This week, Facebook announced their participation in the Internet.org project, an effort to “put the entire world online.” They also released a whitepaper detailing how to get there from here, with the title asking, “Is connectivity a human right?”
Over the last couple years, I’ve often spoken about Internet access becoming a Maslovian need, right up there with breathing, food and water, along with the following story told as unscientific proof:
I was in a remote region of Montana wilderness, shopping for a log cabin. I was riding with the realtor in his 4WD Jeep to the upper limits of a trail. When the trail ended, we then hiked another several miles further and arrived at a log cabin along a mountain stream that was up for sale, the owner rocking in a chair on the front porch. Worried about the primitive nature of the dwelling given my wife’s less than rugged constitution, I asked the owner, “Does it have running water?”, to which he answered, “Sure, there’s water running down there at the stream.” Undeterred, I continued, “Does it have heat?” To which he responded, “You are welcome to cut as much firewood from the surrounding trees as needed as I have logging rights.” Things weren’t looking so good, so I skipped ahead to the most important question, “So I guess there’s no…” “The outhouse is in back,” he said, cutting me off. Just then I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, which is the last thing I expected given the location. I pulled it out and I saw my smartphone had updated and had its 3G icon lit up. Confused, I looked up and finally noticed a long length of RG6 coaxial cable running up the side of a towering lodgepole pine tree with a Yagi antenna at the top. “You have cell service?” I exclaimed. “Well sure,” he replied, “I can’t live without my Internet.”
I would argue “connectivity” has always been a Maslovian need, and only the form of connectivity has changed. From the time of the caveman, people have depended upon teamwork for survival, and you cannot have successful teamwork without communication. Before the time of the telephone, townhalls, city square gatherings, and yes “gossip fences” served a similar function. A complex language is often cited as what separates humans from other mammals and as the evolutionary advantage that allowed our rise to the top of the food chain. Strong social bonds maintained with communication is a strength of the human race. Facebook’s success stems not from invention, but rather from simply capturing what people do anyway in a new form.
So, returning to Facebook’s question of connectivity being a human right. I would argue, yes, “connectivity” is a basic human right. However, in this case, Facebook is defining connectivity as social network connectivity via the internet. With that, I take issue. There are plenty of other forms of communication that can suffice until the cost of internet connectivity gets cheap enough to compete. Where I agree with the Internet.org initiative, though, is how to get there.
The key to dropping cost structures sufficiently to bring the internet to the two-thirds who do not have it today is efficiency gains. There is only so much that can be achieved with marketing campaigns and low cost Chinese manufacturing. However, improve communication efficiency 10%, and everything else will respond proportionally. Some of the methods proposed by Facebook include data caching, compression, and smarter applications. All good ideas, and a great way to launch an open discussion on the topic. While the Internet is one of the marvels of the world today, it is also one of the most inefficient endeavors of humankind. Solve its inefficiency and you will bring the Internet to everyone, everywhere. And then the people can decide if social media is how they wish to communicate, and future historians can debate if Facebook deserves a marker on our evolutionary timeline.
So what do you think? Is Facebook access an unalienable right that belongs in our Bill or Rights? Should governments bankroll broadband (fixed or mobile) for everyone? Is social media the latest in a series of evolutionary advantages, or has it doomed our human race?