Land was the raw material of the agricultural age. Iron was the raw material of the industrial age.
Data is the raw material of the information age.
Recent advancements in communications technology have created a dynamic global economy that is increasingly driven by new products, services and businesses reliant on data-rich environments.
And unlike land or iron, data isn't a limited resource. It is infinitely reproducible and immediately accessible to everyone, everywhere via an Internet connection.
At least it should be.
Currently, only about a third of all the people on earth have Internet access of any kind. Billions of people have never done so much as a single Google search, let alone -- searched for a job, taken a course or found medical information online.
What would our world look like if everyone was connected?
Studies have shown that, far from supplying only a few individual success stories, the Internet has the potential to become an essential driver of economic progress for billions of people all over the world.
According to a new Deloitte report released this week, expanding access to the 4 billion people who live in developing countries would increase productivity in those areas by as much as 25 percent, add $2.2 trillion in additional GDP, increase the GDP growth rate by 72 percent, add more than 140 million new jobs and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. By increasing the information density of a given environment, the report concludes, Internet access spurs innovation, creates new business, expands access to markets, improves job efficiencies and increases access to capital, all of which drives GDP and in turn increases access even more.
Which is why, whenever we talk about the challenge of ending global poverty, we need to talk about the challenge of global connectivity. The time has come to connect the world.
For the cynical observer, it's easy to the dismiss problem of connectivity as a distraction from the more pressing challenges of international development. When Mark Zuckerberg launched Internet.org last year to help make universal Internet access a reality, a familiar litany of complaints was heard. What good is having a mobile phone when you don't have schools, clean drinking water or proper roads?
But this distinction is a false choice. The upward economic mobility needed to sustainably address basic needs in the 21st century requires an Internet connection. Any economy that remains offline will grow less competitive and more isolated as the globe does its business online.
Developing countries and communities that emphasize broadband deployment are consistently achieving more growth relative to their peers.
In a few specific examples:
• In Kerala, a state on India's South West coast, mobile phones that tracked weather conditions and wholesale prices increased profits for fishermen by 8 percent.
• In Cambodia, where only 3.5 percent of the population had a bank account, mobile banking brought financial services to over 250,000 people, the majority of which made less than $3 a day, some less than $1.50 a day.
• And in Kenya, subsistence level dairy farmers saw higher incomes when they monitored and managed milk production via the mobile app iCow.
On average, expansion of Internet access, the Deloitte report concludes, could increase personal income levels in the developing world by 15 percent, and be as high as 21 percent in Africa and 29 percent in India.
So the economic data makes clear -- connectivity should be one of the world's top priorities in development.
There is a twist, though.
Unlike traditional development programs, which are driven by governments, multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and global charities, the challenge of connectivity is best addressed by the private sector, which is the only place with the technological chops, economic motivation and balance sheet to make a statistically significant impact.
This is not to discount the work of nonprofits working towards this goal. I spent eight years of my life as a social entrepreneur working to close the digital divide. And while I know those years were put to good use, I also know that there is no more powerful a force for addressing the problem of connectivity than market actors like telecom and tech companies, for precisely the reason that doing so produces a win-win for both people and business.
Critics of initiatives like Internet.org assert that motivations of the companies looking to expand access are suspect because they may also be profitable.
However, the fact that private sector companies can increase market share by leading the charge to increase global connectivity is a good thing. As the data demonstrates, what's good for the connectors is good for the connected.
Such initiatives will push private money into capital-intensive infrastructure and commit the companies' A-level engineering talent into developing solutions for bringing connectivity to poor and rural areas. Already, the drive to connect the world has resulted in remarkable advancements in data compression and storage technologies that are helping make data affordable for developing world. The technology that brings remote doctors' visits to the refugee camps in East Congo, where I have visited, is far more likely to be built in Silicon Valley than Washington or Geneva.
In the end, overcoming the challenge of connectivity will require more than waiting for market forces to work their magic. It will require governments, NGOs, aid groups and policy makers to coordinate their efforts with market actors such as telecoms, hardware manufacturers, software developers and programmers to create sustainable economic models that ensure connectivity, once achieved, keeps improving.
When people everywhere are no longer limited by the circumstances of their birth to the raw material of the information age and can participate in the global economy, we will inherit a world of greater opportunity, prosperity and understanding for everyone.
Follow Alec Ross on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AlecJRoss