Digital divides: Going offline in South Korea and online in Nigeria

Recent BBC reports reveal some strange goings-on in South Korea, the "most wired nation on Earth," where social networking was practically invented. In a recent BBC survey conducted across 26 countries, four in five adults said Internet access should
be "a fundamental right of all people," with South Korea showing the highest level of support (96%).

First, BBC News reported that a South Korean couple obsessed with caring for a virtual daughter online let their real baby starve to death. The parents became addicted to the Internet as an escape from reality after losing their jobs, according to police, and only fed their three-month-old baby once per day because they spent 12-hour stretches at an Internet cafe.

Then, as part of its "On/Off" project, BBC recruited two South Korean families to spend a week without the Internet. Some said that living offline was inconvenient and felt "suffocating" but others enjoyed "rediscovering lost time" to play with their kids and drink tea with neighbors. While one person never wanted "to go through this again," another recommended that "everyone should spend a week without the Internet."

Another segment of this project followed a rural community in Nigeria, where people usually travel 30 miles to get online, after some villagers got mobile Internet phones. It's striking what a difference these devices can make in a context — unlike developed nations — where there's no running water or electricity yet alone basic access to e-mail communication and online information about, say, health or politics.

The stories are part of a BBC series called the "Superpower Season" looking at the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web, which also features an interview with Tim Berners-Lee and some video contributions by erstwhile citizen-journalists. Though the series shows technophiliac tendencies, it aims "to consider how far we have come,
and how much
further there is still to go (…) to uncover untold stories and give you a fresh perspective (…) to ask who benefits: who is wielding this new-found power?" I hope it does all this, but so far the tone has been rather celebratory and uncritical.

Maybe we can agree that Internet access has become a fundamental right and that developing countries will benefit from more Internet access. But can we also agree that developed nations would benefit from — not less access or less content — but less time spent online and less dependence on the Internet? For communication and information, just as for material goods, we could reach a threshold where we realize that we have "enough" and that "more" would be superfluous.

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