Reflections on the Internet and Development

Just finished writing a chapter about the Internet and Development, and am surprised at the vehemence of my own conclusions:

In conclusion…

Three important and inter-related conclusions can be drawn from this short overview of research on the Internet and development.  First, it must be remembered that the Internet is but one of a number of new digital ICTs.  Whilst many have given it predominance, “Internet use has spread much less rapidly in low-income countries than other ICTs – notably broadcast radio … and television and, more recently, mobile telephony” (Souter 2007: 33).  As Souter (2007: 33) goes on to emphasise, ultimately “the potential of the Internet can only be achieved if effective access is available”, and this requires the availability of the ICT infrastructure and reliable electricity at an affordable price for the poor, and that it provides relevant information that is not available more cheaply through other means.  If the world’s poor are truly to benefit from the Internet, then far more attention needs to be paid explicitly to ways in which they can indeed use it to their real advantage, thereby enabling them to benefit at the expense of the world’s rich. Only then will relative poverty be reduced.

Second, the success of the Internet in delivering development objectives depends very much on how such objectives are defined.  Much research and practice has focused on the hegemonic notion that development is about economic growth, and there are convincing arguments that the Internet can indeed contribute to such an objective.  However, even here, it is evident that the presence of the Internet alone will not in most instances contribute to the economic well-being of the poorest and most marginalised. From a relativist perspective, focusing particularly on social equality, the evidence is far more uncertain.  Numerous studies (Huyer and Hafkin 2007), for example, show how women in patriarchal societies are increasingly marginalised by their exclusion from access to the Internet.  Likewise, if development is seen as being concerned with freedoms, then the ambivalent character of the technology of the Internet is once more revealed.

A final important characteristic of the Internet in the context of development has been its dehumanising and alienating effects.  Just as factory production in the 19th century made humans appendages of machines (Lukács 1923), so too in the 21st century has the Internet made people ever more the appendages of computers.  In so doing, users are becoming further alienated from the physical world of nature and creativity, and ever more constrained by those who design the virtual realities of which we are now part.  What is remarkable about this is that in the name of progress, such virtual worlds are accepted and applauded as being ‘good’ and where the future lies (Carr 2008). Such arguments need to be strongly countered if we are to retain the very essence of what makes us human.  By enabling people to work away from their offices, by dramatically reducing the constraints of time and space on production, consumption and exchange, the Internet has enabled owners of capital to exploit their workforces far more efficiently and effectively than ever before, whilst at the same time making them think that they are enjoying it.  Imagine a world where one was not expected to answer the hundred or so e-mails that arrive every day, and where one actually had time to think, be creative and enjoy the physical experience of being human!  Paradoxically, the poor and marginalised, those without access to the Internet, may ultimately actually be very much richer than the bankers, traders and business executives who have become the new proletariat of the digital age, quite simply because the poor without access to the Internet are not bound by its dehumanising, unspoken and constraining rules.”

I guess it is now time for me to take a digital break!


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