Facebook co-founder and hoodie-enthusiast Mark Zuckerberg has revealed his extremely optimistic prediction for how the Internet will reshape the lives of the Earth’s poorest people in a cheery Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Though it didn’t get nearly as much pickup as Zuckerberg’s previous op-ed on immigration reform for the Washington Post, it is nonetheless informative about how one of the world’s most powerful technologists views his own work.

More influential than the printing press

“There have been moments in history where the invention of new technology has completely rewired the way our society lives and works,” wrote Zuckerberg. “The printing press, radio, television, mobile phones, and the Internet are among these. In the coming decades, we will see the greatest revolution yet, as billions of people connect to the Internet for the first time.”

The printing press is easily one of the most significant inventions of the last 500 years. The explosion in mass literacy gave birth to the French Enlightenment and, eventually, democracy. Prior to the printing press, self-governance was only possible in very small societies; really, it only existed in the rolling hills of ancient Athens, where roughly 5,000 citizens would gather to hear orations.

The switch from oral tradition to written language was the basis for the scientific revolution, as it was never before possible to record and replicate information with the same speed.

Radio had a relatively more muted impact on society; it helped centralize the American government and national culture, since everyone could hear the exact same information simultaneously.

Zuckerberg appears to believe that the Internet will have a more profound impact on society than the printing press — in essence, the scientific revolution and the birth of democracy. It’s quite possible that connected devices will indeed rapidly advance society in ways that are qualitatively different than self-governance and the scientific method.

Google, for instance, is leveraging the vast wealth of the web to power a generation of artificial intelligence. Moreover, the creation of virtual reality could create a world that is, for the first time, free of geographic alliances (and all of their associated rivalries).

Whatever the cause, Zuckerberg predicts (very) big things from the web.

Dramatic reductions in poverty

“A recent study by Deloitte found that expanding Internet access in developing countries would create 140 million jobs and lift 160 million people out of poverty, and that this newfound opportunity would even meaningfully reduce child-mortality rates,” said Zuckerberg. “Across sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, the Internet will help drive human progress.”

There are a number of tech titans who believe that information asymmetry is the cause of poverty. The poor have all sorts of valuable skills and ideas, but can’t connect to investors or buyers, because no one with power can readily access them. Last month, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky predicted that similar web platforms in the U.S. would alleviate poverty by giving everyone access to part-time paying gigs.

For instance, nonprofit micro-work firm Samasource farms out mostly low-skill digital tasks to some of the poorest places on earth. This reporter has used freelancing platform oDesk to hire people in Asia for research.

Zuckerberg evidently imagines some rather large outflows of cash from developed nations to the developing world, creating financial parity thanks to the Internet.

A connected world

“Perhaps the most important change might be a new global sense of community,” said Zuckerberg. “Today we can only hear the voices and witness the imaginations of one-third of the world’s people. We are all being robbed of the creativity and potential of the two-thirds of the world not yet online. Tomorrow, if we succeed, the Internet will truly represent everyone.”

The idea of so-called “global citizenship” has been around for at least 95 years, around the creation of the League of Nations in 1919. President Obama ushered in a renewed interest in the philosophy, believing that all nations either succeed or fall together. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tech advisor, Alec Ross, was especially big on this philosophy, helping to promote Internet access and entrepreneurship throughout the globe.

The Internet does make countries more interdependent, as everyday citizens are able to communicate and trade without the nuisance of a government mediator.

One would think that identifying as a “global citizen,” rather than a citizen of the U.S., would have increased with a younger generation that is used to chatting and playing World of Warcraft from those all around the world. But, according to World Values Survey data, young people are not significantly more likely to identify with a global sense of community as older generations.

So, it appears that a global sense of community still needs something a bit more from the Internet, if the Internet can have that effect at all on our beliefs.

Still, these very optimistic predictions help explain why Zuckerberg commits so much of his own money to advancing Internet access in the developing world through programs like Internet.org. He thinks the knowledge economy has a grand mission. It also means he thinks Internet companies deserve a lot of respect and resources, too.


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