tranquileye > contextualizing the internet, 1995 > wiring the world search

Wiring the World:

Discourses of the Global

Internet and Development

December 1994 ~ Examining the Internet is always problematic. Some people like to compare the network to a cloud: translucent, ubiquitous, changing. I tend to liken it to a storm: exciting, transformative, and, to a great extent, frightening. Like a storm, we define the Internet not just by how it is physically constituted, but by what effects it will have on those of us who have either have the courage to venture into it or are somehow subjected, unwillingly, to its effects. The Internet is a bundle of things: technologies, philosophies, physical connections, individual computers, stores of information, and, ultimately, people.

I will avoid any other Krokeresque analogies; my point is that in order to understand what it is with which we are dealing, we must be prepared to examine the Internet both as something which exists, and something which is perceived to exist. One of the tenants of the popular discourse around the Internet is that it is virtually ubiquitous, an alternative interactive space running parallel to our own physical constructs. Indeed, the Internet is one of the largest communications networks in the world, second only in size to the massive international telephone system (Electronic Frontier Foundation). Comer writes that every thirty seconds, a new host computer is being connected to the Internet, and that the number of users on the network is doubling every ten months (71). Recent figures from the international Internet Society indicate that the Internet grew by 21% in the third quarter of 1994 alone, the largest such increase in four years (“Internet Survey”). Such growth is even beyond the society’s own estimates released earlier this year, graphically represented by the chart below, intriguingly entitled “2001: Users=Human Population?” (See figure 1 below).

This type of chart is one of many one will find in both Internet “how-to” books and more serious studies of the network, including the work of John Quarterman. What is so troubling about such representations of Internet growth is how unproblematically it is represented: as a continual “evolution” toward a completely ubiquitous and universal service. Indeed, many writers use the term “global” and “worldwide” to describe the Internet, without examining the implications of such terms. As we shall see, such descriptions are, at best, problematic.



Figure 1: 2001: Users=Human Population?

Source: Internet Society. April 1994. Electronically distributed,


That is not to say that all popular writers of the Internet (or most serious ones) present such unproblematic predictions of the network’s growth. For instance, Vinton Cerf, one of the key figures in Internet development of the past twenty years, recently predicated that “only” three-hundred million people would have some form of Internet access by the end of the decade (qtd. in Hafner and Cisler, 154). However, a notion of a rapid growth toward a universal service Internet dominates much of the popular discourse.

The reality is quite different. It is difficult to even argue that the Internet is widely available in the developed world; recent Internet Society data indicates that 68% of all Internet host computers (and therefore users) are in the United States and Canada (“Internet Survey”). When Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the industrialized societies of Asia are added to the mix, the portion of Internet hosts in the South ends up being in the neighborhood of two or three percent (Internet Society, “Internet Survey”) – hardly global. It may be that the Internet Society and Quarterman know something which we do not, and that access to the Internet technologies will somehow become as easily available to a farmer in Ghana as they currently are to a graduate student in Canada.

Even though, as we shall see, there are significant barriers to the realization of this prospect, many efforts are underway to “wire the world.” Majid Tehranian has identified two basic approaches the development of communications in the South: one which emphasizes goals from the top, and one which emphasizes goals from the bottom ( 181). I will look at the discourses which have grown up around these two approaches in the implementation of computer networks, with some emphasis on Africa, which presents possibly the most serious challenges to such technology.

A new discourse of modernization can be found within the several nationally-oriented computer networking projects currently underway in many African states, a discourse which is somewhat gentler and less structuralist than the arguments of Wilbur Schram three decades ago. George Sadowsky and Jean-Yves Djamen are typical of this nationally-oriented, top-down approach in the South: present computer technologies as tools for national development and the Internet as a culture into which national governments must be “absorbed” lest they miss out on full contact with the rest of the world (Sadowsky 46). Indeed, there is a significant danger that new networking technologies will widen the gap between the “info rich” and the “info poor.” Howard Frederick states that currently 95% of all computers in existence are in the North; if the “Information Superhighway” is implemented in North America, each high school classroom in the United States will have more bandwidth than the entire state of Argentina, the nation which is experiencing the highest growth of Internet hosts in the South (288; Internet Society, “Internet Survey”).

