Global Internet population and knowledge
April 19, 2012 7:14 PM   Subscribe

The world's Internet population has doubled in the last 5 years, reaching 2.27 billion. A recently published ebook Geographies of the World's Knowledge shows that despite its growing availability knowledge is not necessarily "more accessible." "Many commentators speculated that [the Internet] would allow people outside of industrialised nations to gain access to all networked and codified knowledge, thus mitigating the traditionally concentrated nature of information production and consumption." "These early expectations remain largely unrealised." It was found that not only academic knowledge but also user generated content predominantly originates in "rich countries, especially the United States."
posted by travelwithcats (33 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Plemer at 7:23 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The conclusion here was something I felt was true for years, even back in '95-'96, when there seemed to be an explosion of optimism. Still, useful to confirm reality with numbers.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:27 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit confused by this. They talk about the need to gain access to knowledge and information, then they talk about the generation of this knowledge. These are two separate things. Production is a fundamentally different concept than consumption. Yet they seem to be equating them.

It seems pretty obvious that the generation is going to take place where there is more wealth and Universities and academic and corporate research and libraries, etc.

If the Internet didn't exist, then their argument would make perfect sence, I would think that the good thing about the Internet is that this concentrated information is now available throughout the world.
posted by eye of newt at 7:34 PM on April 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

The US fails to save the world again; will still wear both arms out patting itself on the back anyway.
posted by narcoleptic at 7:34 PM on April 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Of course the US originates the most user-generated content. We have the most cats.
posted by Blue Meanie at 7:45 PM on April 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

I had the same thought as Eye of Newt. If anything, it's non-wealthy countries that aren't sharing.
posted by PJLandis at 7:55 PM on April 19, 2012

I'm a bit confused by this. They talk about the need to gain access to knowledge and information, then they talk about the generation of this knowledge. These are two separate things. Production is a fundamentally different concept than consumption. Yet they seem to be equating them.

I see the purpose of this article as being more ammo in the shotgun against the Zombie Thomas Friedman Concept of the "flat world", showing that in fact it's much more mountainous than many people think, in both senses, producing and consuming.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:56 PM on April 19, 2012

eye of newt has it right. The data is inherently interesting, but not in the way the same way being argued. That argument makes no sense.

In the book's foreword, Corinne Flick of the Convoco Foundation reluctantly concludes that the Internet has not delivered on the hopes that it would make knowledge "more accessible."

And that's not true because the rich countries produce most of the content? Huh?

StrikeTheViol: I see the purpose of this article as being more ammo in the shotgun against the Zombie Thomas Friedman Concept of the "flat world", showing that in fact it's much more mountainous than many people think, in both senses, producing and consuming.

I don't see any data about consumption.
posted by Defenestrator at 8:00 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot of great cat videos are coming out of Japan these days.
posted by Flashman at 8:23 PM on April 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

In the 1990s, we were told something about how internet uses doubled every six months, so any business model with a web site was gonna soar to the moon. The moon, I tell you!
posted by Yakuman at 8:27 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can make the consumption argument by inference from page 14 of the document itself (PDF).
posted by StrikeTheViol at 8:32 PM on April 19, 2012

A lot of great cat videos are coming out of Japan these days.

posted by Talez at 8:48 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's better to have an information divide than no information.
posted by recurve at 9:00 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

People outside of industrialised nations have seen a 100-fold increase in their access to LOLcats, boner pill ads and 140-character pearls of wisdom, as well as experiencing an unprecedented increase in their ability to 'Like' things. It's a new era.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:25 PM on April 19, 2012

A friend of mine spent a year in Butha-Buthe, Lesotho teaching junior high school students.

There's a test at the end of junior high in Lesotho that's a very big deal. If you scored high enough you could get a scholarship to a high school in the capitol. For people living in the outlying cities this was one of the only ways to realistically leave their towns.

Almost no one from her village in Butha-Buthe ever went because they did not have the course materials to keep up with the bigger cities. Peace Corps volunteers would sometimes be able to pick up a textbook here or there but there was simply a physical problem -- getting high quality course materials in the needed quantities was impossible.

