Infrastructure doesn't build itself. No single company or organization or government or individual snapped their fingers and built the railroads, highways or phone lines that have helped reinvent industries and grow our economy.
So it's amusing to watch the continuing furor around last week's announcement of Internet.org, the Mark Zuckerberg-backed consortium with the mission of connecting the world.
Zuckerberg himself responded to some of the rampant questions in a Wired Q&A yesterday. That Q&A kicks off by simply asking "Why form a coalition to spread global connectivity?"
In response to this question, the very first sentence out of Zuckerberg's mouth captures two critical points that many people are forgetting: "The Internet is an important foundation in improving the world, but it doesn't build itself." Both of those points are equally important to think through.
"The Internet is an important foundation in improving the world ..."
Argue all you want about the impacts of the Internet, but I don't think anyone would refute that access helps improves lives. The Internet is the highway buildout of our era. It provides new roads into medical advice and even crowdsourced medical care, educational tools, communication and job opportunities (to the tune of billions of potential dollars).
People are scared of change. We're in the midst of a storm of economic change. Responding to another question, Zuckerberg says: "The story of the next century is the transition from an industrial, resource-based economy, to a knowledge economy."
No one who has been on the winning side wants to wake up one day and find themselves on the losing side in our new knowledge economy. But the sage saying that "change can be good" should hold true here. It has with past infrastructure buildouts, which leads us to Zuckerberg's second point:
"... but it doesn't build itself."
Exactly. We should stop maligning companies that have partnered with Zuckerberg to help connect the world, and start applauding them. Do they stand to gain? Yes. Would they have been fools to not pick up the phone when Zuckerberg called (or poked) them? Yes. But they're doing something to positively impact the future of the world (not to mention communication, work, education and more), and that's a lot more than many organizations can say. Most of us retreat when asked for a six-month plan, much less a plan for the world that's potentially a decade down the road.
What's most important to recognize is that there is blatant truth in what Zuckerberg is saying here. The Internet won't--and can't--build itself.
Why? The phone lines didn't, and highways didn't either, as I mentioned in my last post. Having been a telecom investment banker early in my career, I've personally seen how successful infrastructure buildout requires the right backing and a lot of resources. Global internet may be a newer concept, but we have seen similar buildouts before.
In the 1940s, the installation of telephone lines into rural areas had stalled. It simply didn't make economic sense to extend the infrastructure into thinly populated rural areas. Rather than leave those areas disconnected, the newly-formed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a system of rural phone subsidies to help make telecommunications available across the U.S. In the 1950s, the Interstate Highway Act's investment in U.S. highways delivered a similar result, connecting us physically and providing improved interstate commerce.
To criticize Internet.org members as doing this for selfish reasons is short-sighted. The Internet's buildout is obviously no small task, and members of Internet.org have the resources needed to help pull it off. While the U.S. government has championed connectivity in the past, there has never been a clear global champion. Now we have one, and we should at least offer our support and the patience to see what it can do. To quote Zuckerberg:
A transition naturally has to take place. I taught at a local middle school this year, and a lot of students there didn't have access to the Internet at home. So there's a lot of work we need to do in the U.S. It won't be like, "Snap your fingers, everyone has the Internet, and now the world is fixed." The Industrial Revolution didn't happen in a decade, either. You need a foundation so that the change can happen.
In fact, the history of the Internet is an amazing combined effort of individuals, academics and institutions--why expect it to be different now?