"Half the World" May Be Wrong

Clay Shirky, an Internet industry pundit, has an interesting look at the popular phrase, "Half the world has never made a phone call." The phrase has been quoted ad nauseam in recent years by all manner of professionals, from journalists to some of the most well known faces in politics, especially when discussing or postulating the digital divide. Skirky's claim: the phrase "Half the world has never made a phone call" -- and various derivatives -- is less fact than factoid, an urban legend which has reached astounding proportions.

Shirky makes some very good points, includes all manner of interesting trivia, and references many excellent sources, proving he has done quite a bit of research. However, he never actually gets around to proving that the statement is indeed an urban legend -- at least not to my satisfaction. Though I do not doubt him, it would be nice to prove the central tenet of his thesis before moving on to explain that it doesn't really matter anyway. I mean, which is it: it isn't true or it doesn't matter?

Nevertheless, as I said, I don't doubt that the phrase is an urban legend as it has all the telltale signs of one: 1) the phrase is vague and lacks details or qualifications; 2) the phrase has morphed into several different forms; 3) it makes for good story telling (or in this case, a good argument); and 4) it always goes unattributed. These are all qualities for interesting and provocative urban legends, but it doesn't make them any more real.

What is truly fascinating is that many of this nations most powerful people, having read or heard this phrase in some form or another, have started repeating it. Though this really amounts to no more than human nature, it is a bit disturbing to know that public legislation, not just public opinion, can be swayed by what is really nothing more than a good yarn.


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