That junior high school now has a website and about 3 students a year are going to the capitol, and it's not because the country's education budget suddenly improved. Bits and bytes travel much cheaper than books and with the explosion of cell phones in Lesotho there are enough data connections and printouts to go around.

Related to that: The week she was leaving, one of her best students asked her to come to his hut so he could show her something. He was very excited about it; It was the first thing he had ever owned himself.

So she went and had tea with the parents and when the time came he brought out a cloth package and unwrapped: A book. She's forgotten what the book was about, but it was pretty clear that it was incidental to the boy as well. It was a symbol -- he had already read his way through the village library, and by darn he was the kind of person who would own and cherish a book.

Today that same kid would have all of Wikipedia in his hand, all of Project Gutenberg, all of the free lectures from schools and universities. You can bet he would be in the capitol for high school and in another country for college.

Sadly there is a statistically small chance that he would return to Lesotho to help make things better (that sort of thing only ever happens in Peace Corps brochures) but a great mind may have been unleashed into the world. At the very least a questing and active mind wouldn't be slowly going to pot in a diamond mine because there were no other opportunities.

Because that's what happened to the boy my friend knew, the one who grew up before the internet came to Butha-Buthe. His only real opportunity was to be a miner and he took it.

So don't tell me that the promise of universal access to networked information is "largely unrealized". People in the education business -- both those who educate others and those who seek to educate themselves -- have very real access to the networked library of mankind, and they are making very real use of it.

The author may not see it, but we are living through a great renaissance right now. There are certain types of minds -- very creative, very determined, and very thirsty for knowledge -- that we as a race have wasted for years. A thousand Einsteins have lived and died in a thousand remote villages, far from the libraries they needed. They don't have to do that any more.

We finally brought the library to them.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:49 PM on April 19, 2012 [134 favorites]

We finally brought the library to them.

Right, for a certain subset of them. The post argues that the "them" is much smaller than many people working with technology realize, which is actually really important, in my view. I've only ever seen the opposing view argued via anecdotes. It's important because people read these stories, develop an exaggerated sense of the power and impact of the current internet, and think that somehow, if enough people get low-bandwidth connections to the English Wikipedia, anyone who's smart enough will simply bootstrap themselves to prosperity, just like "the kids I heard about in Lesotho" or "the Indian farmer I met in Punjab" (another sexy idea garnering several awards over four years, that serves a mere 20,000 people).
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:47 PM on April 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

The world's Internet population has doubled

Too much unsafe cybersex, obviously.
posted by Decani at 5:25 AM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is why i translate and post all my revisionist history and global conspiracy web content into spanish, farsi, and cambodian pages. It is easier to convince newcomers of bald-faced lies if the content is easily accessible to them.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:27 AM on April 20, 2012

I've read some terrifying Mathusian projections that if the Internet population keeps growing at the current rate it will outpace spam production by 2030.
posted by any major dude at 6:47 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you just misspelled "Malthusian" to sneak that through my spam filters, didn't you?

Consider your insidious project exposed.
posted by Wolof at 7:12 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

The post argues that the "them" is much smaller than many people working with technology realize

Yes, but it doesn't do a very good job of it.

For example, countries with fewer than 2,000,000 Internet users were removed from the user visualization graphic.

Losotho has a population of 1,900,000. It is only one of the 96 (out of 248) countries that would not show up even with 100% penetration. Hell, Ireland only has a population of 4,500,000 . You better hope all the Grandmas and Grandpas are online or suddenly that map shows the Emerald Isle as an information wasteland.

If you want more useful information, look at cell phone penetration rates. The effective edge of the Internet (ignoring satellites) is the edge of cell phone coverage, something that comes to smaller and smaller communities each year. There is a point when the finances don't make sense any more, but it doesn't appear to have been hit yet -- the third world telecoms are buying equipment like crazy in expectation of adding millions of users per year.

It would be nice to see their graph redone with current data (they use 2008) and without throwing out the smaller countries where most of the interesting strides are taking place. A delta from 2008-2012 would be interesting.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:10 AM on April 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is actually my research area. I speak from years of reading and listening and mostly working with big national datasets for my own work.

