There’s a little-known office with a small staff but immense clout housed in the upper levels of Woolsey Hall. Known as the Office of Digital Dissemination, the administrators, strategists and fellows who work there are hard at work fulfilling the University’s mission to open the doors of our ivory tower to the globe, most recently through videotaping and posting popular Yale lectures online.
Down the street at the Law School, the Information Society Project has hosted speakers discussing how Internet standards policies are in desperate need of improvement — current IPv4 protocols actually limit vast numbers of individuals in Africa and Asia from accessing the Internet on a regular basis due to outmoded standards.
And in Sudler Hall, the Yale Political Union hosted Arianna Huffington last semester on the debate floor to share her views on how blogging has had a fundamental impact on democracy, both in America and abroad.
What does all this mean?
It means that right in our own backyard at Yale, the requisite conversations for change are taking place. We’re beginning to realize the possibility for an awesome new humanitarian ambition: the education of mankind through the spread of technology. A lofty goal, sure, but just how does one go about disseminating all the world’s knowledge to all the world?
One of the most staggering issues at hand is infrastructure: how best to distribute educational resources to the greatest number of people? Does the answer lie in distributing textbooks en masse to schools in developing nations? Or perhaps we should increase funding for NGOs working to teach literacy to children? Possibly. But a more effective solution to all of this may be on a lower level: We need to better proliferate the Internet.
Well, information technology infrastructure, to be more verbose — the technologies, networks, hardware and software to allow any human individual access to the World Wide Web. Better access to more and higher quality information allows people to solve their own problems. We are living in a layer of connectedness that simply did not exist less than two decades ago.
According to 2008 data, of the estimated 6.7 billion living humans today, only 1.5 billion of them are Internet users. The other 5.2 billion people have no access to the vast medium of information and humanity that we so often take for granted. Delving into the data further, we find that a shockingly low 5.3 percent of the entire population of Africa has Internet access. Asia’s also quite brutal with only 15 percent of the population connected to the web, and even South America and the Middle East are under 25 percent. The United States and the European Union, meanwhile, are sitting pretty at population connectivity rates at 71 and 61 percent, respectively.
While adequate research in this field is ongoing, I would strongly suspect that agriculture, literacy, public heath and even political thought will improve across the developing world as Internet connectivity expands. More people will have more access to the information they need, and they can directly use that knowledge in their local communities. Never before has mankind had the capacity for such a collective global consciousness, and now access to it needs to be critically, and urgently, improved.
Just as language is the carrier for so much of our history as a society, the Internet, too, is an open medium of mass cultural production, a place where real humans not only create content, but also share, remix and evolve that content. The human race is now working with an incomprehensibly limitless canvas. And we’re splattering the paint of the world’s collective cultural consciousness in almost any form imaginable.
Yet while the developed world is casually criticizing Wikipedia for its biases, inconsistencies and peculiar obsessions (granted, the List Of Fatal Bear Attacks In North America By Decade need never have been created), the developing world is in dire need of more Internet connectivity and more access to the resources available so they can draw their own conclusions. While Silicon Valley is working to better organize and filter that knowledge, entire nations still don’t have access to any of it on a regular basis.
The more connected people are to each other, the better educated they will become. The most uneducated parts of the world tend to be the communities and societies most cut off from each other and the rest of the globe. True, levels of education are largely influenced by economic and geopolitical factors, but information technology is on the cusp to completely revamp this limited purview.
Economically speaking, the Internet is essentially non-rivalrous — anyone can partake in the information available, and no one is worse off. We can spread the digital wealth to the far reaches of the globe, and the fiscal conservatives won’t complain. For the first time ever, humanity is witnessing (and actively participating in!) a massively multiplayer “marketplace of ideas” burgeoning with goods that, quite literally, keep on giving.
Knowledge is empowerment. The future of human progress depends on the free flow of information across the world, and we should look to information infrastructure as a paramount ambition for 21st century humanitarianism.
We already supply food and supplies to war-torn nations. We already provide microfinance services to developing economies. Now, let’s provide the information infrastructure where it is desperately needed most, to give the world some real chance of actually saving itself.
Matthew O. Brimer is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.