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Features & profiles


The digital divide between East & West

6 June 2001

Published in Macworld


Better technology enabled Homo sapiens to drive Neanderthal man to extinction, neolithic farmers to displace hunter-gatherers, and the Romans to subdue the known world.


Since the Stone Age, technology which has been the making of one civilisation has meant, perforce, the marginalisation of those who did not catch the wave.


Thus, according to some, the Internet will dispatch the un-wired to the same fate as the Neanderthals. (If they’re lucky, they may end up in havens Alvin Toffler patronisingly called “enclaves of the past”.)


According to others, the Net is a democratising influence - one which will buck this ancient trend, leading to a global age of  access and empowerment.


The truth about this “digital divide” is (obviously) somewhere in between. But where?


No less a person than Apple co-founder Steven Jobs had something to say about this only last month [April]. The digital divide, Jobs told The Age’s Garry Barker, is “just a new sticker we use to cover up a more important word: poverty.


"I am living in America and you in Australia, and we are really doing quite nicely, thank you. We have great medicine and good roads and clean water. We invent terms like digital divide to distract us from the real problem that must be solved in the world, and that's poverty.”


The largest poverty divide, of course, is between the “developing” and “developed” worlds: of the 407 million people online, only three million are in Africa and two million in the Middle East, for example.


But the situation is more complex - and hopeful - than the broad figures indicate. Poorer nations are home to some of the most exciting uses of the Internet: uses which are imaginatively fighting poverty, political repression and ignorance.


Perhaps the first sign of the Net’s political potential was in 1989, during the Tiananmin Square democracy movement - when the Chinese Government’s actions were subverted by students sending out news of their revolution via modem. Similarly, during the media blackout of the Russian coup of 1991, Western media organisations came to rely on Moscow newsgroups to keep abreast of developments.


This couldn’t have happened in earlier tyrannies, even twentieth century ones. In the 1930s, though news of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews went daily to London from The Times Berlin correspondent, his dispatches were torn up by his London editors, to avoid offending Hitler.


Thesedays such news would be all over the Net, and from there it would percolate through to at least some mainstream news coverage. An example close to home illustrates this.


A leading Australian East Timor activist (who wishes to remain anonymous) recalls the period in 1998 when a PR-conscious Indonesia claimed to be downsizing its force in East Timor:


“I obtained information from the East Timorese resistance in Dili on troop strengths, via computer disk,” he says. “The Internet was used to co-ordinate its distribution, analysis and release internationally.


“We proved the Indonesians were lying: their real troop numbers in East Timor were double what they were claiming. Their claimed 1000-troop withdrawal had not taken place - they'd just shifted them from one place in East Timor to another.”


The source released the information to the Australian media, and it became one of the biggest stories of the year.


Reporting from East Timor in 1996, I met an Australian “courier” whose job it was to smuggle laptop computers, modem-linked to satellite phones, to remote mountain villages, and Falantil units.


“The Internet is vitally useful on the ground in Timor and elsewhere,” the source says. "It’s has become a crucial way of exposing human rights abuses from West Papua and Aceh to Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Chechnya and Chiapas [Mexico]. The Net

is making borders more porous, and is an aspect of globalisation that has helped to liberate people."


For all that, most web-surfers still get their news from mainstream online newspapers. When those papers don’t print the facts, only those who burrow into newsgroups or specialist websites will learn of them.


Additionally, Reporters Sans Frontieres lists 45 countries which restrict Internet access - 20 of which it designates "enemies of the Web" due to their repressiveness.


The truth is out there, but you often have to look for it.


But - whilst politics is one element of the digital divide - poverty (as Jobs reminded us) is its valley floor.


Social anthropologist Paula Uimonen, from the UN Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva, draws attention to the simple fact of poor power and phone line access in the developing world.


“Infrastructure is obviously essential to connectivity, and as a consequence it continues to be one of the main obstacles to Internet access in developing countries,” she says.


Uimonen feels that such technologies as “touch-screen and voice recognition” will expedite developing world Net access, but “unfortunately, such technologies are mainly found in the West”.


She does, however, point out that - unlike in the West - “community access” to the Net is well-entrenched in some developing world countries.


Jeebesh Bagchi, co-founder of Delhi’s Sarai New Media Initiative, says: “The most interesting part of Internet culture here is the shared nature of access. Most prominent are the cybercafes that allow access to millions, and are the most effective mode of street-level net connectivity. These access nodes act as a kind of local post office with courteous couriers.”


The Sarai community is a media program for both practice and research. It embraces multimedia and digital arts, film and video, the Internet and computer culture.


Bagchi acknowledges that “erratic power supply and poor telephone lines are a reality we live with”. But he phlegmatically points out: “All technologies create problems of access, whether it is print or telegraph or railways or even language.”


Bagchi is more interested in another problem - one that’s not confined to India: “The digital domain is a very contested and heated domain, with sharp battle lines drawn between regimes and apparatuses of control, regulation and surveillance on the one side - and layers of sharing culture that we all aspire for on the other. The real ‘digital divide’ is here!“


So far as authorities are concerned, he says, the Internet’s “horizontal multi-nodal network at present is kind of a threat. The present legislative practices show a deep anxiety around this technology. On the one hand there is this constant talk of e-commerce and e-governance, and on the other a massive attempt at regulation and policing.


“The older mindset of technology and content regulation is in crisis.”


Sarai’s Ravikant, a former academic, says that in Delhi  “access is a community thing - people work on shared computers, they also share the connection and even the mail account - but the potential of the net remains underexplored. To give you one example, out of a 100-odd colleges in Delhi, only ten would have a website.”


