Here are a few things that Nigerians are great at— hustling, fighting with Ghanaians over who makes the best jollof rice, (thank God someone with good sense called us out for this our questionable behavior) and accessing the internet via our cellphones. I bring you this last tidbit from our kind friends at the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) who put the October 2017 count of mobile internet subscriptions at 93.8 million. That is the latest of a number that has been rising steadily throughout this year. And it is cause for rejoicing because it means more and more Nigerians are accessing the internet!
Internet access has all kinds of well known implications for economic and social life. Like, I can just use my untrained eye to look at the number of people who are running businesses with digital/social media-only storefronts, and I can say, oh yes, the internet is helping generate income for many of us. Or, I can turn to professional reports, like this one from the World Bank, that talk about how the knowledge-sharing that a resource like the internet makes possible, helps to sustain different businesses and I can be like, ah look at all that has happened and all that can happen because of the internet!
There is also the active making/remaking of our social fabric that happens in large part on social media, where we are articulating the values that are precious to us, and contesting those values that have historically caused pain for certain members of our body politic. And there are the possibilities for education, perhaps one of our more lacking public goods, that the internet expands. Think about how easy it is, these days, to learn about something you are curious about because of Google or Wikipedia. Or check out this report that talks about the different qualities of the internet that makes it an incredible resource for education–the fact that it astronomically reduces cost, that it opens up access because of the flexibility of online learning (you can do it on your own time), etc.
So without a doubt the internet is great, and as more of us get online, we are likely to continue to work wonders because of it. Let us rejoice! But let us do that rejoicing with an awareness of some sobering facts: that number from the NCC that I gave at the beginning (93.8 million) is only about 49 percent of Nigeria’s population. So while it’s a large number of people, most Nigerians are still without internet access. Moreover, that number does not account for the differences in the ways that people experience internet access. Consider, for instance, the greater service speeds that are possible for higher end (and often more expensive) devices than that which is possible on lower-end devices. Or, consider the better quality of internet service that is available in bigger cities like Lagos, Kano, Abuja, versus the quality that is available in small towns like the one that my grandfather comes from, which is near the border that separates Ondo State and Kogi State. These differences, which are themselves the product of differences that shape much of our existence (think income disparity, disparity in quality of education, etc), structure the ways that people get online. Which is to say that internet access is deeply affected by the same structures of inequality that shape all of our existence.
I was talking to a coworker about this idea one weekend: inequality is like a chameleon. Every time a new resource emerges, the characteristics of inequality that shape society are quickly reproduced in it. As a result, those who gain access to new resources first, are usually those who have had the greatest access to pre-existing resources like education, wealth, work opportunities, healthcare, etc. The internet is very much plagued by this nature of inequality. It’s why the World Bank says, “to get the most out of the digital revolution, countries also need to work on the “analog complements”—by strengthening regulations that ensure competition among businesses, by adapting workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy, and by ensuring that institutions are accountable.” Basically, the internet is great, but it will not reach its full potential for transforming our society until we tackle the inequalities that have seeped into it. How to do so? That is the question.