Mobile Multiplier or Mobile Divider?

The rapid proliferation of mobile devices is making it possible for not just communities, but also entire nations, to narrow the digital divide between society's have's and have-not's. Not only are these mobile devices more affordable for lower-income individuals, they also are more accessible for individuals in hard-to-reach or under-served areas. In fact, IBM recently predicted the elimination of the global digital divide within the next five years, thanks to a renewed emphasis on building out the infrastructure for mobile networks and expanding the functionality of what we can do with our smart phones - everything from paying bills to monitoring our health to getting real-time information about agricultre. Eliminating the digital divide is supposed to create a "mobile multiplier" for economic growth, but is it actually possible that it could lead to a new type of divide between the mobile have's and have-not's?

We’ve already seen evidence of the power of the mobile multiplier in emerging and under-developed markets, where technology gurus routinely talk about the ability of these economies to “leapfrog” the West, thanks to the embrace of mobile devices by every segment of the population. In these emerging markets, the ability to get mobile into the hands of the local population has, indeed, resulted in a mobile multiplier in the form of dramatic improvements in the quality of life. McKinsey estimates that the mobile multiplier in emerging markets may ultimately account for $300 to $400 billion in GDP growth. Other consulting firms point to the role of high mobile device adoption rates in making new types of healthcare initiatives accessible to a greater segment of the population. In places like India and Africa, efforts to eliminate the digital divide have also led to everything from improvements in agriculture to massively disruptive changes in mobile payments and banking.

The good news is that, currently, all signs point to a similar type of multiplier within the U.S. Not only are overall mobile penetration rates within the U.S. on the rise, it is exactly the lower-income and minority segments of the population that are embracing mobile in greatest numbers. Young people making less than $30,000 per year are among the fastest-growing segments of mobile Internet use. Moreover, the latest Pew Internet numbers show that African-Americans and Hispanics are not only more likely to use mobile phones than whites, they are also more likely to use them for a wider range of activities. This would all seem to hint at a rapid closing of the digital divide within the U.S., right?

The bad news is that not all mobile usage is created equal. Technology gurus are already starting to question whether Internet usage on mobile devices is comparable to Internet usage on desktop and laptop devices. The consensus appears to be that people are more inclined to use traditional Internet usage for gaining knowledge and accessing information, while people are more inclinded to use mobile Internet-connected devices to communicate with others. According to a study conducted by the Soros Open Society Foundations, there were also gaps according to gender and education levels, with males more likely than females to be users of mobile devices, and well-educated individuals more likely than poorly-educated individuals to be regular mobile Internet users. In an age where information and knowledge are paramount, people who use their mobile devices solely for communication may get left behind.

“Mobile-first” is one of those corporate buzzwords that people are using these days to describe their strategic focus on creating and designing user experiences around mobile devices. There’s no doubt that not just corporations, but also entire communities and nations, can use exactly such a mobile-first strategy to erase the gaps between the have’s and have-not’s. As McKinsey pointed out back in 2009, tweaks to the regulatory regime and pricing of a nation's moble networks can have a significant follow-on impact on everything from adoption rates to usage patterns. As a result, we need to be careful that in eliminating one type of digital divide, we are not unknowingly creating another type of digital divide, this one created for the mobile 1% capable of paying for more functionality, more information and faster speeds than the other 99%.

Image: Happy People Showing Their Modern Mobile Phones /Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.