The Internet is Like Water — Global, with Extreme Differences in Access

The “next billion” may already be accessing the web, operating outside the reach of big data.

(aka Notes from Theorizing the Web 2015)


Turn on a faucet in Manhattan, and you can be pretty certain the water you get out of the tap is potable. Though famously a dirty city, New York City provides some of the cleanest water in the United States, easy and at ready for those who live there. Internet access in much of the city is a little like that, too. Turn on your phone or tap into a wireless network, and data flow through seamlessly, thanks to powerful infrastructure that’s largely invisible to the average user.

The experience of the internet in a developing country can be quite different. Take, for instance, Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Many people access the internet via pocket wifi routers, which can be more readily available than physical landline connections. These routers work semi-reliably — in spurts, rather than a constant stream — , and people often carry multiple routers and network subscriptions to optimize for the best flow. On occasion, and sometimes far too frequently, the routers don’t work at all.

A young woman in Uganda gathers water from a well to carry back to her family. Photo by the author.

In other places, like Beijing, the internet and its infrastructure can be fairly reliable. But what comes through the pipes may need to be questioned and filtered. Many citizens of means curse the Great Firewall for slowing down or blocking entirely their access to the web, and they find other ways to go online, thanks to VPNs, proxies and other services. Most, however, live with an internet that is censored by both algorithmic and human means; depending on their priorities, this may or may not matter. But the fact remains that choice of what to access is limited.

And in a more rural area like the Oyam District of northern Uganda, internet access can often look more like a well. As I shared in a recent essay for The New Inquiry and a talk at the Theorizing the Web conference this year, “sneakernets” of data crop up in unexpected places. In very rural, no-bandwidth contexts, people find ways to trade data thanks to Bluetooth transfers, USB sticks, SD cards and other methods. The access point to the formal backbone of the internet might be hundreds of miles away, and in this regard, data is transferred hand to hand, rather than node to node. (This is literally how many rural Ugandans access their water, too.)

In other words, data flow, data spurt and data can be gathered. This metaphor matters because, just like with water access, the way people access the internet is highly stratified. Understanding this should inform how we think about policies and development strategies, especially as the web extends into the global south.

A screenshot of the livestream from the conference. Our panel was called “Missed Connections” and included Jason Farman, tante/Jürgen Geuter, Shawna Finnegan and Ellen Foster.

We had a great discussion at the panel, titled “Missed Connections,” and I hope you’ll read my essay or watch the talk (when it’s available on YouTube). I lay out a lot of the issues around the connectivity binary, global sneakernets that operate outside the telecom-driven internet, and why the “next billion” — the next batch of folks to join the telecom-based internet — might be accessing the internet and its products in interesting ways, far outside the reach of Big Data.

Here are a few other takeaways:

1. Shifting from a connectivity binary to a spectrum gives us a much richer view of the diversity of ways people access the internet.

As we look toward a more global internet, one that is growing more rapidly in the global south than in industrialized nations, we need to critically examine the rhetoric around connecting those who we assume to be unconnected:

The International Telecommunications Union, a branch of the United Nations, measures connectivity via fixed landline, mobile, or broadband subscriptions. Cisco’s Visual Networking Index measures global mobile data traffic to gauge growth in usage. McKinsey and Co.’s research defines the offline population as those who haven’t gone online in the past 12 months.
Following the implicit logic of such statistics, it can be easy to assume that being unconnected means having no exposure to the Internet at all. Phrases like “connecting the unconnected,” “the next billion,” and “the digital divide” all suggest this binary: One either has access to the Internet or doesn’t; one lives on the wired side of the tracks or one doesn’t. But as tech ethnographer Jan Chipchase wrote recently, “Connectivity is not binary. The network is never neutral.” Between those who’ve never touched a computer and those who get a feed of data directly into their Google Glass sits a vast array of modes and methods of connectivity.

Someone asked after my presentation to define the binary, and I offered this:

The connectivity binary is the view that there is a single mode of connecting to the internet — one person, one device, one always-on subscription— rather than a spectrum.
The connectivity binary makes other modes of access invisible.

