The World Isn’t Getting Worse, We’re Just Getting More Connected

One of the people I pay a lot of attention to is a guy called Benedict Evans, who works for a venture capital fund called Andreessen Horowitz. He has a now legendary presentation called Mobile is Eating the World, which he updates every few months. The most recent version was released in December, and it’s got a new slide that’s left me a little speechless.

Take a good look at those statistics.

2.5 billion smartphones. That’s a mind-boggling number for something that was only invented a decade ago. The speed at which this stuff is happening is insane. China now has 656 million internet users. Brazil trails only the US in total Facebook, Twitter and YouTube users, and the country has more mobile devices than human inhabitants. India’s connected population is 277 million and by 2020, the number of internet users in India will exceed 730 million. That will make India’s internet user base more than double the US’s entire population. In the last two years Myanmar has managed to transform itself from one of the least connected places on Earth to a country with a mobile phone penetration rate of over 50 percent. In Africa, 2016 marked the first year that more smartphones got shipped than feature phones, and the penetration rate is expected to pass the halfway mark by 2020, from only 18 percent in 2015.

So what does it mean to have more than half the planet online? Some of the stories we’re seeing are already pretty remarkable. In Lesotho, they’re using mobile money systems to distribute payments to mothers and children affected with HIV. In India, they’ve got ride-hailing apps for tractors. In West Africa, weather prediction text messaging services are transforming the lives of farmers. The lives of farmers are being transformed in Myanmar too, except for them it’s Clash of Clans, which they play atop their buffalo in the fields where 3G is the strongest. And before you starting muttering about digital addiction, consider what it’s like for someone to be stuck in the sun for 10 hours a day with no form of entertainment.

Two brothers in rural Myanmar sit on the back of a buffalo owned by their family (Credit: David Lazar)

Two brothers in rural Myanmar sit on the back of a buffalo owned by their family (Credit: David Lazar)

The people that are getting the internet are different to their parents. Thanks to giant medical successes against childhood disease and aging over the past quarter-century, the present global cohort of adults is humanity’s largest and healthiest ever. It’s also the best-educated. In one generation, illiteracy has fallen from nearly half to just one-sixth of humanity. In 30 years, we’ve added three billion literate brains to our ranks. The rapid expansion of higher learning in Asia means that the number of people alive right now with a university degree is greater than the total number of degrees awarded in history prior to 1980. Even more exciting, this explosion in global connectivity, health and literacy is happening in tandem with the invention of machine algorithms that make high quality voice recognition and instant translation possible. In other words, we’re going to see a Babelfish equivalent in the hands of most of the human beings alive today.

That doesn’t mean we’ll all be linking arms and singing Kumbaya, having finally discovered what our fellow human beings are really thinking. The great promise of the internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway. As we’ve seen in the last few months, speakers of the same language in the same country can inhabit very separate online spheres. A world where a person reads Argentinian news over breakfast, Skypes with their Mongolian friend at lunch, and comments on a Japanese forum in the evening still seems a long way off.

That said, people who blame increased connectivity for widening ideological divides misunderstand what’s going on. The world is not getting worse, nor are our divisions deepening. We’ve always had these problems — it’s just that connectivity is bringing them to light. Racism, xenophobia, bigotry and sexism have always been there, it’s just that we can see them more clearly now. This unprecedented, radical form of transparency feels scary and dark, because it forces us to look long and hard into the corners. But that’s also why connectivity is so important. Billions of people are starting to speak out, and that means we are no longer able to claim ignorance, and filter out the terrible things that have happened on the watch of good people in the past. Welcome to the world as it really is, and not the way the gatekeepers used to tell us it was. It’s about time.