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Editor of "Cybersociology" magazine, Robin Hamman, feels it's important to show the digital third world how the internet can be useful to them. Once people have been given the desire to get online, overcoming the inevitable financial difficulties in accessing the net, time and again there are examples of how small, or isolated communities have used cyberspace to take steps towards being heard, and noticed, worldwide, on issues relevant to them.

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It is important that we show the unwired 98% of the world how the Net could be useful to them

Why don't give companies like Microsoft credit to any of these programmers on the loading screen for MS Word?

The Zapatista Network is a network of websites

If the May '68 revolution were to take place today, the internet could be used to overcome the government's stranglehold on the media

"Our own ignorance about the digital third world is part of the problem",

an Interview with Robin Hamman

zum Thema: Mister Hamman, you are the editor of the e-zine "Cybersociology", which has discussed the "Digital Third Worlds" in one of its issues. Could you please give us a specific definition of the phenomenon "Digital Third Worlds" in comparison to the classical notion of the Third World?

Robin Hamman: Digital Third Worlds are places where there is little or no access to personal computers and the internet. Traditional notions of the "third world" tend to talk about places in the Southern Hemisphere, such as Africa, parts of Asia and South America, and also Central America. Digital third worlds, on the other hand, can be found just about anywhere that there is depravation: you're just as likely to find a digital third world in inner city Chicago as you are in Managua or Mogadishu. Applying the term "digital third world" to places in the developed world helps to demonstrate the vast divide between those who have access to computers and those who do not.

zum Thema: In your editorial you wrote, that the main aim of the discussion should be to identify the barriers to internet access and to determine how they can be overcome by communities and other groups. In your conclusion, you pointed out as your main position that the "barriers, once identified, can be overcome if the community has sufficient will to do so and the proper training and technologies are put into place". Since for the majority of people one of the main barriers to getting connected is the profound lack of financial resources, isn't it in some way naive to discuss connectivity without finding solutions for the world-wide unjust distribution of wealth?

Robin Hamman: The main barrier to internet access is personal will. If people don't want to go online, or don't have a reason to do so, they aren't going to go online. The second most important barrier to access is, as you say, access to financial resources that could be used for computers, computer training and internet access. This is not just a problem of the internet however - the same people who don't have the financial resources to go online probably also find it difficult to obtain access to other forms of media such as newspapers and radio. If we look at a community and discover that there is sufficient will to go online, we need to come up with a self-sustainable way to also provide the access. There are plenty of computer companies out there looking to expand their potential markets who may be willing to donate equipment. There are also thousands of disused, superseded computers being thrown away each day by western businesses. I don't think we are going to be able to solve the unequal distribution of wealth anytime soon, but if we can get computers and funding for training into the hands of the disadvantaged, it might be a step in the right direction.

zum Thema: Do you really think that a lack of will is some Pakistani schoolchildren's or some Brazilian farmers' main barrier to joining the world wide communication?

Robin Hamman: Regardless of what anyone says or does, no one is going to get online unless they want to. This is what I mean when I say that personal will is the main barrier to joining the internet. For those who want to come online, economic factors are the most difficult barrier to internet access to overcome. In many instances it could be said that the lack of education is the key to both barriers: literacy can provide a way out of poverty, and give people a reason to use the internet, along with the tools they need to do so.

zum Thema: There is also the question of whether it should be a priority to enlighten people, and to influence their will by teaching them that getting connected should be their new desire. Wouldn't this come close to Coca Cola's crusade of convincing every human being that they would be happier with than without a bottle?

Robin Hamman: I feel that it's important that we show the unwired 98% of the world how the internet COULD be useful to them, and then provide them with the tools they need to use it if they so choose. If they don't see a use for the internet, and they very well might not if their main worry each day is how to survive, then there is no reason for anyone to force the net on them.

zum Thema: Your argument of using the internet as a tool for poor countries reminds me a little bit of the World Bank's idea of the internet as the big solution against under development and poverty. The modern communication technology is supposed to enable the poor countries to do a leapfrog - a jump out of their development of an agricultural economy directly into the stage of a knowledge-economy by skipping the stage of industrial development. The background of that idea is the rising "information society", where know-how, knowledge and information are called to become the most important economical resource of the 21st Century; and the internet, called to be pure information, is understood as the "hard disk" of the information-society: a kind of huge database, easy and cheap to use.
For the virtual Forum "Cultural Exchange via Internet - Opportunities and Strategies", Prof. Oguibe has expressed a similar idea in his statement The Prospects of Culture in a Digital World when he wrote: Nevertheless, there is no gain saying that our ability to access information and knowledge about others, has been immensely enhanced by the internet, and that such knowledge is the foundation for greater cultural understanding and co-operation

