The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God. — Pope Francis
Like Pope Francis, most of us like the benefits — such as email, online shopping, and music and video streaming — created by the Internet. In fact, about three-quarters of Americans say they would give up alcohol and two-thirds of Indian consumers would stop eating chocolate rather than live without the Internet for a year, according to a 2012 Boston Consulting Group report.
But the impact of digital technologies goes well beyond the personal sphere: They have transformed markets, given rise to new industries, accelerated research, improved health care and connected people in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.
“Digital technologies are doing for human brainpower what the steam engine and related technologies did for human muscle power during the Industrial Revolution,” Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management told Harvard Business Review. “They’re allowing us to overcome many limitations rapidly and to open up new frontiers with unprecedented speed.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the ways the Internet has transformed how we live and conduct business.
Email, messaging, videoconferencing, Internet telephony, social media and other digital tools have allowed thousands of companies to manage projects and people across borders and reach customers in distant locations. And employees in different locations can collaborate more easily on joint projects.
Scientists can share discoveries and build on each other’s work. For example, by 2003 scientists from about 80 research institutions around the world made a number of discoveries via the U.S.-led Human Microbiome Project. In one, they learned that microbial gut communities could be predicted by examining the oral community, a discovery that could provide a basis for personalizing therapies in the future.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) let anyone take courses at universities around the world. This has allowed students access to high-quality education anytime, as MOOCs are open 24/7 all year long. In 2014, 400 universities offered 2,400 online courses to nearly 6 million students, according to the U.S. News and World Report and EducationDive info website.
Online education is in its infancy, but its potential is huge, according to Alex Tabarrok, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“Computer-adaptive learning will be as if every student has their own professor on demand — much more personalized than one professor teaching 500 students or even 50 students,” says Tabarrok.
Digital tools give governments a way to deliver to citizens services that are “better, cheaper, quicker, in a way that is likely to be more equitable and more accurate,” as Francis Maude put it to the Wall Street Journal. Maude is a co-chairman of the Open Government Partnership, an international body that aims to promote transparency and fight corruption.
The Internet-enabled shift toward an “open government” has already produced impressive results in the U.S., Estonia, Norway, New Zealand and scores of other countries. Estonia’s 1.3 million residents can now use electronic ID cards to vote, pay taxes and access more than 160 services online, from unemployment benefits to property registration. And India’s digital identification system, Aadhaar, helps expand public services to poor and marginalized populations.
The Internet has become a platform for marketing and distributing products and services worldwide. Individual consumers and entrepreneurs have been some of the greatest beneficiaries of the digital revolution, according to a 2011 McKinsey & Company report. Startups with little money can now be launched from home with Internet access. They can offer services or goods for sale through many e-commerce platforms, such as eBay or Alibaba.
About 150,000 Internet-related businesses are started each year in emerging and developing economies, according to a 2012 McKinsey report. For example, a startup in Mozambique called moWoza connects informal merchants with taxi drivers through text messaging and a smartphone app. The taxi drivers deliver goods from wholesalers for merchants to sell, reducing their overhead costs by eliminating the need to warehouse inventory. And in African countries with mobile networks, farmers with mobile access can more easily sell their produce and receive payments than those without such access.
Despite cybertheft and security and privacy concerns, the digital revolution already has produced impressive economic results. Between 1995 and 2000, the Internet accounted for 21 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) growth in developed economies, according to the 2011 McKinsey report. The Internet would rank in the world’s top five economies, behind the U.S., China, India and Japan, if the network were a national economy, says David Dean, a co-author of McKinsey’s 2012 report.
National economies haven’t yet realized full returns on their investments in digital technologies, according to experts. “We are still in the early stages of the transformations the Internet will unleash and the opportunities it will foster,” the 2011 McKinsey report says. Economic growth translates into tangible benefits, including new jobs.
“Digital technologies will bring the world into an era of more wealth and abundance and less drudgery and toil,” says Erik Brynjolfsson of the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Bridging the digital divide
Brynjolfsson warns, however, that “not everyone will share in the bounty” unless the digital divide between developed and developing nations is bridged. About 60 percent of the world’s population — that is, 4.4 billion people — lacks Internet access because of poor digital infrastructure or government restrictions.
Internet connectivity is as fundamental to economic development as roads, electricity and other traditional infrastructure, according to experts.
Countries in which people can’t get online easily are losing on average 2.5 percent GDP growth a year, according to a 2014 study by the Boston Consulting Group. On the other hand, countries that invest in network infrastructure and connectivity are experiencing a 1.4 percent increase in GDP growth for every 10 percent increase in Internet penetration.
In September 2015, the U.S. Department of State launched the Global Connect Initiative, an effort to bring 1.5 billion additional people online by 2020 through partnerships among governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. The initiative builds on an earlier U.S. effort — the Alliance for Affordable Internet — and contributes to similar international efforts.