Sadly, the real story here is that the internet amplifies inequalities. In most 'developing' countries, those with access (and meaningful access with a PC and affordable fairly fast connection and access to sites in a language they can read and content for them) are elites. They, already privileged, are benefiting more whereas the lower socioeconomic people are.

I can post some of my lecture notes if people are interested. Sorry to be a bummer.
posted by k8t at 7:47 PM on April 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

k8t, I'd love to read through those.
posted by hackwolf at 8:32 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Me too, k8t!
posted by StrikeTheViol at 9:07 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd be interested too.

Its not particularly surprising that the elite are benefitting more (them that has, gets) but I'm curious if you have found that those at the bottom of the heap are worse off for it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:08 PM on April 20, 2012

Will post when on computer not phone tomorrow. (Which also demonstrates the limitations of phone based internet for everyone.)
posted by k8t at 9:59 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would love to see those, also.

Sadly, the real story here is that the internet amplifies inequalities.

This is not my research area, but this is what I have anecdotaly seen. I'm kind of sorry that the cute and happy heart-warming story above got sidebarred, because I think the real story is a lot less reassuring. Sure, there are people who are benefiting who would have had no opportunity before; there are also lots of people who are benefiting and in the process others are locked out.

As "internet people," we want to see the heartwarming stories and of course we are going to believe them and feature them (such as in the sidebar). But that's not the real story, and it's a strange cognitive error that we feel this need to believe the happy story instead of the true one.
posted by Forktine at 10:26 PM on April 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

So much of it also depends on the metrics used. As pointed out above, if you aren't counting the countries in the first place, will you be able to see the outliers sending you that weak signal of change at the fringe?

Or if you imagine the internet can only be viably accessed from a laptop or desktop, counting monthly subscribers, will you notice the 96% of the 700 million using phones on a distant continent?
posted by infini at 11:50 PM on April 20, 2012

I'm not terribly surprised by k8t's research results. Internet rates in Burkina Faso are still prohibitively expensive for much of the population, even those who already have cell phones. I'm including the lower-level government salaried workers like teachers, who make from $200 - $600 a month. At about $20/month for the slowest connection, I've never met a teacher who felt it was worth 10% of her salary* to use it as a teaching tool, especially given that even if she tried the school would not have the supporting technology like printers to make it worth her while. I feel like Lesotho is probably an edge case, because it is so small that it just doesn't take nearly as much money to develop the basic infrastructure, so investors can focus on offering a higher quality connection. Here there are still many villages that don't have coverage AT ALL, and of those that do, the number outside of the 45 provincial capitals who have good enough coverage to get reasonable internet speeds** are vanishingly small. Likewise, nothing smaller than provincial capitals (and not even all of those) have landline internet, so no internet cafes.

*Ten percent may sound "burdensome" but not "prohibitive," but the model of employment for teachers and other government employees here is that no matter where they are from, they train in the capital then are assigned all over the country. And the assignment changes every year or two. So they're pretty much always living out of pocket, and often supporting a household that lives across the country from them as well.
**In the village I lived in when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, we had abnormally good cell phone reception. Near the end of my service I got an internet phone. Not anything really fancy, but something that I could get emails on. They took about five minutes per email to load. And with the pay by usage plan I had (rather than a monthly subscription), I was paying about 300FCFA a night - the cost of around six basic village meals - just to load a couple emails. Unsurprisingly, I was the only person in the village who used the internet at all.

posted by solotoro at 3:20 AM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here is a paper on South African internet access (and mobile connection charges) - it may influence Lesotho as well.

Cellular signal modems are increasing popular (and affordable in more countries), increasing competition among operators (and falling ARPU rates driving data consumption uptake) may begin lowering these barriers in more countries than currently possible. At least in Kenya, internet surfing on mobile phones is 4th cheapest on the continent.
posted by infini at 3:42 AM on April 21, 2012

Here is a recent piece of mine on Internet and democracy (it is open access until May 1!)

