Last November, I returned from a long trip that covered a number of African countries in which, at times, I ended up in some pretty remote spots. Internet connections are sparse and unreliable even in built up areas, and while I did at one point go for a few days without any connection at all I managed to survive. On thing I discovered is that there is a big difference between choosing to go off the grid and not being able to access the internet at all.
It struck me quite forcibly how much of my life – while not dependent on internet access in the absolute sense – is highly reliant on it being available when I do want access. Not being able to use Skype and having to pay exorbitant local mobile phone charges was just one of the many issues that we had. None of the communication challenges we had prevented us from doing what we were supposed to be doing, but the absence of a good quality stable connection did add unexpected layers of difficulty, expense and complication. I say stable because apart from the few days when we were really out of touch, there was always some sort of internet link to be had. It just didn’t work very well.
Back at our home, our offices or workplace and on our phones, we nearly always have some access. (I don’t want to make distinction between where I was and where I normally reside by using “western world” and “developing world” labels. They can be very misleading and unhelpful but I would like the reader to assume that I refer to my normal internet access state as a place with a sound working infrastructure.) This always-online aspect to our cultural, business and domestic lives has grown rapidly in the last couple of years. But until its enforced absence I was surprised at the extent of my reliance on quick and easy access to the internet.
The most apparent manifestation of the use of new communications technology was not in the use of desktop PCs or laptop, or even internet cafes. It was in the widespread availability and intense use of mobile phones. They were everywhere. Telephony costs are high and most people seemed to be on PAYG SIMs and texting was the main form of communication.
It is quite conceivable to me that as cell links improve, most folks in regions outside the main communication hubs will skip the laptop and desktop computer and do all of their internet exchanges on their mobile phones. Portability and convenience are the main drivers. In my western always-online world, a smartphone is something useful to have on the train or in the pub as a fill-in device between my main communication nodes at home or in the office. For many people around the world, the smartphone will be their primary tool for continuous access to the internet once the infrastructure is in place. Which, hopefully shan’t be too long.
I was left with two conclusions about online technology from that trip. Smartphones will come to dominate the world of communications, and stable internet connections are the surest and fastest ways to spread prosperity and, fingers-crossed, peace.