"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Is Internet access a choice?

Sometimes the most interesting questions about how technology impacts society are raised unintentionally. Case in point: on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) went on CNN to explain the Republican health care bill (the American Health Care Act) and swiftly revealed that he was suffering from a case of foot-in-mouth disease. Here are the, now infamous, words that will dog his footsteps for years to come:

“You know what, Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. And so maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest in their own healthcare.”

Faced with such a choice, many people chose to instead lambast Chaffetz. And thus, social media exploded with responses that mixed mockery with outrage, others pointed to the comments as another instance of politicians not understanding the realities of poverty, and Chaffetz was made the target of jokes by late-night comedians like Stephen Colbert. With many of the retorts to Chaffetz hinging upon emphasizing the large gulf between the cost of an iPhone and the cost of health insurance. While it is certainly true that buying a new iPhone every two years will set a person back several hundred dollars, the rather obvious fact is that an iPhone is significantly cheaper than most health insurance plans.

Yet, the point here is not to poke fun at Chaffetz, but to point to the important question that he accidentally raised, namely: do people really need iPhones? Or, to broaden this point, do people really need smartphones? And these questions only serve to raise a further tricky question: what happens if the answer is yes?

In drawing an opposition between “getting that new iPhone” and investing in healthcare, Chaffetz framed iPhones as unnecessary luxuries. And though it is always difficult to genuinely know exactly what a particular speaker meant, it seems that Chaffetz was saying that if people are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on something they don’t need, they should also be willing to spend that money on something they really do need – like health care. It is worth noting that there are cheaper smartphones available than a “new iPhone,” and therefore when it comes to buying a new smartphone an iPhone really is a little bit of a luxury item. Granted, this point may be somewhat moot seeing as Droid smartphones outsell iPhones. Yet, to focus too closely on the cost of an iPhone versus the cost of a different smartphone is to emphasize minutiae when there is a more important matter at hand: needs.

There truly are certain things that human beings need, such as: water, food, oxygen, and shelter. It’s easy to make a case that health care is another such need. After all, people get sick, people get seriously injured – and when such things happen, people need medical care. Indeed, as the history of medicine demonstrates, people have been seeking remedies for injury and disease for as long as there have been people. In short, the history of medicine stretches back thousands and thousands of years. If you don’t believe that disease or serious injury might strike you at some point in your life you should probably go get a chest x-ray, because you might be a robot. Though, before you go get that x-ray, you should check to make sure your insurance will cover it – because x-rays aren’t cheap.

Thus, compared to the long span of human history, smartphones have not existed for terribly long. And therefore it’s relatively easy to make a definitive statement that humans do not need smartphones because humans have not had smartphones for most of human history. That statement is logically sound. Furthermore, saying that the life of a person in the fifteenth century would have been improved had they had a smartphone is absurd. On a very basic level, human beings simply do not need smartphones. It is a logical conclusion that is demonstrably true…but it is also overly simplistic and rather foolish. Indeed, one need not be a fan of smartphones (one can actively dislike them) to recognize that in contemporary high-tech societies one does need what a smartphone enables.

Here it is necessary to take a slight step back from the smartphone itself to understand the smartphone for what it does, and for what sets it apart from a more basic phone: it allows a person to access the Internet. This sort of access is really the crux of this whole argument, and it represents part of the reason why talking about needs in this context is so tricky. Because it isn’t that a person needs a smartphone it’s that (in a high-tech society) they need Internet access. If someone has reliable Internet access from another source than they do not need the smartphone, but if the smartphone is their only reliable source of Internet access it becomes much more necessary. People apply for jobs online, people sign up for health insurance online, people apply for public benefits online – if a person does not have access to the Internet it can become significantly more difficult for them to secure the means by which they can secure their other needs. Again, one need not be a fan of the Internet (indeed, one can actively dislike it) to recognize that in contemporary high-tech societies it is rather important to have Internet access. Dreaming of a world in which people are not so reliant on the Internet does little to change the fact that in this world, here and now, people really are rather reliant on it.

This brings us back to the question of the degree to which people are reliant on smartphones for getting online. Surely, many people have options other than a smartphone for accessing the Internet – options that may include other access at home, at work, at school, or at a library. But one need not purely engage in hypothetical speculation when it comes to access, instead one can turn to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center – and though the study is slightly out of date there is little reason to believe that its findings would be dramatically different today. First and foremost, it is essential to note that the study found that smartphone ownership is not truly ubiquitous – 64% of Americans own a smartphone according to the study, and though that percentage represented an increase from an earlier study (and so the rate of ownership may be higher today), it is still not 100%. The study found that 85% of smartphone users have a high-speed Internet connection at home. 85% sounds decent, but the study also found that 10% of smartphone owners do not have another way of getting online at home, while 15% of Americans own a smartphone but have limited options for getting online beyond their smartphone. And the study also revealed that “those with low household incomes and low levels of educational attainment,” “younger adults,” and “non-whites” – are more likely (upwards of 10%) to rely on smartphones for Internet access. And seeing as Chaffetz’s comments specifically had to do with the cost of owning a smartphone, it is worth noting that the Pew Study showed that due to “financial constraints” some 23% of smartphone owners “have had to cancel or suspend their service” at some point. In short: for a not insignificant number of Americans, smartphones are the way they get online.

