It was great to have been invited by Aminata Amadou Garba to give the final talk in the ITU Academy’s training session on Last Mile Connectivity on 30th June. She was happy for me to be a little bit provocative, and so I returned to one of my long-standing arguments – that by using terms such as “the last mile” or the “last billion” we often denigrate the poorest and the most marginalised. If we really want to ensure that they benefit from the use of digital technologies, we should instead start thinking about them as “the first mile” because they are most important!
The 2021 ITU Facts and Figures report highlighted that 2.9 billion people, or 37% of the world’s population, have still never used the Internet. Implict in this, as in almost all UN initiatives relating to digital technology, is the ideal that everyone should be connected to the Internet. Hence, many global initiatives continue to be designed to create multi-stakeholder (or as I prefer, multi-sector – see my Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development) partnerships to provide connectivity to everyone in the world. But, whose interests does this really serve? Would the unconnected really be better off if they were connected?
Walking in the Swiss mountains last month, and staying in a place where mobile phones and laptops were prohibited, reminded me of the human importance of being embedded in nature – and that of course we don’t really need always to be digitally connected.
Although I have addressed these issues in many of my publications over the last 20 years, I have never articulated in detail the reasons why people might actually be better off remaining unconnected: hence this thought experiment. There are actually many sound reasons why people should consider remaining unconnected, and for those of us who spend our lives overly connected we should think about disconnecting ourselves as much as possible. These are but a few of these reasons:
Above all, we were born to be a part of the physical world in which we live. Virtual realities may approximate (or even in some senses enhance) that physical world, but they are fundamentally different. Those who spend all of their time connected miss out on all the joys of living in nature; those who are unconnected have the privilege of experiencing the full richness of that nature.
Those who are unconnected do not have to waste time sifting through countless boring e-mails or group chats to find what is worthwhile, or the messages in which they are really interested.
The unconnected cannot give away for free their valuable data from which global digital corporations make their fortunes.
Those who are unconnected do not suffer the horrors of online harassment or digital violence.
The unconnected are not forced by their managers to self-exploit by doing online training once they are home after a day’s work, or answer e-mails/chat messages sent by their managers at all hours of the day and night.
Those who are not online don’t have to run the risk of online scams or phishing attacks that steal their savings – and the poor suffer most when, for example, their small amounts of money are stolen.
The unconnected can largely escape much of the digital surveillance now promulgated by governments in the name of “security” and “anti-terrorist” action.
The unconnected do not suffer from digital addictions to online games, gambling, or pornography.
Ultimately, being connected is akin to being enslaved by the world’s digital barons and their corporations; if you cannot stop using digital tech for a few days, let alone a week, surely you have lost your freedom?
Despite the fine sounding words of those leading global connectivity initiatives, is it really the poorest and most marginalised who are going to benefit most from being connected? Surely, this agenda of global connectivity is being driven mainly in the interests of the global corporations that will be paid to roll out the tech infrastructre, or that will benefit from exploiting the data that we all too willingly give them for nothing? Does not, for example, digital financial inclusion benefit the financial and tech companies and institutions far more than it does the poorest and most marginalised? This is not to deny that digital tech does indeed have many positive uses, but it is to ask fundamental questions about who benefits most.
I remember visiting a village in Africa with colleagues who couldn’t understand why the inhabitants didn’t want mobile phones. Walking over the hills to see their friends was more important to them than the ease of calling them up. This post owes much to that conversation.
We all need to ask the crucial questions about whose interests our often well-intentioned global digital connectivity initiatives really serve. If we wish to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, we must become their servants and not the servants of the world’s rich and powerful; we must be humble, and learn from those we wish to serve.
And the world’s rich and privileged also need to take care of ourselves; if we have difficulty living a day without being connected, surely we have indeed become enslaved? We need to regain our freedom as fully sentient beings, using all of our senses to comprehend and care for the natural world in which we live. May I conclude by encouraging people to think about using the hashtag #1in7offline. Take one day a week away from digital tech to experience the wonders of our world, unmediated by the paltry digital alternative. Or try taking a week away from the digital world every seven weeks. If you cannot do this, ask yourself why!