The Challenge Of Connecting The Unconnected

Editor’s note: Hassan Baig is an entrepreneur who runs ClubInternet, a “connecting the unconnected” startup.

Every time we return to or sign up for an Internet service (e.g. Facebook, Google, Gmail, YouTube, etc.), we rely on what UX experts call a “mental model” for navigating through the choices. A mental model is essentially a person’s intuition of how something works based on past knowledge, similar experiences and common sense. So even when something is new, mental models help to make sense of it, utilizing the human brain’s ability to transcode knowledge and recognize patterns.

For instance, most of our grandparents can hit the ground running with changing the channel or increasing the volume when handed the remote control for the latest television available in the market today, squarely because of a well-developed mental model for TV remote control units.

The “Why-How” Ambit

But our grandparents may not have the same level of success when using Internet services, smartphones or tablets. Under-developed mental models in these domains are their primary obstacles. In fact, according to Pew Research, 41 percent of American senior citizens do not use the Internet at all.

So can teaching them how to use basic Internet services create the right mental models and alleviate the problem? It’s a step in the right direction, but there are other barriers at play. For instance, the same Pew Research study indicates only 1 in 2 older American adults actually know the benefits of the Internet (e.g. online shopping and entertainment, video conferencing with and emailing loved ones, reconnecting with old friends on social networks, medical advice etc.) — the rest, by implication, feeling that there’s no incentive to go online.

In other words, onboarding someone to the Internet is a question of both teaching them how digital interfaces and basic Internet services work, and why they should consider using the Internet in the first place. Both go hand in hand.

An Abstract Problem

In addition to the aforementioned, Internet accessibility and affordability are significant hurdles that need to be overcome, as well, but they’re essentially engineering problems with a finite scope. In contrast, developing desire and mental capacities to make use of the Internet’s many conveniences is an abstract, psychological challenge (with a potentially infinite scope).

This gamut of issues needs to be tackled for the unconnected to connect. Of course, by no means is anyone advocating forcing the offline to get online. The point is purely to remove the hurdles so the unconnected can make an informed decision about going online and not under duress of the fear of the unknown.

An Unconnected World

How many unconnected are there anyway? According to most sources, approximately 20 percent of Americans are unconnected. That’s a big number. But this balloons if the whole world is taken into account. So how many are unconnected across the entire world? 4.3 billion.

That is, for every Internet user, there are two people who don’t use the Internet at all; this skews predominantly rural, low-income and female. All these unconnected are missing out on the myriad ways the Internet facilitates its users: efficient communication, education, better career opportunities, free information regarding the personal and the professional, cross-pollination of world views, cheaply available entertainment, social networking, digital storage, etc.

Likewise, given how the majority of the 4.3 billion unconnected belong to underdeveloped economies, some “third-world specific” benefits could also result. For instance, imagine how contagions like Ebola and Polio would become accurately trackable; or how moderate voices would digitally seep into extremist-controlled localities and seed pluralistic world views; or how smallholder farmers would get access to modern farming methodologies and finally look beyond their forefathers’ archaic agri-practices; or how each of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals would never again suffer from the difficulty of data gathering, paving the way to much faster course correction and much bigger impact. We could end up making a dent in history’s biggest, most stubborn challenges — this second Internet revolution being as pivotal in human history as the second industrial revolution.

Viewed across time, the opportunity cost of what the unconnected are missing out on is at least growing as fast as the aggregate progress in Internet-based technological advancements. How big a cost would that be five years from now? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty?

Or by contrast, how big an opportunity is that? An opportunity to change the very fabric of the world, for the maximum number of people in the world, forever?

Emerging Solutions

With the accelerating commoditization of low-cost smartphones across the globe, getting everyone in the world online is not as farfetched as it could otherwise be. So to speak, the unconnected are getting their hands on their first ever computing device thanks to this smartphone boom. It is thus no wonder that some of the leading innovators of our time have begun to ponder various solutions for connecting the 4.3 billion unconnected. It can realistically happen.

For example, Google’s Project Loon, the Google Free Zone and the recently announced Android One standard are some crucial steps taken by the search giant to tackle the problem. Likewise, — a global initiative led by Facebook, Samsung, MediaTek, Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm and Opera Software — has been working quite seriously toward making the Internet affordable for the unconnected.

Demand and Supply

The first summit recently kicked off in Delhi. During this summit, Mark Zuckerberg reiterated’s commitment to the cause. And though originally the initiative focused almost exclusively on making the internet affordable (via zero-rating and infrastructural improvement), Mark’s summit speech referenced the mental barriers for communities with no prior Internet experience.

In essence, this is a “demand side” problem, i.e. getting the unconnected to start demanding the Internet through building incentives (i.e. the how) and mental models (i.e. the why). Improving Internet access and affordability, on the other hand, are “supply side” initiatives. Both demand and supply sides need to be tackled in tandem so that — in simple Econ 100 terms — the demand and supply curves intersect at a non-trivial price, leading to the generation of a non-trivial economy around connecting the unconnected.

A recent research study carried out by McKinsey & Co and sponsored by identifies the aforementioned issues, as well, but mentions them individually instead of further refining them into demand- or supply-side problems. Regardless, a sophisticated model including the complex psychological reasons behind being unconnected is finally emerging now, for the first time ever, so there’s a lot we can do from here.