Much of the debate about how to connect the world’s next billion internet users suffers from a lack of nuance, with many believing a person either has a stable internet connection, or nothing at all. That binary perspective misses the myriad creative in-betweens. From migrant workers in China logging on in back-alley internet cafés, to a student in Mexico buying prepaid data cards, millions of people improvise their own web access using social ties and local surroundings.
These workarounds offer inspiration for designers, policymakers, and other web-inclined thinkers who shape the experience of internet access across the world’s emerging markets. Makeshift found two examples of a more nuanced alternative to the either-or mindset.
Amanda is an aspiring accountant living in rural northern Uganda. She doesn’t have web access or running electricity at home, but she’s found a way to tap into the digital music revolution.
Every week or so, she walks to a computer shop to buy new music for her feature phone—a mobile phone that can store and play music but isn’t a smartphone. The shopkeeper, Lucas, connects a micro USB cord to Amanda’s phone and transfers the latest hits, from Western pop stars like Carly Rae Jepsen to Ugandan musicians like Bobi Wine. Amanda could listen to the radio, but she says she wants the MP3s to play any time at home.
Lucas takes his own journey to acquire the files he sells to Amanda, in an enterprise that resembles a low-fi Napster. At least once a month, he takes the public bus on a bumpy dirt road to Gulu, a town of about 100,000 people, where he downloads new files to hard drives from a local shop. The files originate on the web, but neither Lucas nor the Gulu shopkeeper access the internet directly. The top of the supply chain—other vendors—download file transfers and sell loaded drives via the bustling sneakernet.
Back at home, Amanda uses a solar panel to charge her music-filled phone—and the phones of neighbors, for a small fee. When visitors stop by, she keeps the cycle going, transferring some of her music to their phones using her device’s Bluetooth feature.
A world away, in Tibet, Doji scowls into the screen of an iPod Touch. Seated in a broad wicker chair at a dusty café, the English teacher has just traveled 90 minutes by motorbike to Garzê, the closest settlement to his village with a medical clinic able to treat his ailing son. It’s also the only place he can access the internet.
During downtime from the clinic, Doji pops into the café one afternoon. A visiting friend gave Doji the iPod, which stumps him. He was able to log on to the free Wi-Fi, but that’s as far as he got before encountering problems. Today, he wants to figure out how he can “use apps”. But he’s not having much luck.
First, the set-up for a new Google App Store account asks for a physical address. “We don’t have addresses in my village,” he explains. Fortunately, Google accepts a cell phone number instead, which he types in successfully. Next, Apple’s iOS requests a bank card number. “I think I have a bank account…” Doji hedges, explaining he opened one with Garzê’s Agricultural Bank long ago, but rarely uses it. Reaching a stalemate, Doji gives up and opens the pre-installed Safari app to read the news.
Doji’s iPod Touch serves as his link to the digital world to the information superhighway. In his home village, he’s completely offline, but in Garzê he’s connected to the web—or at least the parts he’s able to use.