Sadowsky holds out computer networks as a prize which can be grabbed by developing nations if only they have the courage to do so. “The public networking culture is growing exceedingly rapidly,” warns Sadowsky. “Government must be convinced that the content of services available through the international network will have direct payoff in terms of national development objective” (46; 47). Djamen presents some of these benefits: the Internet will reduce the distance between workers, create new industries, enhance research and development work, and facilitate public education (Djamen et. al.). Sadowsky outlines the sectors which can benefit: telecommunications, agriculture, foreign affairs, health, and others (45-46). Indeed, the amount of information which is available through the Internet and similar networks is staggering; most powerful of all is the fact that a user can directly communicate with experts in a wide variety of fields, from the mundane to the esoteric. As Djamen point out, giving Africans a voice within a global context is vital.

I will not argue that such approaches are completely negative and unsuccessful by any means; for example, Alamineh’s proposal for a national network of selk mender (electronic town halls) in Ethiopia is innovative and worthy of further study. However, modernization arguments often ignore the significant technical, cultural, and financial realities of actually implementing computer networking technologies. Bellman, Tindimubona, and Arias write of “problem of the last mile”: a combination of national government policies which restrict trans-border flows of information and local level politics within and between institutions that restrict usage and access to technology (245). In several African countries, dialing a computer system outside the country is illegal, and national packet data networks, such as Kenya’s KENPAC, are state-run and expensive, its use restricted to transnational business and large banks (ibid.). In a different vein, Oderda likens the implementation of computer and networking technologies in much of Africa as not a transfer of technology, but a “dumping of boxes without the necessary know-how ...” (26). She writes that the number of computers has increased in Africa in the past twenty years, but that lack of training, steady electrical power, replacement parts, and secondary equipment make the continued use of many computer systems difficult. What equipment there often underutilized. Writes Lawrie, “It is painful to see an underutilized machine in an LDC [lesser developed country] because somewhere in that country is someone with a great need who is crying out for a computer” (27).

There is also a clear dependence on foreign transnationals to both provide the computer equipment and maintain it, a relationship which drains supplies of international currency (26). The dependence does not stop at the equipment; with upwards of 92% of the Internet physically in the North America and Europe, Southern nations find themselves purchasing information from database services in the North. Francis Allotey writes, “It is remarkable that databases relating to developing countries are generally stored in the industrialized countries,” creating the ironic situation that in order to access information about their own circumstances, they must purchase it from the North (26).

Computer networks require all the things which a computer lab does, in addition to stable telephone lines which can be used at a reasonable cost (Greenwald). Zaire, for example, recently purchased a new satellite ground station from AT&T after their twenty-year-old system broke down, shutting down the nation’s entire communications infrastructure (“Zaire Signs Deal”). Technology is unreliable in comparison to much of the North, making it very difficult to reach one Africa nation from another by phone, sometimes requiring several attempts to get through (Greenwald).

Even if the Internet could be implemented under these conditions there is the danger that, because of financial and infrastructure constraints, the network will become a tool of particular elites in Southern societies, such as government, transnational corporations, academics, and so on. Djamen replies to this concern with the following:

Skeptics would argue that demand for Internet services may be stagnant, thereby ... limiting Internet use to a small elite and further aggravating the marginalization that already exists in certain developing countries. We counter such skepticism by arguing that if such considerations had been taken into account by researchers in western countries, the Internet would never have come into existence nor become so widely used.

