One web or the western web?

At the Tim Berners-LeeFuture Of The Web’event this Tuesday 8th July at NESTA’s HQ, the talk on all things webby turned political.   Apparently the internet has reached a cross roads. In the West we’ve reached a point where we must try and harness the opportunity the technology’s afforded us.   

Three billion of us now have mobile phones.  The rate at which we adopted them has been the fastest uptake of any kind of technology in history; beating the electric lightbulb, the tv and the motor car.

As handsets get fancier and more complex with lots of fancy add-ons, it’s not just phone calls or texting that people have access to but video messaging and the mobile web.

India, China and Africa have the largest level of mobile phone uptakers anywhere in the world.  The poorer infastructure in some African countries means that mobiles are having a huge impact on people’s lives; allowing them access to goods and services that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to.

Regardless of micro-level developments, it’s easy to forget, in the words of Charles Leadbeatter, “the web is designed for the West, by the West”.  The economic gap is still pretty huge but that’s not to say there isn’t potential for economic development.

It’s video messaging in particular that’s really improving lives.  Texting is pretty pointless for those who can’t read or write.  Literacy data published by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) in 2007 showed that in some Sub Saharan African countries fewer than three out of ten adults can read and write. 

Interestingly it’s these areas of continental Africa that are producing the highest mobile uptake rates.  A farmer who’s cut off by poor roads or inadequate land lines would, according to the figures at least, have access to a mobile phone.  If their lifestock becomes unwell, for whatever reason, they can record the video footage and send it to a county vet who can then diagnose and prescribe treatment remotely. 

When the great laptop divide is still going strong, getting into the mobile web may just be one way of closing that ever windening economic gap.

[Read my first post on the Tim Berners Lee event ‘The Future Of The Web’, held at NESTA, 8th July 2008]