Fulfilling the Promise of the Internet

by Katrin McMillan, CEO and Founder of Hello World

The Internet emerged as a publicly funded academic platform to share research.  For quite some time that educational culture resonated with the utopian aim of making the world’s knowledge and culture freely accessible to all.  Initiatives such as Wikipedia, One Laptop Per Child, and Sugata Mitra’s research into child-led education (which inspired Hello World) are synonymous with this culture.  Even Facebook explicitly sought to expand the social experience of a college campus to the world.  However, we now see its potential as an illiberal  force. So how do we recapture that early promise of information-for-all? 

The initial altruistic aim of the early tech initiatives has withered. While much of the effort of the early internet was well-intended, even beneficial, it often failed to address the underlying social, economic, and institutional factors of new infrastructure. The dream of passing power and information to individuals, sharing human stories, and subverting autocratic regimes clashed with a system which was open to cultural homogenisation, disinformation, surveillance, harassment and abuse.  

Revitalising the promise of the early internet means working closely with local communities, supporting and training them to build their own infrastructure from the ground up, much as the early Internet was built by its users. 

The Internet giants (Facebook, Amazon and their ilk) that arose from the spectacular growth of the World Wide Web are showing us a more cynical, darker side of those utopian visions, in which data and algorithms are the currency, and humans are the product.  But it is also true that internet access brings genuine opportunity to vulnerable communities.  Across much of Africa, digital connectivity still has the chance to enrich and engage marginalised communities.  Hello World was based on the belief  in a better model for digital engagement.  Putting the community first, with an emphasis on community–built, learning, problem-solving and exploration, so that the model can be expanded to enable, some of the most remote villages and refugee communities to access the internet.

For a culture of shared information and education to thrive, it is important that communities are provided free access to the web rather than a curated and gated corner, as is the case with some global organisations who promote free, but locked-in “walled gardens” of the web, aimed at pushing advertising.  The key is to make sure that communities can engage with the internet on their own terms. 

Hello World, through its work in the field, reaches beyond education into storytelling, community-created news, creativity and communication.  Communities who can access the Internet on their own terms can raise their voices, log their experiences, and make it harder for others to bulldoze their rights or erase their identities. Our users can learn from others’ campaigns, connect to support networks, build personal relationships, and expedite their struggles for justice. They can gain strength from knowing that they are not alone.  

We unthinkingly take it as read that the sum of human knowledge is on the World Wide Web, without often asking if that is true, never mind possible.  But for many – even in 3G-networked regions – the Internet still has the potential to be transformative in a way that we in the West are lucky enough to have taken for granted.  If you can get plans for an irrigation system you can save yourself time and money; if you can call home from your refugee camp and talk to your father without running out of credit, you are less bound by the fences that contain you. 

Hello World recently installed a Hub in Uganda’s Nakivale Refugee Settlement. This week, a 16-year-old boy called Chadrack came to see what the build was all about.  He had recently arrived in the camp from the Democratic Republic of Congo and spoke no English.  Before he was forced to flee, Chadrack was at school in the DRC where he was about to take his final exams.  He was unable to get a place in the only secondary school in Nakivale (there is only one secondary school for a youth population of 23,391).  Chadrack came every day to participate in building the Hello Hub and, towards the end of the build, said that he would return every day to teach himself English so that he could understand more people in Uganda, and to continue with his other subjects via YouTube lessons.  Without the Hello Hub his education would be on indefinite pause, waiting for resettlement, which takes the average family at least three years. 

At its best, the internet can be a window to the world, a way to dissolve barriers.  At its worst, it is divisive and destructive.  For the internet experience to be a success we need it to be truly world-wide (only 56% of the global population have internet access) and democratic. Through community-built Hello Hubs we can start to  provide a bulwark against corporate and political forces that corrupt the Internet for their own gain, and at the expense of its newest and least-powerful users.

Hello World is a far cry from the cynical data-driven utopianism of the modern Silicon Valley.  For Hello World, tech is a tool to help disadvantaged communities.  Our contribution is to put the community at the heart of what we do, enabling it to be served by the internet and not governed by it.

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