Stepping out of our Internet bubble

No matter how bad your day is going, the Internet will always be there for you. Whether you need the new download from your favorite music blog or the comfort of a social network to prove you still have friends, the web has got your back. As long as your wireless network is working, you know you can count on it.

You probably use the Internet daily, for the purpose of everything from communication to various forms of entertainment. How can you not? The Internet has slowly but surely taken over, and to ration our online time now seems impossible.

From inside this digital bubble, it’s hard to imagine that not everyone is as linked in as you are. Yes, 88 percent Americans consider themselves Internet users, and that is an overwhelming majority for such a new piece of technology. Other parts of the world, however, have not been as inclined — only 6.8 percent of the entire continent of Africa uses the Internet.

If you can’t imagine that, you’re not alone. Because we tech-savvy folks consider the time before the Internet as ancient, we’ve done a lot to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Focus groups have been conducted where participants are forced to give up the Internet while lab technicians watch them struggle with class work and communication.

Participants have claimed that giving up their Internet access has made them do more activities that would traditionally be thought of as good and healthy, such as exercising or working on crossword puzzles. Unfortunately, the logic exercise that is a crossword puzzle seemed needlessly difficult once the element of Google was extracted.

Once we check our facts online, we never want to go back, but at least we are realistic about what it has done to us.

One of my favorite party questions is, “For a year, would you rather give up the Internet or have no sex?” Answers usually depend on the type of party, but more often than not peers will compare their ratio of getting some to checking their email and choose the former.

College students in Europe would probably stick with the latter (and not just because their fellow citizens are foxy foreigners). Based on an August 2009 survey in the UK’s Telegraph, one-third of people in the European Union have never used the Internet. This statistic is shocking because we don’t consider Europe to be as behind on the times as a place like Africa, where the addition of technology is usually fiscally impossible.

Interestingly enough, if Europe decides to go digital, they could solve many of the area’s financial problems — they are looking at an untapped job market, and digital products and services could be the answer.

Bearing this in mind, we can see that the Internet offers so much more than search engines and online games. It has spawned a workforce and provided countless new opportunities for entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the direst of economies are not always capable of increasing their cash flow with Internet related investments. Africa has very low bandwidth, and, because of this, Internet access is slow, crowded and generally limited.

But this does not mean the continent will stay that way — Africa has demonstrated a great affinity for communication. 3G networks exist even in rural areas, and many external countries are hard at work on fiber optics techniques to help the continent get connected.

Internet prevalence could change everything for Africa. It could revolutionize education, making information accessible to anyone who sought it and spreading the knowledge to local pupils. It would solve a number of health care issues, such as educating the population on AIDS and other diseases and allowing patients access to doctors worldwide by webcam. But at the root of all this, an efficient Internet connection could do for Africa exactly what it does for us: help us communicate.

We likely don’t think of email as a luxury, but this Thanksgiving, let us recognize it. We are privileged to have access to Google, even if it encourages us to cheat at crosswords. We are lucky to have Blackboard, even if it is the new version that we can’t stand.

Let us give thanks for these 2009 technologies — our wireless networks may not always be reliable, but our ability to keep improving is.

Who knows what we’ll think of next.

Jen Winston is a junior majoring in communication. Her column, “The Memeing of Life,” runs Tuesdays.