Earlier this month, three scientists got the Nobel prize in chemistry for inventing the lithium-ion battery.
“They created a rechargeable world,” reads the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences press release announcing the award.
Chances are, the phone that’s no more than a meter away from you, or on which you are reading these words, has a lithium battery in it, which is why the lithium-ion battery is so important: It made powerful electronic devices — like smartphones — portable in a way they hadn’t been before. This, in turn, set the stage for the smartphone revolution over the past decade and a half.
And the lithium-powered rise of the smartphone has had profound consequences, including political ones, because it’s largely through smartphones that internet browsing has permeated the world’s population at an unprecedented scale.
Earlier this year, three researchers tried to figure out what those political consequences have been.
“There is a heated debate on the political implications of the spread of internet…Previous studies — mostly carried out in one country setting — produced evidence for both optimistic and pessimistic points of view,” one of the authors, Sciences Po professor Sergei Guriev told me over email. “We decided to look at the global evidence. Our results are also suggesting that both optimists and pessimists are partially correct.”
For governments, the results don’t look good.
“The expansion of mobile internet networks leads to a reduction in confidence in government when the internet is uncensored,” the recent paper, called “3G Internet and Confidence in Government,” argues. By using statistical methods and survey results, Guriev and co-authors Ekaterina Zhuravskaya and Nikita Melnikov show there is a strong correlation between increased 3G internet access and distrust in government.
“What surprised us was the magnitudes of the effects, which were quite large,” Guriev said.
Disappointingly, they don’t find this strong effect when the internet in a given region is censored. So their research both vindicates and undermines Bill Clinton’s now-somewhat-infamous 2000 speech that touched on internet censorship.
“In the new century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem,” Clinton said then. On this, the paper seems to agree with him: 3G helps expose government corruption.
But then Clinton went on: “Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet. Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-Oto the wall.”
This now seems naive, and the 3G paper is one more piece of evidence suggesting you can nail Jell-O to the wall — that is, successfully censor the internet to stifle dissent. This is why Foreign Policy dubbed China’s former internet czar, Lu Wei, “The Man Who Nailed Jello to the Wall.” Internet censorship kind of works.
My favorite Coda Story this week
Speaking of 3G internet, it’s worth revisiting Keren Weitzberg’s piece on how smartphone lending has helped financial credit systems burrow deep into the lives of ordinary Kenyans. “We use smartphone data to build a financial identity for applicants,” said one company representative. That includes how often you call your mom.
- Researchers at Georgia Tech have been experimenting with having AI read fiction to make it more empathetic. (LitHub)
- Here’s a very well-done visualization of social media content removal requests by country, though it’s important to note that we can’t simply draw conclusions about which are the “worst” countries for internet censorship. Russia has one of the highest rates, but France has ten times more requests than China. Still, the data is fascinating and worth exploring. (Comparitech)
- Digitized welfare systems are rising across the world. But a new report from a United Nations expert warns that the world “needs to alter course significantly…to avoid stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia.” (UN)
- China’s Xi Jinping ideology app apparently spies on its users. (Coda)