“If someone was ready to fork over $1 million to you to stop using the Internet – forever – would you do it?”
Economics professor W. Michael Cox, who asked that question of his students, received an unambiguous reply. “You couldn’t pay me enough,” they answered.
That answer speaks to just how priceless the internet has become, and how encouraging it is to see it spreading throughout the world, including to the poorest countries.
The internet’s ubiquity makes summarising its various uses a pretty daunting task. To start with, it is the repository of all human knowledge. Search engines provide answers to virtually all questions. Online videos explain billions of different topics and procedures. Users can take online courses and communicate with experts. New books are easily accessible in digital and audio forms, while old books are being digitised en masse. Publishing and broadcasting have been democratised. People can share their ideas easily and, if need be, anonymously.
Then there are the huge benefits to human communication. Letters that used to take weeks or months to arrive have been superseded by email and social media apps that make written contact instantaneous and practically cost-free. International phone calls were once very expensive. Today, video chats allow for a face-to-face conversation with anyone, anywhere. In the future, it may even be possible to download the contents of human brains onto a computer, thus enabling communication with people from beyond the grave.
The internet is also a great productivity enhancer. Online banking allows people conveniently to view their balances, pay their bills and make other transactions. Online shopping allows buyers to access most goods and services, compare their prices and read product reviews. Sellers can reach more people than could ever fit in a retail store. Research shows that much of US growth since the mid-1990s has been driven by internet-induced efficiency gains among large retailers, such as Walmart and, later, Amazon.