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To Keith Addison

Handmade Projects
Journey to Forever

The Internet

It's new, it's different, and it's going to change just about everything. It's an amazing new Post Office. It's the biggest and best library there's ever been. It's the education of the future. It means hope, and empowerment.

But what exactly is the Internet?

Hardware, is the short answer. The Internet consists of a few hundred thousand server computers and the telecommunications networks that connect them, using a technology called "packet-switching" that breaks up digital messages into bits, sends the bits via the most easily available routes and reassembles them at the other end.

This is why it's not instant like a telephone, and also why it's so much cheaper than using a telephone. No packet-switching, no Internet. It's a distributed, decentralized network -- nobody owns it and nobody can control it.

But what most people mean when they talk of the Internet is the software. Four main kinds: email, Usenet newsgroup message boards, real-time chat, and the World Wide Web, which is steadily gobbling up the other three. It's the Web more than anything else that's behind the fantastic growth of the Internet in the last eight years.

Why does it matter?

The Internet is still in its infancy. Let's spell it out: it's a little baby compared to what it will grow into.

But already it's changing the way people work, shop, interact with each other, with society, and with the environment. Ordering something from a website and having it sent overnight uses much less energy than driving to the supermarket and back. For companies, building a website is a whole lot cheaper than building a retail outlet.

The US EPA recently calculated that energy savings from reduced construction alone arising from the growth of e-commerce could mean savings of 300 million metric tons of CO2 emissions by 2010.

A recent US energy study found that, for the first time ever, energy use was falling well behind economic growth, and attributed it largely to Internet use. Previously, growth has always meant more energy and more pollution.

E-commerce also saves paper -- one study predicted savings of almost 3 million tons of paper a year by 2003, saving trees, energy, and 10 million tons of CO2 emissions a year.

The leveller

A corporation's website may not be any more effective than a teenager's -- in fact the teenager might have a better grasp of web essentials than the corporation's advertising agency has. Web surfers generally don't like hype and simply walk away from a hard-sell. Corporate slick often fails to impress.

In 1999 the mighty Monsanto chemical corporation suffered severe damage when it was forced to abandon its highly dangerous Terminator GM seed technology, mainly as a result of concerted opposition by a tiny NGO called RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International), five people with computers.

Networking and the speed with which new information can be distributed via the Internet has brought new meaning to social campaigns.

Healthy trends

The Internet is changing the way we think. It's the first medium that isn't passive: Internet users are far more assertive than TV viewers, and it becomes a habit. Less and less do Internet users fit the cosy idea of communities as mere "markets" of passive consumers.

As everywhere else, sharks and predators prowl the murkier depths of cyberspace, sleaze seeps through the seams, and it tends to obscure the many healthy trends.

Communication is healthy -- it breaks down barriers, and with the Internet more people are communicating more than ever before: 750,000 messages a day are posted on the Usenet newsgroups alone, and email and chatlines account for much more than that.

The level of cooperation, the kindness and generosity Internet groups show to newcomers and each other, the immense trouble people -- many people -- will go to, without pay or reward, to make better resources available and to help people they don't even know, all expose the "marketplace" and the idea that people are only motivated by greed and self-interest as the sheer nonsense it always was.

And the levels of maturity, fairness and responsibility so many Internet groups demonstrate in their self-administration and general conduct is a strong counter to the idea that communities need nannying authorities to tell them what to do.

Most significant factor: children love the Internet. So do schools.

The Information Gap

The Internet gap is even wider than the wealth-poverty gap. Only about 10% of the world's people are connected -- two billion people on the planet have never even used a telephone. And the gap is growing.

These are serious issues: the poor, the deprived, and especially the Third World are being left behind in altogether new ways which could prove critical. See "Bridging the digital divide" (BBC):

Here is an "educated guess" as to how many were online worldwide as of September 2002. It's grown by nearly 50% in only two years.

    Africa 6.31 million
    Asia/Pacific 187.24 million
    Europe 190.91 million
    Middle East 5.12 million
    Canada & USA 182.67 million
    Latin America 33.35 million
    World Total 605.60 million

Compiled by Nua Internet Surveys

Africa's total has more than doubled, and its share has grown slightly, but it's still only just above 1%. Same in the Middle East -- more than doubled, but less than 1%, while Latin America's share has grown from 4% to 5.5%. In the Asia/Pacific region, a mixture of rich and poor countries, the total has grown by 79% and the share from 26% to 30%, now more than the US and Canada, where the total grew by only 9%. Europe's share has grown by 77% and has also passed the US and Canada, from only 67% of the US-Canada total in 2000. Europe now rates #1, Asia/Pacific #2 and US/Canada #3.

Growth in the poorer regions has been phenomenal, but their overall share has increased only slightly, or not at all -- the digital gap remains.

