Liminal cyberspace: The next billion online

The BBC has an interesting viewpoint by Canadian Internet law professor Michael Geist where he takes a big picture look at the impact of the next billion internet users coming online globally. Quoting the article directly, some snippets:

  • The next billion will differ in more ways than just geography. Most new internet users will not speak English as their first language, which should lead to increased pressure to accommodate different languages within the domain name system.
  • Moreover, many new internet users will have different cultural and societal views on hot-button issues such as online free speech, privacy, and copyright. As they demand a voice in global policy making, those users will help shift the policy debate.
  • The next billion may also use different technology to access the internet.[…]Indeed, flashy, high-end laptops with large screens, fast DVD players, and enormous hard drivers may give way to devices that are energy efficient, sturdier, and better suited to users with varying levels of literacy.
  • Not only will the devices be different, but the next billion will employ alternate modes to access the internet. Widespread broadband may be too expensive to install in some developing communities, leading to greater reliance on wireless and satellite-based connectivity.
  • Users may use mobile devices as their primary way to connect to the internet, experiencing slower speeds of access and forcing e-commerce companies to adapt to a changing marketplace.

Imho, we’re in a transitional phase here when it comes to this next generation world wide web of humanity, on many levels, as the ways and means of access online adapts and reshapes itself to the shifts taking place globally –

1. Technological – from PC boxes to handheld devices – the other billion will demonstrably be requiring entirely different solutions and platforms for access due to environmental, infrastructural and other conditions
2. Social – from ‘people like us’ to ‘whole wide world’ – from those who were computer literate, educated and had resources to buy a computer and connection to virtually anyone who can make a phone call
3. Economic – from ‘models for consumption’ to ‘models for production’ – business models are already changing as the original models based on consumption of infotainment and bandwidth are better suited for those with purchasing power, its a given that the next billion’s patterns of purchase will differ significantly from the first billion’s.

I think that while Prof. Geist’s points on the impact on the internet are valid and important, they relate in many ways on the Internet as we perceive it now, primarily designed for access through big screen monitors and based on current accessibility. They are extremely relevant right now during this transitional phase but I can’t help but wonder what will happen in the future.

The majority of the next billion already own mobile phones and many are going online, both to the regular Internet as well as many “designed for mobile” sites, conducting many of the activities that we take for granted via the internet such as shopping or social networking or searching through other means such as SMS or voice or some combinations thereof. They are already shaping a cyberspace to their needs, albeit in small and disconnected ways as yet. But enough dots exist to show some interesting directions that this could take.

Will there be a seperate but synchronous web that will arise that will be designed to be as easy to access as this one but within the limitations or conditions of wireless technology and the cellphone? So much of it is already beginning to happen – remittence sending, social networking, banking, blogging and picture uploading – that one can’t help but muse on this direction.

Will these two webs meet in the future? Or will we all meld into some new way that is accessible to us all regardless of the size of the screen or the box we use to enter cyberspace? However it happens, the changes have already begun, even if the next billion aren’t as yet ‘online’ on the same space we are and where we conceive cyberspace to be.

We just can’t ‘see’ it yet because its in the process of happening right now but the global village information network has begun to change in a way that it hasn’t for millenia. Today, you don’t have to be literate, educated, formally employed or even have a home address anymore to access information via technology from the worldwideweb. Now that is the real beginning towards a bridge across the so called divide. And that is what will really influence the changes going forward as much as anything else such as geography, language, technology or culture. If information is power, then access will be worldchanging.

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