Innovating Beyond the Visible Internet

This is the full text of the TEDxBrussels talk that I gave on March 14, 2016, on the Afghan Sneakernet. [Edit: the full video can now be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_zh22kg1Vk]

“It’s Thursday evening in Kabul…” Final rehearsal for TEDxBrussels. https://www.instagram.com/p/BC50ErWqisf/

It’s Thursday evening in Kabul, the start of the Afghan weekend.

I am at my good friend Farid’s house, sitting in the living room with his family after dinner. He has recently returned from Farah Province, on the far western side of Afghanistan, and has been regaling us with stories. He says to me, “Eileen, I’ve got to show you something.”

He pulls out his phone. I lean in and the kids crowd around as well.

It’s a familiar scene. Time after time, when visiting with my Afghan friends, I find myself in front of the small screen of a mobile phone, going through the photos and videos on my device, or that of my hosts. These experiences are deeply social. Staring at a phone isn’t a silent, solitary endeavor — it’s communal, accompanied by conversation, commentary, and lots of laughter. We are on our devices not to avoid interacting with each other, but to further connect.

In a society with a very clear delineation between public and private space, these socially shared media are a low-risk way for many Afghans to discover and interact with the outside world.

Tonight, we are watching a spliced-together grainy home video of the slapstick antics of rural Afghan men. They are on a farm somewhere, doing headstands, vaulting off of an oil drum, diving head first into a large pile of dirt.

It turns out that the video in question is online, as “Pathan Olympics.”

It’s comedic gold — the type of video that would certainly go viral on Buzzfeed.

And yet, Farah Province, from where my friend has just returned, is rural, has very limited infrastructure, persisting security challenges, and where 3G Internet, now regularly available in urban Afghanistan, is still not common.

“Where did you get this?” I ask him.

“From a friend.” He replies, nonchalant.

I press him for details. “But where did he get it? Did he download it? Is it on Youtube?”

He gives me a familiar look that says, “Oh, Eileen, you silly foreigner” and proceeds to explain to me just how little I, the supposed social media expert, understand of the Internet in Afghanistan.

Social Media in Afghanistan

In 2002, Afghanistan had one telephone line for every thousand people, 1000 people with access to the Internet, and 15,000 owned mobile phones.

Today, between 4–5 million have access to the Internet, 2 million are using social media, and up to 90% have access to mobile phones.

A social media training workshop run by Impassion Afghanistan, (my organization) in Mazar-e-Sharif flic.kr

And Afghans have taken to the Internet to organize protests and movements, to track injustice and corruption, hold the government to account, grieve and express collective solidarity, and come together in laughter as well — to participate, in other words, in the global exchange of ideas that is the Internet.

And Afghans are very proud of the progress that they have made in the technology and media sectors, and rightly so. By traditional timelines of technology, Afghanistan is catching up and, in some cases, even leap-frogging.

But in my time in Afghanistan, what came to impress me the most were not these traditional indicators. Rather, it was the way that Afghan tech users were not just waiting for “progress” — in the form of connectivity, but coming up with their own ways of accessing and sharing information.

Like that home-video that Farid brought back from Farah.

“No, we did not download it from Youtube,” he tells me, “my friend shared it with me offline, using Bluetooth. And he got it from another friend, on Bluetooth. I don’t know if it even is on the Internet.”

It’s just another night in Kabul, but this one grainy video has me rethinking the Afghan Internet, the field of tech for development, and even the nature of innovation itself.

See, I have been working for years in Afghanistan to bridge the online-offline divide, and here it was, the key to it all so casually revealed: that below the wires and tubes that make up the Internet that we can see, there was this other and much larger invisible mobile social network that exists completely offline.

Some of my efforts to bring Afghans online through Impassion Afghanistan, the social enterprise that I co-founded

I realized then that my efforts to bring Afghans online represented a drop in the bucket, compared to the huge, existing reach of this invisible mobile social network — the Sneakernet.

So I found myself asking: why are we so singularly focused on changing the technology user behavior of an entire population, in bringing them online, that we barely considered the other possibility, of going offline ourselves?

In the developed world, we understand social media within the use cases that we ourselves use, and which makes this invisible mobile social network — well, invisible to us.

The “Invisible Mobile Social Network”, or the Afghan Sneakernet

That invisible mobile social network, or the Sneakernet allows for the sharing of electronic content offline. Its name comes from its “physical” nature: people physically move content from one location, device, or person to another — either extending the reach of the Internet, or bypassing it completely.

