New tipping point on horizon

In 2011, the world population crossed the seven billion landmark. With less fanfare, the International Telecommunications Union announced in 2011 that humanity had crossed another landmark: one third of the world’s population is now online.

The rise in online connectivity has been dramatic. Five years ago, only one fifth of the world’s 1.8 billion households had internet access. In this period, developing countries increased their share of the world’s total number of internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011. Today, 25% of all internet users are in China.

These figures are dwarfed by the explosion in mobile phone use. Mobile phone networks now reach over 90% of the human population. There are nearly six billion (5.9) mobile cellular phone subscriptions for seven billion people, though many have multiple subscriptions.

By 2020 internet and mobile phone coverage will reach all but the most marginalized in societies everywhere. As we frantically scramble to understand tipping points in the Earth system, we are rapidly heading towards a tipping point in our global society with little clue how this will play out.

In not much more than a decade, the internet and digital technology have overhauled how we shop, how we work, how we consume culture, how we communicate and how we see ourselves. Until 2011, the digital revolution’s impact on global politics has been minimal.  Given the influence of social networking and mobile phones in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, this may all be about to change. But the full implications of this approaching tipping point have yet to be explored.

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