Here's what I truly want for Christmas: Internet access for all: Peter Nowak

Two-thirds of us are without


(Photo: Kris De Curtis/Flickr)

What do I want for Christmas? That’s an easy one: the ability to identify fishing birds. Not just for me, but for everyone.

My wife and I were on a Caribbean cruise last week – our first ever, which meant the whole experience was new to us. The most novel part, to me at least, was spending several days without Internet access. It was available through ship-board Wi-Fi, but at $29 for 45 minutes of slow satellite connectivity, it simply wasn’t worth it. It was the first time in years I can remember going for more than a few days without internet, making our cruise something of the truest vacation I’ve had in ages.

The situation was similar in our two Mexican ports of call. With wireless roaming even more expensive than satellite access, we left our phones off. It was only when we found a beach resort in Cozumel with free Wi-Fi that we were ably to briefly jump online and catch up on what was going on in the world. Over all, the break was kind of nice.

However, it was in Progreso, an unremarkable city on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula, where I really felt the strange disconnection. My wife remarked at the large birds dive-bombing fish in the water, believing them to be pelicans. I was fairly sure they were kingfishers and instinctively reached for my phone to check, before realizing we were on our own. There would be no Internet to confirm one way or the other.

It’s an innocuous example – one of many similar occurrences on our trip – but a good highlight of the Internet’s larger effect on our brains. Some observers, such as the New York Times’ Nicholas Carr, have argued that it is making us stupider because it’s diminishing our ability for deeper thought. That may or may not be true, but there’s little doubt the Internet has also expanded people’s access to information. Identifying a particular bird may sound trivial, but it’s such little bits of information that add up to a larger wealth of knowledge, which can ultimately contribute to the overall growth of intelligence.

On the recommendation of a friend I also read Isaac Asimov’s The  End of Eternity – as an e-book, so I wasn’t completely technology-free – on my trip. The classic novel is all about time travel and the Butterfly effect, or what happens to divergent time streams when little changes are made to the past. It got me thinking about the Internet’s similar ripple effect, how each little piece of information can catalyze searches for deeper knowledge.

When wondering about the birds fishing off Progreso’s pier, for example, I also started wondering about the town itself – what did people do there, how did they fare compared to the rest of Mexico, and so on. These were things I could have learned had I spent time there, but unfortunately our shore excursion lasted only a few hours. Afterward, from the comfort of my own home and thanks to the Internet, I learned that the residents of the town – like their birds – depend on fishing for much of their livelihood.

As for the birds themselves, it turns out I was wildly wrong. With relatively thin beaks and dark feathers, they may indeed have been a type of pelican, or possibly even cormorants. They certainly weren’t kingfishers, which are colourful and not found in that part of the world. Voila: The Internet has made me just a bit smarter.

When friends and relatives ask me what I want for Christmas, I sometimes crack the old standy joke response of “world peace.” But in truth I would very much like to see a variation on that – I’d love to see everyone, everywhere have inexpensive and high-quality access to the Internet and thus its pool of knowledge, because it’s only through the building of intelligence that true world peace will ever be achieved. Amid all the cat videos, memes and other vacuous nonsense online, we often forget this: that the Internet’s greatest value is its unprecedented and unmatched ability to educate and therefore uplift.

With only about a third of the world online, there’s still an incredibly long way to go. Here’s hoping that 2014 will see considerably more people get onto the Internet, both in advanced countries – around 20% of North Americans still aren’t online – and especially in the developing world. Ubiquitous connectivity is a goal worth pursuing, both for the noble cause of world peace and the simple ability to tell those darn birds apart.