I spent the last few weeks in Myanmar, a lovely country with an internet that’s grindingly slow. Until a couple of years ago SIM cards cost tens of thousands of dollars – a simple way of those in power controlling access. Then in late 2014 the rules were relaxed, a million cards were sold in a month. The demand for cards and bandwidth continues to outstrip the burgeoning supply with the inevitable result that even when you can get reception, it’s often hardly worth the effort if you’re trying to access the Internet.
It was, by the way, fascinating to see people living in dirt shacks or riding on the back of bullock-carts with mobile phones. In a country where the majority live without electricity this was bewildering until we found out that cheap solar panels from China mean that even if you have to walk two kilometers to a well and your roof is made from a re-purposed advertising banner, you can have a phone.
Anyway, what the last couple of weeks drove home to me was how much I’ve come to rely on ubiquitous internet access as a daily part of my life. Why bother memorising a telephone number when I can so easily look it up? Kids ask a question – no problem I’ll just check on Google. What’s the word for ‘good morning’ in Burmese? Hold on the Internet can tell me.. er, no it can’t.
I’ve become a cyborg. My devices hold a chunk of my memory and the working information I rely upon. And it’s all held in the cloud. Which is wonderful when it works. But when it doesn’t, I’m left twitchy and bereft. And if you think I exaggerate, try getting your kids to look up something on a paper map in the car. The whole process of using a Gregories or UBD book of maps is entirely foreign to the younger generation brought up with GPS and Google Maps with turn-by-turn directions.
While in some ways that’s all very predictable, and I’m talking up my cyborginess, what astonishes me when I contemplate it is that this has happened in less than 10 years. In the 9 years since the iPhone was introduced, the World has shifted in a way which I don’t think anyone could have predicted.
Until a few weeks ago I might well have framed this story in terms of how lucky we are to have the ubiquitous Internet and the devices that make relying on cloud information possible. But while visiting Myanmar certainly drove home to me how lucky we are to have fresh water on tap, it also made me realise that the Internet and connected devices are quickly changing our whole World not just the bit that’s currently at the pointy end of the change. People have Internet access before they have clean drinking water: I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but it’s certainly something to contemplate. And I do wonder if whether the Internet with its access to deep information and connections might well help speed up achieving solutions to the more basic problems, like access to clean water, facing countries like Myanmar.
It is certainly going to create even more people who will come to rely on devices and storage beyond the confines of their own skulls to navigate through life.