map that reflects the diversity of shared access is not to provide a full view of the dark spots in traditional maps of the web but rather to add shades of gray to our understanding of the internet in global and developing contexts.
An Xiao Mina researches the global internetz. She has presented her work at the Personal Democracy Forum, Microsoft Social Computing Symposium and in dimly lit, smoke-filled bars. Find her at @anxiaostudio on Twitter.
* One could argue that sneakernet access shouldn’t be considered a form of internet access, especially as sneakernet users don’t have upload capabilities. The ability to read and write seems to be a key aspect of web access, especially when we consider the benefits of network effects. But in my mind, the distinction continues to be blurry; teasing that out is probably worth an essay in itself, but to illustrate why the distinction gets messy, I think it’s worth considering a brief thought exercise.
Imagine someone who visits an internet cafe every few weeks to download movies to watch on her mobile phone. She only watches the movies for personal use, never uploads files or chats with anyone on the web, and doesn’t set up an account on social media or email. Now, imagine someone who lives deep in a rural part of the developing world. He owns a phone with movie-watching capabilities but doesn’t have access to internet cafes or 3G internet. He downloads movies via friends who share them via Bluetooth transfer, and he in turn shares those movies with many other friends.
These two individuals access and interact with digital products from the web in very different ways, and they are both being influenced by the internet and the ability to transfer files from the internet. Neither of them uploads to the web, but one is much more prolific at sharing and could in fact be considered a major node in the realm of his sneakernet. It’s worth considering how and why we might need to draw a distinction.
** I emphasize urban North America because there’s a major fallacy that all of the West is connected equally. Though I focus on developing contexts, it’s worth remembering that many parts of the rural United States have limited access to running water and electricity, much less the internet. Indeed, many urban areas in the US also experience limited access.