Closing the Digital Divide and the Rise of the Global Commons – Looking Back from 2050

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This blog is written by Lev Gonick, CEO of OneCommunity (Cleveland, Ohio) in response to the October 6, 2015 Meeting of the Minds group blogging event, which asks, “The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like and give them advise on the next 35 years.”

It’s 2050.

Mark Zuckerberg is 65. Together with nonagenarian Bono, former rocker global ambassador, the duo who joined forces in 2015 to extend Internet access on a global scale are now the senior statesmen for a global movement. The movement, born of urgency in 2015 is now a creative, messy, and vital force calling for new leadership for what is now commonly called the “global commons.” The coalition of the willing includes netizens, the generation born after 2025 whose activism focuses on actions for direct connected democratic participation in affinity communities as well as traditional geographically bounded neighborhoods. Netizens are, as a generational cohort, overwhelmingly motivated by a commitment to saving the global commons.

Back in 2015 more than half the planet did not have access to network connectivity. In cities like Cleveland, more than a third of the city’s households did not have home-based Internet access.  As much as the World Wide Web, social media, the Internet of Things and open data were seen 35 years ago as technologies for the next generation, those supporting the global Connectivity Declaration then  saw how critical digital literacy and leadership was to the growing divides facing both within the United States and in civil societies around the world.

The central insight of the global commons movement is a recalibration of the role of both the government and the private sector. The various challenges that face us at the mid-point of the 21st century now amount to a civilizational malaise. The unfettered marketplace cannot solve these inter-related challenges alone. Or at least, those advocating for the global commons assert the invisible hand of the market cannot address these mega issues in a timely and efficient manner without placing the entire planet at an unacceptable risk.

Mass migrations of disenfranchised people from south to north and from east to west place increasingly desperate populations against xenophobia and high cost policing in the OECD countries.

Conflicts and related dislocations associated with environmental crises like water shortages and unsustainable global warming result in perennial military incursions, no longer by States but rather by tribal hyper-nationalist behaviors significant limiting and underscoring the continuing weakening of central authority around the globe.

Counter-intuitively, while Internet availability was largely achieved by 2025, more than 25% of the world’s population has inadequate access to actively participate in the mid-century global Internet economy.  Indeed, more than a third of households in more than 50 cities with populations greater than 250,000 in the United States do not have real broadband connectivity as defined by the FCC.

More revealing and urgent is that the gap is growing not narrowing. While the Internet underclass have incrementally better access and service options, the elite Internet Technorati’s opportunities and consumption patterns have grown exponentially for the past three decades. Those with economic and technology means to access and leverage the most advanced health, education, and cultural experiences are now available to only the most elite Technorati. The growing digital underclass, now approaching two-thirds of the U.S. population shows evidence that it is no longer willing to be supplicated by empty promises. Unequal technological development is both shaped by the central drivers of the civilizational malaise and at the same time drives that gap ever larger.

Transformational breakthroughs in science, medicine, discovery, and human communication are now available to less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the population.  Amazing health, education, and smart cities technologies are accessible to only 1 percent of the population. The gap between the Internet Technorati and the Internet underclass continues to grow exponentially, leading to challenges that increasingly lead to an alienated and disenfranchised population whose numbers swell every year.

The netizen generation has mobilized a growing coalition of young people and their supporters demanding greater equity and focus on the needs of the global commons.

The deeply fractured and hardened segmentation of American society is real and has led to the fraying of the fabric and the threads that bind us together. Those marginalized over the past three decades have internalized a degree of powerlessness and a now routinely display a growing sense of alienation and exasperation.

This dystopian scenario threatens both the powerful elected class and the Argonauts of the Internet marketplace.

This does not mean that individuals, family foundations, and corporate accountability cannot make a difference. They do impact the lives of those at risk every day.  Business can be an agent in support of the  global commons. Internet economy billionaires are not uniformly selfish or blind to the risks facing the planet and the human condition.

Back in 2010, the FCC issued the nation’s first Broadband Plan. In contrast to regulatory environments around the world, American exceptionalism as articulated in the Broadband Plan saw limited opportunities for broad federal authority and policy to advance national purposes like education, health, and workforce development. In 2015, calls for an update to the FCC national plan and a new set of national goals coincided with the Bono Zuckerberg global connectivity declaration. The origins of the global commons movement draws inspiration from spirited debate back in 2015 on how to frame the goals of the updated Broadband Plan; how the institutions and regulatory authority of government could lay the foundation and how the private sector could build meaningful technology strategies to address the pressing national challenges facing the country in that Presidential election year. Similar calls were made at the United Nations and numerous multi-lateral agencies and international forums. Netizens refer to this moment as the pre-history of the global commons movement.

The dystopian nightmare was neither entirely avoided nor is the future inevitable. The call for visionary leadership was incredibly important in 2015. Netizens working and mobilizing at the interstices of local and global social action efforts, routinely and with growing success are calling for a new generation of leadership, generous, ethical, and broadly committed to our collective future. The future of the entire planet depends on it.

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