The statistics show that most Internet users are young, white, rich, Western, and male. But statistics are both revealing and deceptive, perhaps nowhere more so than with the Internet.

For instance, of the 10 most common search terms used by web surfers in 1999, most popular was "sex". Seven of the 10 were searches for entertainment. Get the picture? -- young, white, rich, and male.

However, what this picture doesn't show is that the 4th most popular search was for the World Wildlife Fund and No. 9 was Poetry, and that's much more significant.

The same applies to how people are using the Internet. Despite the growing gap, computers and the Internet are bringing new capabilities and effectiveness to the groups and individuals fighting poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, exploitation and injustice on every front.

It changes the picture. It doesn't make the digital gap any less severe, but in one sense all that means is that people who didn't have something before it existed still don't have it, which doesn't change their situation.

"Our priorities are hygiene, sanitation, safe drinking water," said a health worker in Nepal. "How is having access to the Internet going to change that?"

In fact, others who do have Internet access are using it for exactly these purposes: to improve hygiene, sanitation and drinking water in the Third World. You can find links to some of them elsewhere in this website. Maybe you can help them.

Village in the clouds embraces computers -- Mahabir Pun is trying to break the cycle of poverty in his mountain village of Nangi in Nepal by taking it into the computer age. Having founded Himanchal High School, he sees the internet as the way to improve education. "If we walk about six or seven hours outward in any direction from our village and ask the people there where Nangi is, most of the people will have no idea. With the simple website we have now, people from around the world have been able to locate my village and have come to volunteer. We regularly get volunteers from America, Britain, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland and Malaysia. Moreover, students from Australia and America have been writing letters to our pupils as penpals through ordinary mail. As far as I know this is the only community school in the entire country that provides computer classes for high school students."

The E-Marketers of South India -- In addition to improving the living conditions of the e-marketers, India Shop generates money for the artisans who work in hundreds of villages surrounding Chennai by promoting their products. This keeps centuries-old traditions alive — the handcrafting of saris and the sculpting of Hindu deities, for example.
India Shop

Business e-tips for Rural African Women -- A new information tool offers direct access to information for women who are among the most marginalized in development -- poor women with little or no reading ability.

Planet Radio: Sharing Community Programming Over the Internet -- An international broadcasting association is helping community radio stations in the South use the Internet to strengthen their programming. The goal is to democratize the airwaves by helping small, often low-powered, community radio stations around the world produce and share radio programs featuring different viewpoints than those of mainstream media.

SchoolNet South Africa: Accessing a World of Learning -- In a country where almost 70% of schools are still without computers, SchoolNet SA has carved out a niche not just by making technology more available, but by focusing on historically disadvantaged schools. "The environment that SchoolNet finds itself in is one where racial relationships are fractured as a result of South Africa's history," says Executive Director Denis Brandjes. "As part of our mission, SchoolNet SA has chosen to focus on the use of ICTs to redress some of these injustices of the past, in order to bring about equitable distribution of resources and knowledge."
SchoolNet South Africa

In a bookless society, why start with books?" -- The telecentre with eight work stations is filled almost every working hour. Nurses prepare patient records. Teachers design lesson plans. Students write papers. Businesspeople produce signs for their stores. And Christopher Senono no longer has to make the 16-km return trip down the narrow country road on his bicycle to make a phone call for his business.

Net Gains With Somos@telecentros -- A two-year-old Latin American and Caribbean co-operative that joins community Internet access centres, or telecentres, across the region is helping now-marginal sectors of society, such as the economically disadvantaged, to use the Internet to organize.

Using the Internet to Help Street Children in Latin America -- Two non-profit organizations in South America are exploring how the Internet can help street children improve their lives. The Street Kids Project will provide children with tools in informal education, training, and alternatives for income generation. Already, the project team has established a street kids portal and an initial network, which may ultimately expand throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Reconceptualizing the Digital Divide by Mark Warschauer -- A fresh look at the problem. Warschauer suggests an alternate concept of technology for social inclusion and draws on the historical analogy of literacy to examine the resources necessary to promote access and social inclusion. 7,000-word article.

Taking the net to South Africa's poor

Africans embrace mobiles and the net

Testing Telecentres in Mozambique

Improving Access to Telecommunications in South Africa

A Robin Hood for the Digital Age

What the Internet is

To get back to the original question, we think Journey to Forever is a good example of what the Internet really is. This is a tough and challenging overland expedition to remote places which don't even have a telephone -- and yet schoolchildren in cities all over the world will be able to help us solve hard questions to help poor people improve their lives and their communities.

The last millennium ended with war, cruelty, poverty, hunger, injustice, inequality, exploitation, pollution, environmental destruction, mass extinction, global warming, a hole in the sky -- and the Internet, its saving grace.

The Internet

Why it really matters
Internet interaction
Finding your way in that Big Library in the Sky

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