Internet access a ‘fundamental right’?

I would say that I’m something of an ‘online person’ I ran a Bulletin Board ‘the hard way’ in the late 1980s / early 1990s using a phoneline, a modem and a PC at home, and have been on the Internet in one way or another for over 20 years, and was involved with Prestel back in 1982/83.  However, this article from the BBC made me do a serious reality check.   Nearly four out of five people in a survey done of 27,000 folks around the world considered that Internet access should be regarded as a ‘fundamental right’.

Now, this sort of thing crops up every now and again, and it always elicits the same response from me.  At this point in the history of our planet, nonsense.  Yes, information is increasingly important – even, or perhaps especially – in developing countries and economies.  But a ‘fundamental right’? No.  Let’s not forget that the Internet is a communications technology first and foremost – similar to the phone system, road and railway network, etc.  And let’s face it, there are many people in the world without access to a reasonable road and railway system, let alone  a phone system and the Internet.

Let me give you the run-down on precisely why I think that there are many rivers to cross before we get to the luxurious position of the Internet being a fundamental right.

The Internet can’t carry food…

Or people, or goods, or equipment.  An information superhighway is great in an information economy, but of limited use when you have a subsistence, agricultural or manufacturing based economy.  And let’s face it, whilst information is essential in developing new skills and supporting economies, it can be delivered in lots of old fashioned ways – like books, pamphlets, radio, TV.

The Internet needs power…

To deliver a reliable Internet service in to a country requires that that country have a viable and effective power supply.  Even now, many developing countries do not have reliable power.  Is it realistic to prioritise the right to the Internet over the right to a reliable and cheap energy source that can provide power for light, heating, entertainment, energy for industry? 

What’s the point of an Internet without machines…

Even with projects like OLPC and other ideas to get computers in to developing nations, there will still be the problem of providing equipment and software in to developing nations in a sustainable and long term manner.  A laptop computer – or a mobile phone, for that matter – is a complex piece of kit and is unlikely to be easily manufactured or maintainable locally. 

The Internet doesn’t educate or heal

Whilst the information on the Internet may be helpful in education, just how much of it is relevant without literacy?  And which is a more effective means of delivering basic and even advanced education in a developing nation?  $1000 spent on a computer that might help 1 person, or the same amount spent on books and similar resources for a class?  the Internet does not provide basic health care – it may provide useful information but cannot vaccinate.

The bottom line is that we live in a world of limited resources in which we have to prioritise those resources.  To claim the Internet is a fundamental right is to forget that the real fundamental rights – a home, food, safe water and no local Gestapo kicking the door in because you disagree with your Government – are yet to be achieved over much of the planet.  In a technologically advanced society their might be an excuse for this sort of comment, but in parts of the world where the next drink of water could kill you, it’s a luxury that cannot be realistically afforded.

Engagement, pandering, patronising or exploitation?

educationThere is nothing new in the efforts to engage pupils at school by combining what is taught in lessons with what interests them in the outside world.  In many respects it’s a good way forward – some years ago there were efforts to encourage reading in boys by basically getting them to read anything – comics, football reports, whatever – on the off-chance that they would then start reading books and improving their reading skills and general literacy.    This project was geared around encouraging children to read material that interested them, in the hope of that material being a gateway to reading other things.  It wasn’t focused on particular comics or films or ‘tie ins’ for example.

So far so good, but when does engagement become pandering?  When does it become patronising – and, in some cases, is there an argument to be made for some aspects of this sort of outside world / education crossover actually being exploitative of children and teenagers?  For example,  developing lesson material like the one mentioned here might work very well with pupils for whom the ‘Twilight’ series is a major interest but would do absolutely nothing for others for whom it means nothing.  I have to say that I’d also be concerned about the longevity of such material in terms of it maintaining it’s interest and relevance for future years of students.  The last thing that a teacher will want is to either develop material that goes out of ‘favour’ with pupils so quickly that it needs to be revised each year.  Maintaining ‘relevance’ is about keeping educational material valid and relevant in the wider world, not in the world of this month’s media hype.

There’s also an element of being patronising here – attempting to second guess what teenagers might be interested in is a dangerous occupation; it can easily fail and be regarded as patronising.  Education is surely not about appearing ‘cool’ to the students; surely it’s more important to put ideas and concepts over in an understandable way, that is as far as possible relevant and contemporary so as to engage pupils, but not by jumping on to whatever bandwagon is passing?

As far as I can see, there are some topics taught that are, let’s say, eternal.  They’re the basics; the stuff that’s been taught for as long as the subject has existed.  In my experience this tends to be confined to the basics of reading, writing and numeracy.  Things like the rules of grammar, basic arithmetic and counting, even, dare I say it, things like times-tables.  The factual aspects of history and geography (without the interpretation) falls in to this category.  Whether we like it or not, any attempt to ‘engage’ pupils with these topics is almost certainly going to be met with resignation or smirks from the class.  Perhaps we need to actually get down to business here; the fact is that there are some things we need to learn to get on in life that are just hard work and need to be done.  No point in trying to make it cool, or trendy; it just needs doing.  best thing we can do is just get on with it.

Of course, it does benefit ‘content providers’ like film companies, computer games manufacturers, etc. to get in to the field of education in this way; it’s cheap marketing to a captive audience, after all.  And it’s probably tax-deductible….