As late as the 19th century, English inventor Samuel Rowbotham suggested that the Earth was a flat disc. Moving forward a few hundred years to the publication of Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, the concept is re-introduced, albeit from a very different, socio-economic perspective, with emphasis on the effects of Globalization.
Connectivity is the lynchpin of our flattening, hyper-connected world and although we have connected almost 3 billion people to date, there are still some bumps in the terrain.
The Internet Society identifies some of these in their 2014 Global Internet Report, which not only summarizes the major mobile and fixed connectivity trends in our Anywhereized world but also some significant challenges, three of which in particular stand out:
The Global Digital Divide. Here the report talks about three main groups; those that are well connected today, those that can’t connect for financial or geographical reasons and those who can connect today but don’t yet see the value in doing so. Herein lies a significant opportunity not only for companies providing Internet connectivity, but also for the content industry to increase the perceived value of being connected by addressing specific, localized needs. There is, the report also points out, no room for complacency amongst the well-connected either, where trust and privacy issues are a negative counterweight to established, affordable access.
The Political and Commercial Divide. Here we see a clear discrepancy in the global availability of content and applications, where legal or commercial reasons are often used as justification for restricting access. These can include anything from blatant political censorship to geo-blocking.
The Network Divide. Variations in global cross border connectivity have a direct impact on internet penetration and can depend on a variety of factors such as network resilience, investment and regulatory choices.
Whilst political challenges cannot really be surmounted overnight, ongoing investment in networks paired with the continued development of attractive and useful content will enable us to bridge many of these gaps.
The report goes on to reinforce the significance of an open, standardized Internet model and the critical importance of safeguarding this for a sustainable future. Alarmingly, whilst more than 40% of the world’s population is online today, few seem to properly understand the true governance model of the Internet, with only 15% of respondents to the ISOC Global Internet User Survey providing the correct answer. Nearly half it seems, believe that the Global Internet is managed by a combination of Telcos/ISPs and Mega Content companies (such as Google, Microsoft etc.).
It is clear from the findings of the report that a flattening world is a world of opportunity. It points out that by May 2014, more than 1 billion US dollars had been pledged to Kickstarter projects. In addition, it uses the W.Afate 3D printer project as a real life example of Internet enabled innovation. Here, a 3D printer prototype was developed from e-waste at a cost of a mere 100 US dollars.
So, while most of us now accept that our spinning planet isn’t at all flat in a geometric sense, our online world is moving society towards a single plane and we need to maintain an open and inclusive connected environment to realise the full benefits. In terms of our online future, perhaps the Flat Earth Society haven’t got it wrong after all – they just didn’t foresee the cloud(s)…