This might certainly be true for members of a western culture, already more familiar with problems like inter-culturality and globalisation than those people who are concerned by profound poverty. We do have the cultural background for most of the information in the cyberspace. We already do have the knowledge to be able to use it. But as knowledge and its usability are always related to specific circumstances, how should refugees in Africa, those who have lost everything after the strong rain in Central America, or the homeless children in Brazil people almost without the very basic resources even to survive make efficient use of the western information of the web? What would you say to somebody who has lost everything because of a war, a rebellion or because of El Nino? Why and specifically how should we take use of the internet to help him? I mean the very poor about 60% of the world population, and not the small percentage of the middle-class like those in India, who can take profit of Bangalore.

Robin Hamman: We need to prioritise things according to the needs of people based upon their circumstances. It would be silly, and probably down-right insulting, for us to go out on the streets of Rio or Brasilia and hand a starving child a laptop hoping that somehow it will magically cure his or her problems. Anyone who would even attempt such a thing has their priorities seriously mixed up. Access to good nutrition and shelter is far more crucial to that child's immediate survival than anything else. Education should be our next priority and I believe that the internet can be a part of this. The internet is not just about "e-commerce" and "global knowledge economies". A lot of people use it to learn about other people and cultures through direct interaction. Our own ignorance about the digital third world is part of the problem, and if people are able to come online and tell us their stories, a greater number of people will come to understand this sooner rather than later. It's often said that the internet connects people across the barriers of distance and time, but actually we're already connected through our humanity and through our co-existence on this earth. I'd love to see the internet help more people come to realise this.

zum Thema: Also, the idea of distributing old computers reminds me of the idea of giving all the food thrown away by western rich people to poor areas. It has never worked because there have always been strong interests to sell new products instead of giving something old as a present. And nobody has been prepared to pay the expenses for distributing the gifts so far. How do you think the egoism which is typical for the western economical system and which becomes - because of globalisation more and more dominant in the whole world can be changed?

Robin Hamman: Distributing old computers in places like Africa is more like handing out shovels and seeds and helping farmers dig wells for clean water than it is like giving food handouts. The idea is to help people to help themselves, and by providing computer access and training, we very well might help people in developing regions to "catch up". Bangalore, India is an example of a place that has received computers and training which has helped lead to many thousands of people being employed as skilled computer programmers there. At the same time, I do find it troubling that western companies, such as Microsoft, don't give credit to any of these programmers on the loading screen for MS Word and that they don't pay them Western rates for their work. Again this brings up one of the problems of global capitalism and I'm not sure what the answer is short of socialist communitarianism.

zum Thema: The structure of the web is in many aspects a kind of reflection of the social, political and economical structure of the "real" world. Those who have the power also have access to the internet. So they are able to dominate the public communication - even in the net. The efforts of several authoritarian states to control the web-access show it. Even if it's possibly as absurd to stop the spreading of the web as it may be utopian to connect the whole world: Isn't the question of a just distribution of web-access directly connected with the question of just distribution of political power, political systems and cultural domination?

Robin Hamman: In many ways, the current distribution of internet access mirrors the unequal economic distribution of the world. But in places that have built community access projects, those who are excluded from the economic and political power centres are able to claw some of that power back. For example, in Santa Monica California, a public electronic computer network (PEN) was put into place and community access terminals were set up in libraries and other public places. Several members of the local homeless community learned to use this network, and started a message board conference on homelessness. Several city political and industrial leaders joined the conference, and were able to interact directly with the homeless people. A homeless person could probably never have just walked into a city council meeting or corporate boardroom to discuss their problems, but they had an equal voice and equal access online. In the end, the homeless people got the point across that they need access to showers, lockers, a telephone, and a postal box in order to be able to attend job interviews. City leaders read this and put such a project into place. The internet has the potential to recreate this type of success world-wide, but it also has the power to further consolidate the political and economic grasp in the hands of those who already hold it.

zum Thema: What kind of projects are you thinking of, when you talk about helping facilitate grassroot-level-projects to help the disconnected to gain access to the internet? Can you tell us about several experiences?

