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Winter 2004
Cyber Vision
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So it’s fair to ask where the Internet is really taking us, and if there are other important areas of our lives that it can — or should — improve. In one form or another, the question is regularly echoed in the media, and so it was no surprise that UCLA Adjunct Professor of Computer Science Alan Kay raised it, plunging the symposium into something of a hush.
At a time when much of the world does not have enough drinking water and access to affordable medicine, Kay asked what people should make of the computer industry’s "SUV mentality" of manufacturing increasingly powerful computers that, to a large extent, are not tools of education in a sorely uneducated world but tools of entertainment. "The trick," Kay suggested, "is to use the Internet as much more than an instrument of pop culture."

Renaissance Europe is an excellent guide to the kind of investment today’s tech elite should be making in the Internet, Kay suggested. "The people who built cathedrals in Europe knew they would die before the cathedrals would be completed," he said. "They left a legacy — a sort of gift for the future generations." The obvious moral: In envisioning the Internet’s future, think of the world’s children in the decades to come.

Bridging the world’s yawning digital divide is another area of concern. According to the United Nations Development Program’s 2001 Human Development Report, Internet users as a percentage of the population doubled in the United States and quadrupled in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development over a two-year period ending in 2000. In contrast, the Arab states, Africa and South Asia showed relative increases of just 0.4 percent, 0.3 percent and 3.6 percent respectively.

Yet in another sense, high technology is reducing the digital divide. Massive cell-phone usage in China, for example, is helping the Chinese to leapfrog their nation’s relatively few wired telephone lines. In India, inventive entrepreneurs provide satellite-linked community PCs to power-starved villages. The machines, known as "Internet rickshaws," are mounted on tricycles and powered by a simple pedal-driven device. "In countries where you can’t trust the infrastructure, you’ve got to build your own," says Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "What we’re seeing in the developing world is really creative engineers who are returning [from the West] and building infrastructure in their home countries."

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