This is How Disconnected the World is in the Internet Age


"West Africa wins again."

That's what my friends and I meant when we'd shake our heads in disappointment and declare, "WAWA." The phrase was well known and much used; I spent a good number of days in 2008 living under its spell. With WAWA, you're always the victim of a little trick. The night before an exam was when the power would shut off. When you were at your sickest, the toilets would stop flushing — if you were lucky to be near a toilet at all. When you most desperately needed a shower, the water would cut out. West Africa didn't care. She was laughing; the house always won.

She especially did not care when I wanted to get on the internet. I'd walk a mile and a half in the glaring sun to the web café, hoping the connection would be working. When it wasn’t, I'd trudge back to the dorms, back down the rocky dirt roads in my dusty flip-flops (offensive shower shoes), past the chickens drinking gutter water. I'd wave back at the kids giggling and shouting, "Oboruni!" ("White girl!") and try to feign a smile, despite the pains of my cyber withdrawal. 

I was a frustrated oboruni. And I was a naive oboruni — I never googled why I couldn't google. This past week, as I was writing about the undersea architecture of the internet, it occurred to me: I still don't get it. There are thousands of fiber optic cables that transmit data at the speed of light around the globe, but that means nothing for more than half of the world's population. In fact, our disconnectedness comes as more of a surprise than our connectedness. We hear constantly about "globalization," the "information technology revolution," and how "hyper-connected" society is. Clearly, some of us who are connected to the web are disconnected from reality and living under an illusion about how linked to the rest of the world we actually are.

Today, only 39% of the world's seven billion people are connected to the internet at all — 30% of people in the developing world, 77% in the developed world. Looking back on 2008, I’d gone from the U.S., where 74% of the population was using the internet, to Ghana, where 4% was. Today, it's roughly 85% and 17%, respectively. There are more extreme ends of the spectrum: Finland's rate of connectivity is 98%; Eritrea's is less than 1%.

But you don't have to go to a third world country to see the vast differences in rates of connectivity. In the U.S., only 85% of people use the internet, and just 70% have broadband or high speed access at home. In his 56-page piece in WiredNeal Stephenson wrote, "The cyberspace-warping power of wires, therefore, changes the geometry of the world of commerce and politics and ideas that we live in. The financial districts of New York, London, and Tokyo, linked by thousands of wires, are much closer to each other than, say, the Bronx is to Manhattan." 

Indeed, the South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country. Roughly 37% are living below the federal poverty line (defined in 2012 as individuals with an annual income below $11,000.) All just a 10-minute subway ride from Manhattan's richest and most powerful. 

The Roosevelt Institute recently wrote that New York has a "digital divide" that was "holding young New Yorkers back." Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in August that, "Over 75% school facilities have maximum download speeds 10 Mbps or less — 100 times slower than the target speeds in the National Broadband Plan." Students might have access to the internet, but the connection's slowness is stopping students from having access to the educational resources they need in order to keep up. 

We're not "hyper-connected" to the rest of the globe much less to a place that's barely a few train stops away. But looking ahead, is the landscape of connectivity evolving?

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, said that in the next five years, five billion more people will join the two billion currently on the web. The bold assertion made me wonder if five years could make that much of a difference. I was in Ghana five years ago. 

So I went back — virtually, at least, and asked my friend Nana Kwasi Safo Ayirebi, 31, for his thoughts on his country's technological progress. He sent a quick response that was much too appropriate. "Let me sort out a fast internet source and get back to you. My broadband has been off." 

Damnit. Five thousand miles away and WAWA was still getting this oboruni.