Uncapped: Can humans handle a blank cheque for data?

I remember the first time I used uncapped Internet. I was sitting in a friend’s coffee shop in Bristol, on a trip from South Africa, and my brain exploded. Till then, every time I’d clicked a link I’d worried about how much data it would use. I’d had to think carefully about every video, every download, every large page. And that anxiety was a constant force against browsing freely. That was just the way the web worked: you had a data allowance and, no matter how big it got, you had to use it wisely.

So uncapped Internet was not just fun, it was a revelation. Revolution, even. Suddenly nothing stood between me and anything my heart desired. I could indulge my curiosity at will. Games, video, porn, software, music, and learning. So. Much. Learning. That hour in a cafe in Bristol literally changed my life.

And now so many of us — almost anyone at the wealthier end of middle class — just take it for granted. Once we cross from limited to unlimited — from finite to infinite — we easily forget what it’s like to manage with limited resources. Our behaviour on one side of that line is very different from our behaviour on the other.

Doug Hoernle, founder of mobile-education business Rethink Education, tells me their young, low-income users are relentlessly careful about the data they consume on their phones. When a class is doing research, one student will open Wikipedia, screenshot the page, and WhatsApp the image to everyone else. This isn’t just to save data, but to ration it: they don’t know how big the Wikipedia page will be, but they can tell exactly how big a screenshot is before they download it. Similarly, before they decide to download a free app, they’ll check its size and calculate its cost in data: its real price. And even then, they’ll weigh up carefully whether that app’s size in their cheap phone’s memory is worth all the photos they could save in its place. For them, there is no such thing as ‘free’.

As much as I love unlimited data, it has a real danger: without a budgetary constraint on our browsing, there is far less pressure to choose carefully. We just open the Internet firehose and let it run. We’ll curate later, we think, and then we complain that there’s so much crap on the web and we never have any time for ourselves or our work. And then, perversely, we turn that firehose back on the web and upload our own stuff — often half-baked — for others to deal with.

Humans have a lot to learn about managing the firehose. I may learn a few tricks in my lifetime, and I’ll pass them on to my son, who’ll learn a few more. It’ll take generations for us to be comfortable, confident, happy dealing with an unlimited supply of information.

For some of those lessons, we should look to those who’re still capped, for whom every byte counts. How do they make their decisions? Who influences them? What sites and apps really matter? Are their constraints teaching them — at least till they cross that great divide — how to be more discerning people? Maybe they have something to teach us about priorities.