Robin Hamman: The example above perfectly illustrates this point. Another example, this time theoretical, is demonstrated by a project I helped undertake at the Revolting Temporary Media Lab in Manchester, England. Using a pirate FM transmitter which we purchased for 25 GBP/ 40 USD through the internet, a real audio server in Uzbekistan, and two Macintosh computers, we were able to set up a local and global discussion group. We used the transmitter to broadcast on air over a 1 square mile area and opened a phone line so that local people could phone in and be heard on air. We set up the real audio server so that we could also stream our discussion to internet users. We then set up a chat room where text was "spoken" by the computer. All of this was microphoned together so that when someone was speaking on the phone, or typing through the chat room, it was rebroadcast over FM radio and over the internet. Local people were able to discuss their problems with each other for the cost of a phone call, and their discussion could be heard worldwide. This made it possible for a local problem to receive a global audience, and possible solutions to local problems could be shared by remote listeners who had encountered similar problems in their own communities. An inexpensive pirate radio transmitter could, in theory, be used to bring the internet to communities where computers are not available.

zum Thema: The Zapatista movement is one of the most famous examples for a successful political campaign arranged by internet. You have planned to interview the webmaster of the main site about the benefits for the Zapatistas of having such a site online. Can you already tell us about the results of that interview?

Robin Hamman: I have spoken at length with Ricardo Dominguez who is one of the people in charge of the Zapatista Network. He doesn't actually run the site. The Zapatista Network is a network of websites, newsgroups, and email lists which are used to support the Zapatistas« movement in Chiapas. They provide support by making English language translations of official EZLN communiquŽs available online. When the military enters villages in Chiapas, they send hundreds of emails and faxes to news gathering organisations such as AP and Reuters as well as to humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International. But making information on Chiapas available is only part of the story. Members of the Zapatista Network also take part in direct political actions both on and offline. The online actions, called FloodNet, are aimed at crashing the web servers of the Mexican government and their supporters worldwide. Supports of the Zapatistas simply log on to a site run by the Zapatista Network, a Java applet is loaded, and frames appear with each of the "target" sites. Each of these frames is reloaded a few times a second and when a few hundred people are logged onto FloodNet it crashes the target servers. Most recently, the site of Mexican President Zedillo, the US Military, and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange were targets. The offline direct actions of the Zapatista Network include sit-ins at Mexican embassies around the world and protests at the suppliers of their military equipment. Additionally, fundraising takes place online as well as at these offline events.

zum Thema: What are the long-lasting effects of campaigns like this? Hasn't the internet got (as a media and communication system) the same problem as real-life-lobbying; that it must be continually maintained, by raising its intensity, so as to keep the attention of the web-community and especially the public alive? So did or does the Zapatista-campaign bring a profound change for the political and economical situation of the concerned people there?

Robin Hamman: The campaign being waged by members of Zapatista Net has raised a lot of awareness, especially among internet users, about the problems of indigenous people in Southern Mexico. I certainly had not read more than one or two newspaper articles about the situation there before I discovered information about it on the internet a few years ago. With all the information about Chiapas and the Zapatistas that's online, it's become easier for people not only to find information about it online, but it's also made it easier for journalists to write articles about it. AP and Reuters don't much care about what's happening in a series of small villages deep in Southern Mexico, yet there is still an enormous amount of information and photos coming out of that region via the net. As more people take notice, especially "middle class" westerners with internet access and political power, it becomes increasingly difficult for the Mexican government to continue burning villages and killing innocent people in Chiapas. By using the internet to publicise their cause, the Zapatistas have been able to bypass the traditional media gatekeepers and take their struggle directly to the people.

zum Thema: It has not always been so easy to bypass the restrictive mainstream media...

Robin Hamman: In May 1968 in France, a series of strikes led by students and later joined by workers led to talks of revolution. The first thing that DeGaulle did was reinforce security at the nationalised radio and television stations while putting strict controls on how newspapers could report the revolution. By cutting off the revolutionaries from the powerful media, De Gaulle was able to call an election and reduce the threat of losing power. Unable to voice their concerns on a national level through the media, the revolutionaries failed to even select representatives for the election. DeGaulle stayed in power. If the May '68 revolution were to take place today, the internet could be used to overcome the government's stranglehold on the media, and perhaps there would be a different outcome. And this is, essentially, what the Zapatista Network is trying to achieve.

zum Thema: Thank you very much for the interview.

Robin Hamman (London) is the editor of the Cybersociology Magazine and currently a PhD candidate and part-time lecturer at the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of Westminster.

"zum Thema:" Nr. 24, 30.12.1998