I can imagine at least two axes of a connectivity spectrum: single vs. shared usage, and continuous vs. intermittent access. Here’s how those axes might map to real world usage I’ve observed in different parts of the world:

Single Usage, Continuous Access: I get push notifications on my iPhone, which has an LTE data plan, every time I get a tweet, text or email. I check my phone every few minutes too, and I often text with my friends.
Shared Usage, Continuous Access: I saved up to buy a laptop with a USB stick that my family of four can use. We take turns using it, and our connection is pretty stable.
Single, Intermittent: I have a low-cost Chinese feature phone (maybe a Xiaomi), and I pay a few dollars each month for 10 MB of access. I keep my data plan off most of time.
Shared, Intermittent: I walk all day to visit an internet cafe once every few months to check my Facebook account, listen to music on YouTube and practice my typing skills. I don’t own a computer myself.

For the purposes of simplicity, I’m assuming that “usage” means using a device that has one connection. But, of course, some devices have multiple connections (think of a phone with multiple SIMs) and some connections have multiple devices (think of roommates sharing a wifi router).

Other axes (going into multiple dimensions here!) might add censored vs. free, mobile vs. landline, 3G vs. SMS, digital vs. analog, and others. These axes are necessarily reductive, but thinking through all the variables can give us a better vocabulary for articulating this spectrum.

A mapping exercise with folks at Aber Youth Center. Photo by the author.

2. The internet probably has a larger impact than is currently measured, and we need better maps that reflect this.

As anyone who studies cartography knows, maps reflect the perspectives and biases of their makers. Maps of the internet often reinforce the connectivity binary, and, in particular, “dark spots” in these maps suggest that no form of connectivity is happening. However, the internet and its products are having a surprising impact in parts of the world where formal, telecom-centric connectivity doesn’t exist.

In addition to my fieldwork in Uganda, I talked about research done in Mali, Cuba, the Philippines and North Korea. Here’s an excerpt from my article:

Indeed, the practice of sneakernets is global, with political consequences in countries that try to curtail Internet access. In China, I saw many activists trading media files via USB sticks to avoid stringent censorship and surveillance. As Cuba opens its borders to the world, some might be surprised that citizens have long been able to watch the latest hits from United States, as this Guardian article notes. Sneakernets also apparently extend into North Korea, where strict government policy means only a small elite have access to any sort of connectivity. According to news reports, Chinese bootleggers and South Korean democracy activists regularly smuggle media on USB sticks and DVDs across the border, which may be contributing to increasing defections, as North Korean citizens come to see how the outside world lives.

Nick Seaver asked about the unknowability of this research, i.e., that by its very nature, a sneakernet is difficult to map and fully understand. I responded that the unknowability is part of what makes these practices beautiful, as they operate outside the scope of Big Data. The goal of a sneakernet-centric map or a map that reflects the diversity of shared access is not to provide a full view of the dark spots in traditional maps of the web but rather to add shades of gray to our understanding of the internet in global and developing contexts.

This is, in essence, a call-out to the graphic designers of the world: let’s make better maps of the how the world accesses the web.
The tools of the sneakernet, though I would add that Bluetooth and pieces of paper should be included. CC BY Alberto D’Ottavi.

3. In the face of scarcity, early internet access is often motivated by joy, social connection and entertainment — more so than education or politics per se.

An audience member at our panel at Theorizing the Web pointed to the surprising similarities in sneakernet content consumption vs. internet content consumption. In other words, folks wanted to listen to pop music and watch entertaining movies. I noted that this is one of the critical insights we should glean from the evolution of sneakernets in such a wide variety of global contexts.

Granted, I bring my own biases: I was more drawn to the Caryl Rae Jepsen songs and Hong Kong kung fu movies than I was to the Nollywood films and Christian films, which I was less familiar with. But the fact remains that almost all the media I saw being consumed was focused on popular interest media, and this appears to be the case in sneakernets in other parts of the world.

This observation lines up with some of Tricia Wang’s research on porn as a motivator for Chinese youth to learn how to evade censorship, and research on how “Black Twitter” formed around celebrities but ultimately created a network density that allows for mobilization in other realms. Many people in the rich world use the internet for joy, social connection and entertainment, and we shouldn’t expect that, just because people are operating in resource-scarce environments, they would want to prioritize educational or informational media over entertainment media and forms of connecting.

There’s been a lot of great research on the need for understanding shared internet access as a key mode of access invisible to big data. In a future post, we’ll talk about some of the policy and strategic implications of sneakernets in particular, but suffice to say that these can form the building blocks for understanding network infrastructure, file system architecture and a variety of other technical issues, and their reach in the developing world is much more effective in many cases than the telecom-based internet.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.


For more on this topic, check out my essay Mapping the Sneakernet in The New Inquiry.