The Web Index needs sustainability

Just ran across the new site for WebIndex, a site from The World Wide Web Foundation that is considering the global impact of the Internet and the web. Unlike “basic” measures like Internet speed or bandwidth, it is looking at a multi-variate score:

…the world’s first multi-dimensional measure of the Web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations. It covers 61 developed and developing countries, incorporating indicators that assess the political, economic and social impact of the Web, as well as indicators of Web connectivity and infrastructure.

The Web Index        accelerating access to the web

In creating the Web Index, lots of non-design and development indicators were used to judge how valuable or perhaps even “meaningful” the web is.  Here are a few of them (this is NOT a total list). You’ll see the indicators vary from relatively objective (bandwidth) to more subjective (the degree to which the web is use for politics):

Sample Web Index Indicators –

  • Electrification rate
  • Reliability of electricity supply
  • International Bandwidth (Mbits/Second) per internet user
  • Broadband subscribers per 100 population
  • Percentage of population covered by a mobile cellular network
  • Use of web for political mobilisation
  • Ease of access of government data
  • Web use by those with hearing disability
  • Female role models in ICT field
  • Extent of social networking
  • Internet access in schools
  • Wikipedia articles in local language
  • Use of the web for criminal activities

It’s an interesting list. The indices do look a lot like something turned out by a Western, liberal group interested in promoting a specific agenda of empowerment, arising from “open source” thinking (which explains why Wikipedia is one of the social goods here). I’m jiggy with most of that. There is assumption that the goals the web enables are the goals of humanity.  There are only a few indicators (e.g. crime on the web) where reduction would be a positive. A clear assumption, often seen elsewhere, is that network access = empowerment of the poor and marginalized.

Hmmmm, I imagine that the version an agency in China would churn out would look a bit different, though they may be happier with the rise of the web than most think. As Evgeny Morozov points out in his great book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, more may not always be better. From the Amazon description:

…For all of the talk in the West about the power of the Internet to democratize societies, regimes in Iran and China are as stable and repressive as ever. Social media sites have been used there to entrench dictators and threaten dissidents, making it harder—not easier—to promote democracy.

It is, as one review points out a bit of techno-romanticism to assume that increasing web access will automatically lead to a better world, or even a “somewhat better” one. Certainly, the Web doesn’t automatically contribute to a “Gross Happiness Index.”  And, we’ve been here before. As Tom Standage pointed out in his classic history The Victorian Internet, news of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 led to predictions of world peace and an end to old prejudices and hostilities.

But I realize that the World Wide Web foundation tries to consider the good and the bad on the web, so they are not entirely naive tech-utopians. This is not my issue with the Web Index.

My issue is what’s left unsaid in the indicators – the sustainability of the web, if our goal is to expand it everwhere as a “conspiracy of good.” The implicit assumption behind the Web Index is that we will be able to keep expanding the web for many years, ultimately giving the entire world a virtual life characteristic of some advanced countries.

Countries with a higher Web Index presumably will need more electricity, add more Internet access, enable social networks and business from traditionally under-representated groups, more and more as the the number of connections grow. What isn’t being questioned here is:

Can we sustain an ever-rising access to the web, as well as ever-rising energy and resources needed to support ever more advances web apps and services?

Are there diminishing returns to increasing the Web Index? Do newer services require more energy and infrastructure while adding little that is new?

In other words, there’s no indicator in the Web Index list I can find which indicates whether the web will be able to expand in each country. Its not hard to imagine why web sustainability might differ from country to country. In some African countries, a network of packet-switching routed through microwave towers might make up for bad roads. But those same countries may have costly electricity, and moves to provide it might take it from other critical areas (think room lights).  In others, the Internet may be cool, but it may provide services that are little more than “time wasters,” and are actually less green than what they replaced.

Looking at the bigger picture, a truly World-Wide Web with broadband everywhere would use a significant fraction of the energy of civilization. In the USA, the Internet is already pulling several percent of total electrical power, with something around 5% worldwide. According to the World Wide Web Foundation, in 2012 70% of the people of the world do not have regular net access. What would a super-broadband web that reached everyone, much less a 3D “virtual world” web need to run? Unless we believe energy and infrastructure are infinite and nearly costless, a set of sustainability indicators need to be factored into the index.

So, while I like the idea of creating a multi-variate measure of the Web, IMHO it needs to be buffered with sustainability. Rising Web access and use in everyday life, work, and politics, even if they are a universal good, need to be balanced against the environmental footprint required to create said services.

It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be trying to get the Web everywhere, but that we can’t assume that its expansion is “weightless”. And, if we measure the value of the web via its promotion of “social good” ideas (many of which have equivalents in sustainability frameworks), we have to consider their negative, as well as positive impact.

Sustainability needs to be measured against growth, both in the real and virtual world.

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