Ravikant underlines that while the majority of Indians can’t afford phone lines, Net access will never burgeon.


Developing world poverty, and infrastructrure development, is being addressed by Netaid.org. A joint venture between the UN Development Program and Cisco Systems, Netaid began in 1999 with three international fundraising concerts, which reached 2.4 million people via webcast. It passes on 100% of donations, and donors can keep track of ‘their’ projects through an interactive website.


But it’s not only developing nations where there is a marked digital divide: within developed countries like our own there is an equally deep chasm between rich and poor, remote and urban.


But again, remote and poor regions are host to some of the Net’s most exciting applications.


In Australia, few webmasters exude such enthusiasm for their work as Matt Bullock, from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).


Last month Bullock oversaw a webcast of the cricket match between the Prime Minister’s 11 and the ATSIC Chairman’s 11, which had a scoreboard updated every minute, streamed radio interviews, and also video images captured on a roving digicam.


“The ATSIC site got 263,000 hits that day,” says Brian Johnstone, ATSIC’s Director of Media and Marketing. “Normally it gets 5000. Aboriginal people from all around Australia saw or heard the match.”


With 700,000 hits a month - half of them from offshore - the ATSIC site is one of the most popular government agency sites in the world.


“There are a lot of misconceptions about Aboriginal communities which come through the mainstream media,” says Johnstone. “Through our website, material can be accessed without that filter. From ATSIC’s point of view, the Internet is the most potent media tool we have.


“Aboriginal tradition is oral - it lends itself very well to this type of technology.”


Johnstone points to the Aboriginal communities in Cape York as an on-the-ground example of how new technology is meshing with traditional lifestyles.


As well being involved in fishing, building and other traditional projects, the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation is moving into new technology projects, to counteract the extreme remoteness of the Cape’s Aboriginal communities. (Cape York is the size of Victoria, and much of it is cut off by floods for months at a time.)


Balkanu’s Cape York Digital Network (CYDN) is working toward providing access to video and audio services - such as telehealth, e-commerce and video conferencing - to the Cape’s spread-out Aboriginal population.


Project Manager Daniel Grainger has toured “expos” around the region, where Aboriginal kids were connected to the Internet for the first time, and helped by instructors to establish email accounts and download web pages.


“In an adjoining room,” says Grainger, “We had a videoconferencing facility, where people could speak to incarcerated family members, in line with the Deaths in Custody Inquiry’s recommendation that incarcerated Aboriginals have more contact with family.”


The incipient CYDN recently broadcast a Native Title land handover from remote Strathgordon Outstation.


Grainger points out that the big distances between communities, and the region’s low incomes ($15,600 per household average) have created a pressing need for “remote technology” and above all cheaper infrastructure.


“Our line costs are the killer. So we’ve been negotiating with the carrier - Telstra - and the network-builder - Network Design and Constructions - for lower rates for Internet, telephony, videoconferencing and telehealth.”




“We work with the Queensland Health Department on this. Telehealth can be, for instance, sending a patient file across the Internet - right through to sending X-Ray imagery from a local doctor to the Royal Brisbane Hospital.”


Grainger’s eventual aim is to have “tele-services” right across Cape York. “We’re working at Director-General level  across government to get the money for this. We want government to use us as a service provider for these kinds of services. But even if it’s just reducing phone call costs for a start, that would be a win.”


Whilst the Cape York Digital Network uses a mix of Apples and PCs, Apples predominate in the Yolngu clan groups in north-east Arnhem Land, where the Yothu Yindi band hail from. Band lead singer Mandawuy Yunipingu is an “Apple Master”, and as part of the Apple Masters program, Apple Australia has given the community six iMacs.


“This,” says Apple Australia’s Myrna Van Pelt, “allowed the community to look at a new way of archiving and migrating a visual recording of their traditions, teachings and age-old customs onto a dynamic digital medium.


Apple also gave the Yolngu a set of G3s for recording purposes. Yothu Yindi manager Alan James says, “There’s a G3 connected to our O2R digital recording set-up. The studio doesn’t record onto tape - it’s all digital, recoring into the G3.”


James is even more excited about iMovie - which will allow the Yolngu people to capture their own images, rather than rely on outsiders who are forever telling them they’ve “got great footage” - but whom they never see again.


“In one film I saw - the last ever performance of a particular ceremony - the cameras were all pointed in the wrong direction. People off to one side were making a lot of noise - but the ceremony’s core issue related to an old man, whom the cameras ignored. I’ve seen grown men in tears, watching that film. Because all the members of the community had died.”


So what was the old man doing?


“That’s the point - nobody knows what he was doing. That particular clan is lost forever.


“So now, with the help of iMovie and the iMacs, the Yothu Yindi Foundation is hoping to empower the Yolngu tribal group to record and edit video in ways that are relevant to them.


“At then end of May we’re doing a concert in Melbourne with the Melbourne Youth Orchestra. A first time an Aboriginal band has played with a full orchestra to my knowledge. We’re going to record the concert using a G4 and ProTools - and hopefully put it on a record.


“We’re also discussing collaborations with other Apple Masters such as James Morrison.”


The Yolngu have only had contact with “Balanda” - Europeans - for about 60 years. Thus the old traditions and religion are still very strong. Yet they’re embracing technology which even many of the world’s computer owners would regard as futuristic.


It’s a promising symbol of a bridge across the digital divide.

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