‘Malnourished minds’: Why it matters that 4.4 billion people don’t have internet

Editor’s Note: Syed Karim is the founder and CEO of Outernet Inc. Prior to Outernet, he spent three years with Media Development Investment Fund where he managed a seed fund for news and information startups in emerging markets.

Story highlights

More than half of humanity does not have access to the internet

That means that they lack the information that many of us take for granted

Karim: These are "malnourished minds" that cannot reach their full potential

Karim's project Outernet is one of a number aiming to connect humanity to internet

CNN  — 

My father grew up about two hours east of Calcutta. I remember him telling me that on a number of occasions, and at the behest of his father, he would read the dictionary by the light of a hurricane lamp.

Not only was there little else to read in English, but once the sun set, light also became a luxury.

Outernet founder Syed Karim explains his plan to get information from the web to the half of humanity that currently lacks access to it at TEDGlobal 2014.

It was rural East Pakistan in the 1950s. His middle class upbringing couldn’t compensate for the lack of municipal infrastructure; no power lines, no paved roads, and definitely no public library.

Instead, his connection to the outside world was limited to one or two new books a year, imported from London, and whatever news and information came through the shortwave radio that he built with strands of copper and a crystal diode.

After innumerable nights reading the prose of Merriam Webster, my father eventually emigrated to the United States to become a successful engineer with numerous patents to his name.

My childhood in the suburbs of Chicago was a completely different experience – it was filled with television, after-school programs and hours of meandering around the local public library.

Information abundance has had a lasting impact on my interests, my education, and my ambition.

After years of studying the subject, both formally as a graduate student and informally as an entrepreneur, there is little doubt that increasing information access leads to a direct increase in quality of life.

But the problem is not in acquiring a wealth of information, the problem is in distributing it.

The internet is a very effective means of distribution. The problem, however, is that over four billion people – more than half the world’s population – lack a connection to it.

This is a huge number and a huge problem that is not likely to be solved anytime soon.

Despite the advent of an affordable $35 smartphone, internet access continues to be unaffordable or unattainable for billions all over the world.

Now really think about what that means: More than half of humanity lacks access to the news, information and education that many of us take for granted.

As a species, we are operating at less than half of our capacity because the majority of our minds are malnourished.

But imagine if there was a way to feed a hungry mind without charging a dime?

Imagine if there was a way to provide the unconnected world with free access to the wealth of human knowledge in Wikipedia?

Imagine if we could offer a digital information service to all of humanity, regardless of income, infrastructure, or jurisdiction.

Even with a 50 Mbps connection to the internet, the value of a library, whether physical or digital, has never escaped me.

It is this respect for knowledge and personal edification that led to what we refer to as “humanity’s public library” – Outernet.

Outernet is a global broadcast data service, which gives access to information to the billions of people whose information needs are currently not being met.

Unlike Google’s balloons and Facebook’s drones that aim to carry internet access for a fee, Outernet provides access to information for free.

It does this by assembling offline versions of digital media that is normally found on the web, like Wikipedia, Khan Academy and Project Gutenberg.

The content is then beamed down from space. The best way to think about Outernet is as a cross between FM radio and BitTorrent.

Instead of music, Outernet broadcasts digital files and instead of radio towers, we use a network of satellites.

Just before I founded Outernet, my daughter Faraday was born. She is named after one of the greatest scientists in history, Michael Faraday.

Born in the 18th century, Faraday was not a son of privilege and although he received little formal education, he was lucky enough to apprentice for a bookbinder.

Through this fortuitous access to books, he was given a key to the foremost thinkers of his time.

He was lucky enough to consume the kind of knowledge and information that normally existed in only the most exclusive private libraries.

He was in the right place at the right time, and it allowed him to fundamentally change the trajectory of our species.

Stories like that of my father and Michael Faraday have run their course and no longer need to exist.

They belong in history books that, along with thousands of other books, can now be read by anyone in the world, for free.