In Afghanistan, the Sneakernet looks something like this:

First, micro-entrepreneurs in mobile phone shops or on street corners sell content, for as little as 20 AFA (about $0.20) a pop. They have for sale everything from ringtones, cell phone backdrops, funny home videos, full movies and TV shows, to propaganda from the Taliban.

“Invisible” nodes in the Afghan Sneakernet, as photographed in Kabul, Afghanistan

Once someone buys and transfers the content, he/she then spreads it by sharing it through his or her device.

The most common way is simply by taking out a mobile phone and browsing through its contents together..

Then, if you want to keep the content, you could physically move the files via SD cards, flash drives, USB cables — or transfer them directly by turning on the Bluetooth on two devices.

Finally — but also optionally— at some point, someone in the Sneakernet likely connects back to the Internet, and content that was spreading offline makes it back online again, thereby bridging the so-called online-offline divide.

Why Does This Matter?

We tend to think of Internet access as simple and clear-cut: either you can get onto the Internet, or you cannot.

However, this binary model of Internet usage is inaccurate and limiting, it blinds us to the reality of what “connectivity” looks like to the 4.2 billion people around the world that do not have access to the Internet. For context, that’s 60% of the world’s population.

But everyone that has a mobile phone does have access to the Sneakernet. And considering that there are over 7.1 billion mobile phone connections in the world — of a total world population of 7.4 B — that means that virtually everyone is on the Sneakernet.

From North Korea, where smartphone owners buy “apps” at designated and carefully controlled mobile phone stores, to Iran and China, where activists use the Sneakernet to bypass censorship, to Saudi Arabia, where young men and women use the Bluetooth “Discover” feature for an offline version of online dating, or even to Europe, where sometimes it is still easier to share a movie on a hard drive than it is on the Cloud.

And so, what these examples show us is that a lack of access to the Internet does not necessarily represent a lack of access to information — though, admittedly, information may travel more slowly and piecemeal. But on the other hand, a benefit of the Sneakernet is the physical nature of our sharing which leads to a more social experience — the Sneakernet is social media in a literal sense.

The Taliban and the Sneakernet

Talking Taliban propaganda at TEDxBrussels — though this particular DVD (cover) comes from Pakistan, similar content is available in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban take full advantage of the mobile kiosks, which sell pro-Taliban content in addition to the latest episodes of Game of Thrones or cool cell phone backgrounds. For the same price as a Bollywood pop song, you can also download Taliban-themed ringtones or videos of beheadings and military vehicles blowing up. At one point, the Wall Street Journal reported, the Taliban was employing 40 singers that put out the equivalent of a 12-song album every month.

And they have a captive audience — if you’re an Afghan traveling to an area with Taliban presence, you certainly buy their content as a safeguard in case you’re stopped at a Taliban checkpoint.

The Taliban send night letters threatening the supporters of the central government by text and, increasingly, also by messaging apps such as Whatsapp and Viber. They detonate roadside bombs via mobile phones, and there are fears that they could move to Bluetooth next.

We know this, and yet, we continue to ignore the Sneakernet. This is a dangerous, even deadly, mistake.

In Afghanistan, and around the world, the Internet and social media are increasingly a battlefield for both the ideological and actual war being waged by the Taliban, as well as the Islamic State and other violent extremist organizations. And if we are not communicating on the same platforms that they are — via the mobile phone, which is are used by the majority of the population — then we are not only losing, we are surrendering completely, without a fight.

Peace-building through mobile: an advertisement in Kandahar City promoting the “Kandahar Peace Stories” network, one of the short-lived (due to funding constraints) social networks that Impassion Afghanistan started in Afghanistan.

“Winning” in a High Stakes Game

To start winning, we need to broaden our expectations of what innovation looks and feels like.

We need to do more than simply push for increased Internet access in the developing world. We should do that, absolutely, but we should also start respecting local innovations and ingenuities — and that starts with recognizing them as such.

As a next step, perhaps we could start designing products and services customized for the Sneakernet — after all, the technology is not hard. But that, precisely, is the point. Maybe innovation isn’t about the shiniest new toy, it’s about how we use the toys in a different, maybe better way.

But first things first. At the very least, let us keep in mind Winston Churchill’s words: “Do not let spacious plans for a new world divert your energies from saving what’s left of the old.”

I would just modify that sage wisdom a little for the digital age: “Do not let spacious visions for a new world divert your ability to see the innovations of the old.”

All of the photos of my talk, shared here, were originally posted by audience members. I claim no rights to any of them — other than what rights come from appearing in them. Thank you, @TEDxBrussels + the Twitterverse, for the opportunity and the photos!