The success of a democracy depends, in part, on public demand for democratic institutions. How does Internet use shape citizens' preferences for regime type? Combining individual public opinion data from Africa and Asia with country-level indices, we test a multilevel model examining the relationship between Internet penetration, individual Internet use, and citizen demand for democracy across 28 countries. We find that Internet use, but not national Internet penetration, is associated with greater citizen commitment to democratic governance. Furthermore, greater democratization and Internet penetration moderates the relationship between Internet use and demand for democracy.
posted by k8t at 5:19 AM on April 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here is my syllabus for inequality and technology.

The best stuff to read on this topic comes from Jan van Dijk. He puts a lot of his book chapters on his website.

But my tl;dr is that there are socioeconomic antecedents to technology access and use and also socioeconomic outcomes of technology access and use. And for the most part, this is a rich-get-richer scenario. (This has a lot of names - knowledge-gap-hypothesis, The Matthew Effect.)

People of high socioeconomic status are advantaged in finding out about, affording, and exploiting new sources of information. Furthermore, unequal adoption of the Internet and related communication and information technologies is associated with differential participation in social, informational, and economic activities. There are economic and social benefits to having access (Katz & Rice, 2002). Information technology and the ability to use it is the critical factor in generating and accessing wealth, power, and privilege (Castells, 1998; Van Dijk, 1999).
posted by k8t at 5:42 AM on April 21, 2012 [14 favorites]

I read books about the internet for at least 4 years before I ever got a 'go' on the internet. Not, had a computer, but actually sat down and got to type in a website and visit a page.
It was another couple of years before I had a computer of my own (it was about... 10 years out of date by that point?).
Meanwhile, my cousins had had a computer at home that whole time.

I'd read entire books that were 'for Dummies' about the internet, or computers, or programming, or sociological-kinda texts about online communities (I was reading books about MUDs, and Usenet, and all these things without having ever seen them - kinda surreal), or about programming in basic (again, despite not having a computer).
I first had access to a computer at school that only had typing games on it. I played them.

I blame reading a lot of 50s-70s Sci-Fi (again, thanks to an out-of-date public library system! Are you noticing a theme?), where computers are the future!, and thus being convinced that these things were really, really cool.

So, after all that, I did end up working with computers, and my cousins didn't.
I can't help feeling that I am the exception (or even that, my experience actually proves the rule).
Actually wait, I *know* I am the exception, because when I went to Uni and did Comp-Sci, I didn't know any classmates who'd started using a computer as late as me, who were doing as well as me. Most of my intellectual peers had been playing around with programming in primary school.
And y'know? I am from a modern, first world country.

Computers, in general, just expand the distance between the rich and the poor, because the poor, anywhere in the world, don't grow up with computers at home, internet accessible cellphones, and all that other stuff. The catch-up gap is ridiculous. Really, really ridiculous.

The whole reason people keep trying to come up with the $100 computer, is because - think of how many books you could get for $1000, versus how often you have to replace computers, versus only one person can be on the computer at a time, and each of those books can be read by one person at a time and will survive for decades (I was reading sci-fi published in the 1920s!).
I note that realistically, where the internet might help, is that people can download and print pirated educational material. Frankly, fantastic!
(Morally, I don't see 3rd world countries as being under any obligation to respect the artificial notion of copyright or patent law if they aren't getting any benefits from it. First world? Yeah, fair enough).

Anway, it's a pretty crap situation. Still, my 5 year old nephew, is in pretty much the same socio-economic background that I was growing up. So, I got him an old laptop and I'm paying for part of the internet connection.
He is mostly spending far-too-much time playing flash games on it. I don't care.
This is time that he would be spending in front of the TV-babysitter (like most of his economic peers :P ).
This is better.

I do wish I'd set it up to have whitelist-only sites for awhile longer, as he basically taught himself to read with and (especially the latter, for which I was setting up the 2 week trial repeatedly, as I couldn't pay for it at the time - seriously, if you have a small child? This site is fan-freaking-tastic).

When you don't have something, there is a tiny advantage in the increased 'coolness' you attribute to it because it is something you don't have, but... compared to the benefit of actually having it? Yeah.
It's not fair, and it won't be until internet access is cheaper than books, which we are not close to yet.
posted by Elysum at 2:14 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

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