Myth #34: There is no ‘there’ on the Internet.
Martin Dittus, Sanna Ojanperä and Mark Graham
Myth: The Internet is a “global village”, shrinking the world down to a single global marketplace and social sphere, where everyone meets and all have access to the same services. This “virtual world”, this cyberspace, is one shared place that is separate from all the places in the real world.
Busted: Today, we can no longer say that the “virtual” is clearly distinguishable from the “real”, the “offline” from the “online”. (#33). Now that over half the world’s population is connected to the Internet, most of our lives are accompanied by digital information overlays that augment our daily experience that shapes our understanding of the world and our actions in the world, no matter where in the world we are. In part this expansion of global connectivity is the result of spatial processes: through construction of new underwater cables connecting continents, and new regional networks providing broadband to homes and workplaces.
At the same time, many global regions remain disconnected, in particular rural and remote areas. Further, there is stark global inequality in the cost of connectivity (#36): in many countries, the cost of broadband still exceeds the monthly average salary. As a result of these barriers we see a global imbalance in potential digital participation, which is an imbalance in the capacity to participate in and shape life online. The resulting feedback loops produce inequalities in coverage: for many regions in the world, digital information on online knowledge platforms is still not available in a local language. For example, despite Wikipedia’s best efforts and its 300 language editions, its most detailed representations of countries in the Global South are often written in a non-local language, typically English, and its content about the Global South is often produced by editors in North America and Europe. (#18)
To an extent these digital divides reflect existing economic divides. (#39) At the same time, where the early Internet was once predominantly in North America, we now see the emergence of a pluriverse of parallel digital cultures. In many of the world’s regions, platforms have emerged that are not part of the Western canon. This includes WeChat and Alibaba in China, Grab and Shopee in South East Asia, Flipkart and Reliance Jio in India, MercadoLibre and Universo Online in Latin America, and many more. In the near future we can anticipate further growth in non-Western digital participation, with Asia as the key driver, and Africa showing significant potential for further growth. Conversely, the “global” platform behemoths of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and others may find it increasingly hard to adapt to some of these emerging markets.
Truth: The Internet is not a global village, rather, it is a network that augments life in many places. If we want to understand what “the Internet” looks like, we need to be fluent in at least dozens of global cultures. Internet researchers are only ever researching particular digital neighborhoods. Distance still matters, and it will continue to do so.
Source: Mark Graham, Geography/internet: ethereal alternate dimensions of cyberspace or grounded augmented realities?, The Geographical Journal, 179(2) (2013), 177-182, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2166874; Sanna Ojanperä, Mark Graham, Ralph Straumann, Stefano De Sabbata, Matt Zook, The Geography of Engagement in the Knowledge Economy: Regional Patterns of Content Creation, Information Technologies in International Development 13 (2017), 33-51; https://lra.le.ac.uk/handle/2381/40079.