Contemplating the Internet

April 27, 2010

Yesterday morning, I had email messages from South Africa and Australia. They were written and sent while I was sleeping. This may seem mundane now but it is not; it is extraordinary. In January, 1994, Vice-President Al Gore gave a landmark speech at UCLA about the uses of the “information superhighway” in both domestic and international development. The speech was prescient.

At the time there were only about three million or so computers connected to the Internet. Today, there are hundreds of millions. Even in the remotest areas of the developing world, in war-torn villages and villages without roads, there are internet cafes. An aid worker friend told me recently that first on the list of wants and needs in any town or village he has ever been to is the word “computer.”

What does this mean for writers? It means we can retrieve information quickly, contact sources globally and receive a reply quickly, and disseminate what we have written globally and instantaneously through uploads and links. There is no way that despotic regimes, such as China, will be able to prevent the onslaught of this free-flow of information. Their resistance will end eventually. Though I was loathe to allow my book “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Aid Workers Tell Their Stories,” to be published in China, I knew I could not prevent it. Some enterprising young democratic-spirited person would have scanned and distributed it in blank covers, or uploaded it to a website somewhere. Bravo, I say. Get the information out there. Collect as much royalty as I can, and then let it go. Is this theft? Of course. But it’s also a donation to the Chinese people. The walls of their electronic prison are breaking down.

I have started a new nonfiction project that requires research. Before the internet, a mere two decades ago, I would have had to write snail mail delivered letters and/or make long distance phone calls to regions in different time zones. It would have taken me months. Then, once I received a reply, the reply would probably have been inadequate. I might have had to travel to remote regions to interview people and pore through archival material, probably with the help of a translator. And though this old-fashioned footwork and reporting still is essential in some instances, it mostly is not necessary. On I go, in English, the new global language, speaking to librarians, curators and archivists all over the world as they digitalize their collections and make them available to curious citizenry everywhere.

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