Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Essential Human Needs

In my research regarding Internet ethics, I have run up against a term I have encountered before: The Digital Divide. Essentially, the digital divide portrays how many of the world’s citizens (not only the undeveloped or “Third World” nations, but also those in the lower levels of the socio-economic strata of wealthy nations) are not connected to the “information super-highway.” Although this could be due to a number of factors, the common denominator is money. At the personal level, the poor in a rich nation may have access to the Internet if only they could afford the service and equipment while on a cultural or national level, there is no access at any price due to lack of infrastructure. Now, all this seems to be more about economics, globalization, politics (both international and national) and status than it does with ethics.

But when one speaks of status or standing or, more generally, value, one is speaking of ethics. The questions here are many. The so-called digital divide is a fact; and the variables that create and maintain it are just as real. We are not dealing here with what is or is not, but rather, what is right and what is wrong. Or, in this case, stated more plainly: Is this fair? It’s the same question, really. Inasmuch as ethical considerations with the Internet are concerned, does communication technology create a new underclass, or does it merely amplify that which already exists? In one textbook I have been assigned, the subtle but real slant is that communication technology is as important to humanity as clean water and electricity. In this light, Internet access is absolutely an ethical concern. Or is it?

Let us look first an obviously humanitarian concern: Clean water. Few could argue that this is important to eliminate needless disease and human suffering throughout the world. It is a basic human need and one that, ethically speaking, we as a species should be in favor of, at the very least. Never mind logistics or whose responsibility it is - just as a matter of principle, does anyone not “deserve” clean drinking water? Okay, then, reasonable people agree. What about electricity? This one is a little stickier, ethically speaking. Although arguing for clean water is a relatively easy sell, the same cannot be said of electricity – and I know there are those who would argue fervently that it is equal in importance and therefore, an ethical issue.

Where electricity is essential for clean water, I’ll grant it, but otherwise no, it is not necessary nor is it an ethical issue. Electricity makes life more comfortable, it is not, however, essential to life. In other words, it is clearly not in the same class as clean water. Since communication technology is much farther up the continuum than electricity, it, too, is not an ethical issue. And as much as free speech is an inalienable human right, access to various mediums is not – not even among the wealthiest. I cannot take my message down to my local newspaper and say, “Here, print this.” I can, however, pay them to print it, but not just any old way I want it – it would be clearly identified as an advertisement. No amount of money (theoretically) can get my message printed with all the credibility of an actual news story. I know that there are myriad examples of ethical rules being broken in journalism, but that is exactly the point – these are the ethics. Access to a particular medium is not an ethical question.

And by extension, so goes communication technology. Before the telephone was invented, nobody had one. It was many years before the telephone was available to the masses. In many places in the world, it is still not. Is this fair? In some senses, no, but in respect to what one needs to lead a life without unnecessary risk or danger – in terms of humanity – yes, it is as fair as it has always been. Should we, the “haves,” strive to help those less privileged than ourselves? From a personal ethical position, yes; but is there a responsibility to get all the billions of “have-nots” onto the information super-highway? Not necessarily - it is not that cut-and-dried. There are far more pressing concerns than to call communication technology essential to being part of humanity. It is questionable as to whether it even makes life better. We have done quite well without for thousands of years; just because we enjoy the pleasures (and the pains) of instant availability – and despite the fact that some cannot now "live" without it – the Internet is not an essential human need. Not here. Not anywhere.


Tim said...


This is quite good. I don't think there is an "ethical" case for extending internet connections (broadband or not) to unserved or under-served populations because of the ethics of economics. All resources are scarce (i.e., demand exceeds supply, if only in the immediate term); some resources, such as clean water as you point out, are necessary to sustain human life; other resources, such as internet services, do not (notwithstanding the prospect of numerous anecdotes of lives saved due to internet access). Scarcity + Necessity = Priority. Please excuse the crude effort to reduce it to a simple math formula, but I think it communicates the point. It might be very nice to "Give the World a Cok," er, internet access, but lots of people would probably rather have reliable supplies of clean water, food, shelter, sewer treatment (the back end, no pun intended, of the clean water issue) and an end to internecine wars than internet connections.

Michael K. Althouse said...

Thank you, Tim.

I try to flesh out ideas here, and often those ideas come from the academic work I am doing in the moment. As you might have gathered from my post, I am not always in agreement with the arguments forwarded by other scholars - but that is part of the beauty of academic research, specifically, qualitative academic research. I don't want to come off a cold or elitist, but at the same time I don't believe the world can be or is even supposed to be fair. Furthermore, it begs the question: Are we really better off with all this "privilege?" The answer, of course, is another question.

Tim said...

Happy to help, as sounding boards are good to polish one's thoughts. Nothing starts off as finished.

Belizegial said...

Mike, I have a teenage daughter who would beg to differ. To her, life without an internet connection is no life at all. lol

Being in the third world myself, my first priorities are water and electricity. I could do without internet if it were not for my kids who deem it necessary for social networking and academic advancement.

The Zombieslayer said...

Oh yeah. I've stayed in 3rd world countries and know first hand what happens when you don't have clean water. Let's just say that it's not a clean topic is a vast understatement. I won't go into details.

The internet is overrated. I think I was just as happy or even happier before I discovered it.

But water, food, and shelter are the most important needs by far. Energy ranks up there too.