Thus, to answer Chaffetz, it seems that for many Americans there isn’t really a choice. They need Internet access – and for many of them a smartphone is the way they get such access. Yes, this matter gets muddled because Chaffetz spoke of a “new iPhone” instead of “internet access” – but, again, the reason that Chaffetz’s words are worth considering is precisely because he framed as a luxury (internet access) something which many people have come to consider a necessity. Had Chaffetz said that people need to choose between buying a Nintendo Switch and health insurance his comments would still have been derided as absurd – but it would have been much harder for anyone to argue that the piece of technology being framed as a luxury is actually a need.

There is something quite astounding about the fact that in just a few short decades Internet access (and by extension the smartphone) has become a need. Really. Take a moment to actually appreciate the way in which the Internet has worked over society. And also take a moment to think about the number of facets of your life that have, to varying extents, become entangled with the Internet. Though it is doubtful that he meant to demonstrate this point with his comment, Chaffetz helped to reveal the way in which life in high-tech societies is thoroughly bound up with the Internet. Granted, to state that life has become bound up with the Internet is not to say that this is a good thing. The Internet has followed a path of technological takeover that is quite striking: it started as something of a Cold War curio, initially sold itself on a promise of being somewhat fun, and has now become a utility that is regarded by many people as being as much of a need as water or electricity. This is a path that many new technologies follow, one that begins with the option of a new technology being presented as a choice but where eventually it becomes nearly impossible to choose not to use that technology. In 1987 a person in the United States did not need Internet access, but it’s much harder to make that case today. It’s not simply that the Internet makes contemporary life easier, it is that the Internet makes contemporary life what it is. Again, that is not to say that what the Internet has done to contemporary life is great, but to try to lead a life today that is fully extracted from the Internet in any shape or form is to consign oneself to living out on the fringes of society. Whether we like it or not, the Internet is not a choice. Certainly, we can make choices regarding the Internet (you don’t have to use Facebook, you don’t have to use an iPhone) – but to completely do without is to willfully marginalize yourself.

The further problem that follows from this is that satisfying this need entails enriching for-profit corporations. Apple has made a heck of a lot of money by hawking iPhones, and they’ve made a lot of that money thanks to planned obsolescence. And Apple is not the only culprit here, companies like Time-Warner, Comcast, and Verizon have all enjoyed big profits by selling people something that those people have come to realize that they actually need. While public libraries may provide some access (which is not free insofar as it is paid for by tax dollars), the basic fact is that such limited access may not be genuinely sufficient for the scale of the need. Much of the current acrimony around health care in the US has to do with the fact that private companies are making huge profits off of human needs – if Internet access represents a need than it is worth recognizing that there are private companies making a huge profit off of that as well. And there are few better rackets for a business than to sell people things that they can’t really do without. Yes, a person has a choice between an iPhone and a Droid, a Dell and a Lenovo, Verizon and Comcast, but to frame the option between two very similar things as choice is to have a very paltry definition of choice. In the end, the choice here is largely between enriching huge corporation A and enriching huge corporation B.

In the end what transpires is that what started as a sort of technological bribery (to borrow a concept from Lewis Mumford) – use this technology because it’s awesome and it will improve your life; ultimately turns into a sort of technological blackmail – use this technology or else you will be ostracized and left behind. Technology triumphs insofar as it can remake society in its image, and one of the things that Chaffetz’s comments, and the reaction to them, demonstrates is that the Internet has succeeded in such a remaking.

Thus, to return to Chaffetz’s comment, it may well be that people don’t really have a choice between Internet access and health insurance. For, in twenty-first century America, people need both. Alas, it’s unsurprising that a society that can’t guarantee people’s basic needs such as food, shelter, and clean water should treat other needs as little more than opportunities for the market.

Having the freedom to choose between being price gouged for two things you need isn’t a sign of how far we’ve come, but a sign of how far we still have left to go.


Related Content

What Technology Do We Really Need?

Prescience and Pessimism

Riddled with questions – thinking about technology

Potential, Power, and Enduring Problems – Anarchism and the Critique of Technology 

The Good Life or the Goods Life – on the thought of Lewis Mumford


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

2 comments on “Is Internet access a choice?

  1. Pingback: Is Internet access – or owning a smartphone – a choice? – Next Friday

  2. Leo
    May 24, 2017

    You’re almost dancing around what is, I think, a very important question that will only ever become more important with the passage of each new year. The question is not “Is Internet access a choice,” but rather is Internet access a right, and if so should it be protected under the Constitution?

    Today, Internet access is required for almost every form of personal and professional communication. Good luck finding, let alone keeping, a Job if you are unable to send and receive emails! Good luck even getting called in for an Interview when potential employers are unable to perform cursory background checks by examining your Facebook page. Hell, I can’t even imagine how I would keep my finances straight without the aid of my bank’s website.

    Our society is almost entirely dependent on Internet access. Without Internet, you are a non-person, living in near-total ignorance of politics, news, community–of the zeitgeist.

    This is a completely unprecedented level of dependence. Never before has humanity been so utterly beholden to technology. The same arguments used to create and perpetuate the Second Ammendment can easily be rotated to apply to Internet access: after all, Internet access is a far greater and more necessary tool to a much broader segment of the population than firearms ever were.

    For better or worse most social and communal interaction occurs in digital spaces, and we need to respect that. John Locke famously inspired the Declaration with his three inalienable rights to which all people were due: life, liberty and property. Internet access, I think, falls firmly in the category of liberty.

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