Internet access is a public (and private) health issue

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

If the Founding Fathers had lived today, they would surely have included internet access as one of our inalienable rights.  No, scratch that, because if they had lived today they would have used Google Docs to crowdsource the Declaration and the result would probably have been much more generic and middle of the road than it actually is.  Also, the Declaration would also have been limited it to about 500 words so readers wouldn’t get bored and surf somewhere else, and it would have had embedded GIFs. Preferably animated.

Still, the ability to access the internet and everything that comes with that is, if not a right, an incredible advantage.  So I was stunned when I read in the Seattle Times the other day that a significant fraction of people in the US–about twenty percent–have little to no internet connection, although those numbers have recently begun to creep up, presumably due to smartphone uptake.   But of course, being a good Seattlelite with a liberal bent, my next reaction was to say, well, let’s not rush to judgement or conclusions.  Maybe those people just don’t want the internet.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Except the article goes on to say that while seniors generally did not feel they were missing anything, the majority of other respondents did feel they were missing something important and were being left behind because of their limited access.  So it’s not a life decision; it’s a question of cost, access and education.

And that’s bad.  Very very bad.  Being cut off from the internet in the United States economy is limiting for activities ranging from education to employment to navigation to shopping.  Oh, and entertainment is in there somewhere.  I hear people use the internets for that.  Also the internet will only grow more important for human health.

This was driven home to me at a recent Seattle meetup for the Quantified Self. People interested in this topic use different methods to track aspects of themselves in a very granular way.  Sometimes (often) health related things like percent bodyfat, or mood, or motivation, or weight.  I also heard a fascinating talk by Rupa Patel, recently graduated from the University of Washington, on her thesis work concerning use and acceptance of tracking tools in cancer care.  While she found there are definite issues with the burden for the users, this is a design question and I believe is solvable with time.  The impact of using tracking tools in addition to other methods for assessing patient health, however, could be immense.  And many of these tools require facility with, and use of, the internet.

This is only the tip of the iceberg with respect to health, too.  One could imagine that as tools become more prevalent and easier to use, municipalities will use metadata to understand health patterns such as the spread of disease, and ways to design a city’s environment to be most conducive and beneficial to healthy activities.  For example, what kinds of architectural elements do lead to more walking and biking and less driving?  Those people who are not connected, however, may be left out.

It was interesting in this context to see the announcement of internet.org, This effort, to increase internet access across the globe, is admirable and motivated by the desire to narrow the digital divide between those who do and do not have access to the internet.  One of the potentially nice results of this effort may be a narrowing of the divide here in the US, as well as in the developing world.  I think this would be a good thing, because for all the benefits that have come out of the internet so far, there is still so much more we could gain and improving public health is one of the areas that would really benefit.

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One thought on “Internet access is a public (and private) health issue

  1. Kyle,
    Whatever else the Founding Father’s might have included as an inalienable right, internet access would not be among them. Your conclusion is not uncommon and is based on a basic misunderstanding of what John Locke termed ‘natural rights’. Whatever else the internet is, it is not ‘God Given’, but is rather the product of man. Nothing produced by one man can by right be demanded by another man, whether it be his labor, the fruits of his labor, or his property. Similar misunderstanding underlies the false claim that health care is a “right”. What right do I have to demand the work of others? What is the moral basis for me demanding that AOL give me internet access, Dell give me a computer, etc? If such a right exists, why should I not be entitled to a haircut and pedicure, a new car, a five piece living room set and spiffy new clothes?

    They also would not have crowd-sourced: they were in fear of the tyranny of the majority and endeavored to established a republican government, not a democracy… but that is a whole other can of worms.

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