First world problems?

In 2013, when I was first in South Africa for a short-program we were told during orientation to “turn off our first-world switch.” The speaker wanted us to adjust our expectations and outlook while we were visiting his country. Traveling around South Africa is it easy to see why the term third world has fallen out of use for the more accurate developing countries, semi-developed, or not developed (basically assessing their development not their worldliness). I was always confused when I heard that term growing up it seemed akin to Middle Earth, we are all on the same planet, how could they be in another world? Anyway, I digress.

Something else we were told during orientation was that South Africa is a mix, first-world right next to third-world conditions with many places inbetween. There are places in South Africa where you are in such luxury that it does not seem like the same country would have remote Peace Corps volunteers with emergency evacuation plans. There’s a meme which illustrates the extent to which most Americans or Europeans could not imagine living in the conditions that the majority of people on this planet live everyday its called, First World Problems. This meme can be very funny showing people dramatically overreacting to the slightest inconvience. One luxury that has been difficult and many of us just have not adjusted is slow internet.

When I first got here the joke was made that we are just spoiled and this is a “first-world problem.” And we’re coming from the US with internet speed that lags behind many other developed countries! Actually, instead of an adjustment that we need to get used to, it feels like we are sitting on the digital divide’s fault line. I can see people getting left behind each day because they lack access to the digital world. Those who do have access here are wasting time and energy because their on-ramp to the digital highway is poorly constructed. How does this impact entrepreneurship? Education? Health care?

Currently there is a debate back in the United States about the internet and equal access. One side of the argument asserts that internet access and the internet in general is a utility (i.e. electricity) to which we should all have access. This debate helped push my thoughts to the developing countries and their lack of basic services. I know much of the world and some here in South Africa still struggle for clean drinking water and being concerned about internet access may seem far fetched. However, it is one more way that people are being divided and left behind.

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The lack of internet manifests itself at university in several ways. One, students don’t have internet at home which makes additional learning difficult. NMMU does not have a 24 hr library or computer lab therefore students without these facilities at home do not have the same opportunities to study as students who do. Two, it can be challenging for a teacher because online “handouts” or YouTube videos are a great tool for students but not if they lack internet access. I’ve come to rely on these supplemental learning tools, especially for English Language Learners because they can then have the information at their disposal to review as many times as they’d wish.

Much of the conversation in the US around the digital divide is aimed at the high school students, younger students, and non-students who do not have internet access. However, in many places it has a real impact on university students and businesses. Slow internet and no internet seems more like a development opportunity than a cultural difference.

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