— Zac Chase (@MrChase) January 28, 2016
There is an incredibly snarky cartoon someone made in MS Paint that places WiFi below food/shelter on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is silly and pretty insulting for many of the folks who are food insecure or who lack a constant home to call their own. I do not believe that wifi or device battery life or any of the “first-world problems” are worth devoting a life’s work to. They are about annoyance rather than need, but even in their privilege and affluence they speak to what is possible in a life where access is all but guaranteed.
When you have access to the world’s repository of information, you are no longer confined to only the solutions you and your local community can come up with. When you have access to other people and cultures you can more deeply understand the human condition, and more specifically your own situation in the context of a plural society. When you have access to the tools for creation and collaboration, the possibilities for building new things are limitless.
In many ways, Access is Equity.
And access needs a champion. Not for those who lack consistent wifi or who have to upgrade their phones every 4 years instead of every 2. Access needs a champion for those who cannot connect at all. And while this argument is much of why Mark Zuckerberg started Internet.org and why the 1 Laptop Per Child initiative was born, neither is making good on the promise of Access.
Internet.org emphasizes a closed and, often times, Facebook-centric internet. It gives access to what we currently believe is important about the internet rather than what can be created by the local community. OLPC, on the other hand, focuses on the device itself rather than the network and connection. While I do not fault either initiative for helping to move the conversation about access forward, they are not pushing for a sustainable solution in the way organizations like water.org or Kiva are.
There should be a way in which we guarantee access to the internet as a human right, much in the way we guarantee the rule of law or compulsory education. It doesn’t belong at the bottom of Maslow’s heirarchy, but it does belong in the conversation about what it means to be human in the modern world. If you cannot access the internet, the whole internet, then you will not be able to engage in the types of discourse and transactions that power our global and interconnected society. This will not only create a divide, but it will create a caste system. Those with access will be able to quite literally “plug in” to new opportunities, and those without will be stuck fighting for an ever shrinking pie.
I do not have a silver bullet for this problem and I certainly do not pretend to have thought through this from every angle in the way that folks who have been doing community work for decades in NGOs have. But, if I were going to dedicate my every waking hour to solving a problem, it would be to creating access for all. It would be in building the infrastructure necessary to guarantee everyone can use the internet freely as fundamental need.