Quick view

- The Net users of the so called "Third World" are in many cases self-trained computer experts working with old hard- and software. They are proud of belonging to the technological avand-garde of their society.

- In spite of high telephone costs, e-mail is often the easiest and cheapest way to send letters. Besides, the World Wide Web offers the only platform people of Third World countries sometimes have to publish their ideas and opinions if they don't want their statements to be distorted by government or western media.

- Finally, the Internet gives the members of technological avand-garde the possibility to communicate with competent colleagues all around the world and to integrate themselves in communities of interest instead of only participating in the usual social life.

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They want to share their knowledge with people all over the world

Unrealistic hopes had been attributed to radio and TV, too

The young pioneers don't feel isolated

Internet rickshaw to Dhaka - and back?

By Manfred Ewel

How strange these people are.
How strange I am.
How strange we are.

Norbert Elias

Have you ever visited Robben Island off the Southern tip of Africa, the infamous prison island where Nelson Mandela and countless other South African political prisoners were held during the years of Apartheid? Or are you more interested in listening to the voices of grassroot groups on Radio Bridge Zimbabwe, talking about the struggle for survival of the common man and woman in Africa?

And if you have never been to the capital of Bangladesh, you definitely should visit the exhibition on rickshaws and the people using them. As rickshaws lend much to the special character of Dhaka, the photographers and media designers at DRIK have dedicated one of their virtual exhibitions to them. Your imagination just has to add the smells, sight and sounds of at least 50 other rickshaws and "baby taxis" on any busy street of one of the world's most densely populated countries.

Who is using the internet in developing countries?

An increasing number of countries in Africa and Asia are represented on the World Wide Web every day. Even in the cultural domain, where African elites usually do not spend much money, government supported cultural organisations like the South African Department of Arts and Culture, commercial advertising services like Arab Net and independent owners of web sites such as Rootsworld, the internet pages on African popular music, contribute to the world's knowledge about the cultural diversity of the continent. Yes, it is true, that the large majority of people in those countries have no access to computers and the web, and, yes, it is only a small and relatively affluent group of people who are creating and using pages on the net. But, obviously, they have a desire to be present and connected like millions of others in the rest of the world.

Who are these people, and how do they live in the all-too-real chaos of a megalopolis in what is anachronistically still referred to as the "Third World"? Most often, they are young males from middle-class families, attracted by the modernist image and innovative possibilities of technological gadgets. Like telephones, TV and video, cassette players and radios, aeroplanes or modern weapons, computers and their applications have been embraced in non-western societies with open arms and minds. Once they have mastered the necessary jargon in English and the basic principles of the software applications they can lay their hands on, they also want a connection to the global store of pictures and products, news and mailing lists.

Of course, their machines are always a generation behind the latest models featured in the computer magazines, and the software is not always paid for. And, still, the amount of money that is needed for this equipment is equivalent to what their entire family needs for recurrent expenses in two or three months. If they are not lucky enough to work for well equipped offices in international organisations or university departments, or the few wealthy private employers or customers like banks, big hotels and travel agencies, they have to look around for a long time to be allowed access to an outdated private computer at a friend's house.

Shaheen is a 25 year old multimedia designer with DRIK, one of Dhaka's most successful centres for photography and internet activities with a strong artistic and social emphasis. "I often work from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.," he says, "not because I have so much work every day, but because I love my job and I want to learn more about creating exciting presentations about my country." He is a good example of the whiz kid with a keen interest in making himself a name in town for the most innovative technology in mass communication. In Bangladesh, where the government does not allow any private television or radio stations, it is also a rewarding experience for outspoken people to be able to publish their views and concerns on a global platform.

People like Shaheen and the growing number of young, bright computer addicts in developing countries have enough self esteem to communicate with anybody anywhere in the world. They know they belong to the technological avant-garde of their society and that they are specialising in something most of their older compatriots in a more established situation know little about. Of course, African and Asian intellectuals who want to stay in business with the private sector, development agencies or important ministries are using their computer and e-mail software just as effectively as their western counterparts. But it is the local computer freaks who provide installation, service or training for them. What they may be lacking in form of a sound academic training, they make up by many hours of trial and error, and by much cheaper labour costs than in the West.

