Were we mistaken about the internet?

When we survived Y2K and computer systems didn’t collapse, we felt as if there was nothing more standing in the way of better tomorrows, when digital technology would simplify the lives of people around the world. Now we are in the twentieth year of the new millennium and the documentary films in the One Zero thematic category are mostly focused on our unfulfilled expectations. Does that mean we were wrong about information technology?

Where does the digital divide end?

About ten years ago, the term “digital divide” was still bandied about quite often. At a time when social networks started coming into their own in the West and we suddenly had the entire internet in our smartphones lying in the palms of our hands, we simplified the issue of unequal access to information and considered it a mere technical problem. We believed that it was only a matter of interconnecting everyone via the internet, and that will in and of itself ensure more jobs, better healthcare, reduced poverty, the end of illiteracy, and increased democratic participation. But very often we did not realise that access to the internet or owning a smartphone were the result of many other structural inequalities and societal obstacles.

The documentary Sing Me a Song shows how the internet reached the most remote Bhutanese village. Does that, however, mean we are all now equal? Do we now all have the same opportunities? French documentarist Thomas Balmès shows that it is not that simple. Today, instead of devoting themselves to their prayers and studies, young monks from a Buddhist monastery are spending more and more time with their mobiles, playing computer games, and flirting with the local girls. Should we blame information technology for having led young monks astray and destroying our romantic ideas about poor but happy mountain people? Or did we just have unrealistic expectations about it?

Are they doing things right?

It is true that social media require barely any technical skills, and cheap mobile data are quite cheap. They are therefore accessible to all members of society, even those at the very periphery. However, you can only fully use their potential when you know everything that can be done with them. A smartphone and cheap data won’t really help you much in achieving a better, higher-quality life if you don’t know how to read and count, or if you don’t know who can misuse information about you and how. Additionally, someone with a completely different education or in a different cultural context can use seemingly neutral technology otherwise than we would, or in a way that we don’t consider to be correct. If we think a bit more deeply about the life of monastery novices, is there really anything strange about it? The Bhutanese monks aren’t doing anything worse than their peers in other countries. And when we think about it a second time, what other internet services should you use when your mountain village is simply too far from the rest of the world and sometimes you are just bored?

Many dreams, few opportunities

We don’t find the digital divide only among the Himalayan peaks. Evidence of this may be seen in, for example, the documentary Jawline. Its protagonist, 16-year old Austyn, was first a star of the Musical.ly social network and later TikTok as well. He sees his growing fame as an opportunity to escape from his humdrum life in a small American town and become a real celebrity. Although he meets many fans, admirers, and prominent influencers along the way, he gradually discovers that, even in the apparently decentralised and egalitarian environment of the internet, he might just become a novel plaything in the showbusiness world and for his managers, who use his position and contacts to make as much money as possible from the fads popular among young people. Together with the film’s director, Liza Mandelup, we can observe that simply being connected to the internet may not increase our social capital in any significant way.

Love, sex, and anguish

Austyn’s story also shows us how mentally demanding it is to work with our emotions in virtual worlds. Although Austyn always tries to appear optimistic and to motivate his admirers to a positive approach to the world, his real-life problems and afflictions eventually catch up to him. Online life may function according to slightly different rules, but that doesn’t mean that we experience it in other ways than our real one. Friendship, camaraderie, love, and even sex abuse have different dynamics in digital space, but they are no less real than in our daily lives. We can see this in the documentary Mating. As a part of an experiment, protagonists Edvin and Naomi are supposed to communicate only online, but they unexpectedly also meet in person and it isn’t long before they are a couple. However, they soon discover that each of them assigns a different level of seriousness to meeting people through mobile apps and online relationships. What may at first seem like an innocent game might ultimately go awry and become a major heartache…

How far away is digital utopia?

Documentaries and expert findings show us that the digital divide is not getting any narrower, nor is it being filled. In actuality, the differences in the technical devices used between the rich and the poor, the young and the old, and the residents of developed versus emerging countries are alternatingly becoming smaller or larger depending on how far a particular technology has reached. A digital utopia where ones and zeroes will serve for the good of all is thus still far away. But what if the power of digital technologies lies specifically in their performative and symbolic nature? Or in other words, is it because they simply exist and we can use them for our benefit at any time? The films in this year’s One Zero category try to find answers to these and other questions. Come search for them with us.

Internet dorazil i do té nejzapadlejší vesnice v Bhútánu. Znamená to, že už jsme si všichni rovni? / The internet has reached the most remote Bhutanese village. Does that mean we are all equal now?
The internet has reached the most remote Bhutanese village. Does that mean we are all equal now?

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