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OK, the details of my Fimo website excursions are probably as exciting to everyone else as hearing computer scientists explain the code they just wrote. My point is that my first steps into cyberspace — when I could suddenly learn about anything I wanted, whenever I wanted — opened up a swatch of information in my adolescent world.
And as fascinating as that was in my life, the possibilities were even more groundbreaking for others.
Take Kenyans for example. In the USA, people had American Online (AOL), with the robotic catchphrase, “You Got Mail”. In Kenya, there was Africa Online. Africa Online was similar to AOL in most ways except for the fact that it brought the Internet to a place where most people could not afford to board jumbo-jets. Or buy computers. And it also brought the Internet there successfully, even though electricity, phone service and running water were not guaranteed day-to-day.
Africa Online was started in 1994 by three young Kenyan computer whizzes studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts (one at MIT, two at Harvard). Within a few years, Africa Online expanded from Kenya to Ghana, Cote d’Ivore, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. It connected countries that had been for the most part isolated and thus opened up a continent-wide discussion on all things African.
Of course, Internet rates were expensive, since most traffic went internationally, and were priced similar to a long distance phone call.
But despite these prices, one big thing the Internet in Kenya did was allow regular people to ask big questions. Why is our deteriorating infrastructure not being fixed? Why do I have to do whatever my husband tells me just because I am a woman? And why are presidential elections so blatantly corrupt? (The last question, of course, was the underbelly of this year’s post-election violence.)
Here in Canada, the Web also redesigned societal frameworks. Blogging put a big, fat question mark on the newspaper business as it ushered in a new platform for freedom of speech. MP3 downloading (started by oft-forgotten Napster) made music almost free, despite clambering by music industry execs. And social networking (with Facebook and MySpace) redefined what a “friend” really is.
But you already know this.
As we move into the thick of Web 2.0 with fancy wikis and php programming, it is hard to remember life without the Internet. Or fathom how we put up with dial-up. But there was a time less than 15 years ago when the idea of instantly connecting with anyone to discuss anything was so foreign, the only thing we could think to call it was “surfing”.