For most countries in the South, using the internet is a better investment than traditional means of exchanging information.

Being able to go online, although at higher costs and much slower speeds than in fully industrialised countries, provides southern web users, too, with the tempting possibility of accessing information from around the globe. While letters still take three or four days from one neighbourhood to another in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, an e-mail reaches its destination within minutes. And taking into account the duration and cost of international mail services to and from Africa, e-mail is a much cheaper and more practical way of exchanging messages. The possibility of exploring information through the net and sharing this experience with anybody in the world who is connected and has similar interests is increasing the chances for intellectual growth of people in developing countries in a much more fundamental way than in the West.

Perennial obstacles such as insects, humidity, lack of trained staff and appropriate equipment are the reasons why good libraries and archives are rare and much more expensive to maintain in tropical countries than in the North. Even in the richest countries of the world, libraries are experiencing the limits of their capacity to acquire, store and retrieve books and magazines. Compared to the budgets for such libraries, the expense for computers and internet connections is a much sounder investment in the South, and one that is more flexible in the handling of information as well. The fact that people in developing countries can now do their research or present their findings anywhere in the virtual world gives them a much better chance to participate in the flow of information and opinions between north and south. The biased nature of reporting in western mass media about Africa has been criticised time and again, but CNN and other commercial broadcasting stations have certainly not helped to redress the one-sided pictures outsiders get of Africa or the Arab world. At least for those who care to look for different sources of information and to participate in a more egalitarian discourse, this means stronger political opportunities to speak up and to shape their own ideas about the world from alternative sources.

Life in the southern part of the global village is still different!

The expectations and euphoria that are attributed to the internet have been compared with the often unrealistic hopes that came along with other technological advances like television or private radio stations. Yes, it is true that the internet was initially developed for military reasons and is now rapidly becoming a commercial tool for mass consumption. And like on television, people now gain information and a simplified picture about life in far away places through the net. There are many who see web users growing together in a global community independent of their geographical or social environment. People feel close to somebody who seems to have similar ideas and convictions as themselves without ever having the need or chance to meet them in person. The fact that this person lives thousands of kilometres away and has grown up in a different culture seems to count little compared to the virtual kinship they feel for their internet friends.

But just as we know that life in the West is different from the carefully edited pictures in TV programmes and commercials, life in Dhaka or Dar es Salaam is not what it looks like on your computer screen. And people everywhere live more complex lives than what they talk about in mailing lists or chat rooms. Especially in developing countries, reality waits right outside the office or computer room. And when there are power cuts or broken phone lines because somebody has stolen your phone wire or wants to make money by repairing it for you, your electronic umbilical cord to the blessed areas of the "civilised world" may be cut off for quite a while! Add to this the violent political struggles, financial stress, inadequate public services, problems with the extended family or social restrictions for women or people with no bank account that are typical for so many developing countries. Surrounding yourself with computers and other concomitants of the rapidly changing western lifestyle of consuming more and more goods, natural resources and time leads to increasing pressure to make more money. When I asked Shaheen, if he does not feel isolated and estranged from other Bangladeshis, he simply said: "Well, it is no different from being a surgeon, lawyer or artist for that matter. You just specialise in something that attracts you, and you don't mind, if you can't talk to your family or neighbours about it."

© with the author, December 1998

Manfred Ewel was working for intercultural exchange in the arts and humanities as Director of the German Cultural Centre (Goethe-Institut) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and as Director of Studies at the Goethe-Institut in Damascus, Syria. He has published articles on Tanzanian art and culture as well as on German-Tanzanian cultural exchange projects.
His family, friends and other people he corresponds with live in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. The internet has become a vital daily tool for him, enabling him to maintain frequent and rapid correspondence with his family, friends and other people and to retrieve information for his personal and professional interests.

"zum Thema:" Nr. 24, 30.12.1998