This research has the aim to map what is unfindable on the internet and identify how online presence is distributed. Is internet a privilege?A resource? A need? A curse? What does the internet represents today both for the 50% of the world population that have direct access to it and mainly to the 50% who doesn’t.
Who is not online?
I explored the idea of identifying who we can’t find online and the systems that surround this situation. I talked to experts and people that had done almost anything possible to erase their names from search engines and social media, I read documents and listened to podcasts on the dark web, the right of prisoners to be online, asked around for people to google dead relatives from past generations, and, of course, read a lot of UN and Global Economic Forum reports. With that, I arrived in some specific groups that either are not online at all or have a reduced online presence when compared to the ‘average secular human’ today. These groups are:
- Data Privacy Advocates;
- Criminals that don’t use the mainstream web;
- Dead people from past generations;
- People that are in a social situation that does not allow them to be online (incarcerated prisoners, Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Mormons);
- People that are in a social-economic situation and region where there is no access to the internet whatsoever.
By identifying these groups I aimed to create a less blurry image of what internet represents in the world today.
My classification is not complete and I do not have a quantitative stat of how much each specific group represents in numbers. A lot of times I reached the question of “what’s the difference between not having access to the internet and not being able to be found on the internet”. As I could not answer it, I decided to understand that the intention of not being online, even if idealized, was already somehow part of a movement that I should include in my research.
I became interested in analyzing the paradoxes I saw by these classifications. There is the obvious fact in my analysis I created a unique group that includes both religious people and incarcerated people – which is very very questionable, but they do usually live in developed regions where you could have internet access but still do not due to either a social imposed restriction or a shared value. And, most importantly, there is the fact that in the spectrum that comprehends the ideal of not being online (Data Privacy Advocates) and the reality of not being online (people living in regions with no internet access) there is such a huge gap of development, resources and education that somehow illustrates the inequality and the extremes of the world we live in.
And, as I saw the UN and World Economic Forum reports, I was stuck with the idea that more than 50% of the world doesn’t have internet access. I live in such a bubble of tech-savvy people, designers, technologists, developers that we never even stop to think about it. I mean, at least I didn’t. And, as I asked people from my school and work here in New York and even friends in Brazil, we have this generalized idea that internet has been fully democratized — for better or worse. But that’s simply not true. Owning a smartphone, having broadband and actually having simple internet access is still a privilege.
By that, I do not mean that the work and fight for Data privacy rights is not relevant today. On the other hand. We are still on the edge of discovering how much our connected devices keep track our information and can directly influence society in a scenario where companies and governments have total access to our personal data. There is a need to regulate and educate internet users towards it and find ways to regain our data privacy. In truth, these paradoxes are a result of the same dynamics of power that feeds itself and this world of extremes.
Still, for the purposes of focusing my research, I decided to explore more about the non-online world.
The Archipelago of Disconnection
By keeping in my mind that in fact more than half of the world doesn’t have access to the internet, I wanted to see through some visualizations what does that represent. Still, I couldn’t any that would give me a satisfying idea of that, as you check below.
Using the data from the ICT Indicators Database I started exploring some ways to visualize that with the Mercator projection, you can access it by clicking in the GIF below.
As you can note I inverted the default structure of how these maps show data: instead of highlighting the amount of online population I showed the amount of people that lacked internet access. Also, I think that the hovering interaction is more playful and easier to compare. Try doing a mouseover in Australia and then make a mouseover in Madagascar. I think it shows a lot of the paradoxes I talked about earlier.
Still, I felt like exploring this idea of map, by highlighting even more the countries with less than 10% of internet penetration, territories that are largely left out of global digital connectivity.
Therefore I created the interactive map below of the “Archipelago of Disconnection” (you can also click in the GIF to interact with it).
The map highlights an archipelago of land that is mostly disconnected from the internet and thus largely barred from participating in the cultural, educational, political, and economic activities that it affords. This archipelago of disconnection has its centre of gravity in the Sub-Saharan Africa where 18 countries have Internet penetration rates beneath the 10% . Among these Sub-Saharan countries with very low connectivity there are some very large populations – such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (68 million), with an overall Internet penetration of a mere 4%.
After these experiments where I looked through the numbers on internet penetrations provided by International Organizations by mapping its data, I realized that I wanted to approach and understand this information both from the data creation perspective (maybe gathering the data flows and understanding the amount of information online generated from these territories) and add a more qualitative and sensitive feel to what I wanted to create as a result of this research.
With that, I remembered of the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and wondered how could I connect this Fantastic realism of the narrative and the Invisible Online Territories from my Archipelago of Disconnection.
Therefore for the next step of my research I will be exploring the data available online on and from some of the cities inside the 18 countries with less than 10% internet penetration rates, trying to create a new way to visualize and highlight this “hidden information” using Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities narrative style as a base – maybe even creating a re-reading of the book.