However, the domination of Internet use by elites continues to be a challenge in the North as well; a recent survey of Internet use indicated that the majority of net users were male, very well-educated, and high-income earners – hardly a group representative of the population as a whole (U.S. Department of Agriculture). Indeed, the Internet from its conception in 1969 has been a tool for elites, starting with computer scientists, researchers and the military, and eventually including academics and business people who could afford such services (Electronic Frontier Foundation). Certainly, the Internet is widely used in the North, but not so much so that its users represent anything but a small segment of the population.

Expensive, unreliable, and potentially disempowering – for all its usefulness to some segments of Southern societies, does the Internet have a place in the developing world? Will the choice in the South be, as Pan African News Agency (PANA) head Babacar Fall has described it, between an expensive “electronic mailbox ... or 100 kilograms of corn” for each village (qtd. in Greenwald)?

In his classic Small Is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher describes a type of technology called intermediate technology. Intermediate technology stands somewhere beyond indigenous technologies, yet is not on the scale or cost of the largest capital-intensive technologies of the North; more than anything, intermediate technology is the “right” technology for the task at hand (190). Writes Schumacher:

It is too often assumed that the achievement of western science, pure and applied, lies manly in the apparatus and machinery that have been developed from it., and that a rejection of the apparatus and machinery is tantamount to a rejection of science. This is an excessively superficial view. The real achievement lies in the accumulation of precise knowledge, and this knowledge can be applied in a great variety of ways, of which current application in modern industry is only one. (198)

Schumacher did not write of computer networks; however, one can see how his principles could be applied to their development in the South. In North America, computer networks have developed in a curious environment of dedicated and reliable telephone lines, constant electrical power, interested and skillful operators and users, and reasonably equitable client-business relationship. Few of these conditions exist in the South, and for computer networking to be effective there, the technology itself must be molded to the conditions which exist around it, both technological and social.

Several non-governmental organizations are taking just this approach in the use of computer networking in the South. These include the education-oriented BESTNET project in Latin America and Africa, NGONET, and the use of the European GEONET system by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Latin America (Bellman et. al. 238; Bissio 27; Rodriguez 2). Bellman, Tindimubona, and Arias report that expatriate Kenyans have established an international chapter of the Kenyan Computer Institute to strengthen African NGO information management and communications, improve infrastructure, and develop the role of government and public institutions in networking (246). I will look at the most wide-spread and successful of these projects: the networks of the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) (Sallin).

To understand how computer technology can be applied in an appropriate way in the South, we must first realize that the “technology” of the Internet is really a suite of technologies from which one can “mix-and-match” protocols to create a different network entity. For example, the Internet conferencing protocols were originally developed in the early-1980s for computers which were not always physically linked each other at all times; the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP), which manages conferences on Internet hosts, stores and forwards messages in large chunks when a gateway to another host opens (Quarterman 45). This efficient, decentralized, and effective protocol can be taken out of the “Internet suite” and used in other network applications. There are several other protocols or methods for creating electronic mail which are similarly effective in conditions of intermittent access to computers and unreliable telephone lines.

The basic technical principle of many electronic networks in the South is often called “store-and-forward” (Quarterman 47). This method has its clearest application in a computer bulletin board networking system called FIDONET, so called because the system can “fetch” information from other FIDO-based machines at regular intervals. Developed in the mid-1980s by computer hobbyists, FIDONET systems automatically telephone each other very late at night, when telephone rates are low, and dump and retrieve large amounts of data in the form of electronic mail and distributed conferences (36). Certainly, systems like FIDONET are not the most elegant or efficient means of connecting computers in any part of the world. But such technologies a provide clear solution to a variety of financial and technical challenges in the South. Several FIDONET projects are underway in Africa: EASANET in Kenya uses telephone lines and packet radio; UNINET, based in South Africa, has nodes in Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe and connects to GreenNet in England (Bellman et. al. 246).

The APC uses FIDONET and similar technologies, as well as full Internet links, in order to connect a number of computer networks around the world. Interestingly, although it uses some Internet links, APC is attempting to create something of a parallel infrastructure world-wide. APC originated as a network of progressive organizations in the North; although not officially formed until 1990, PeaceNet and EcoNet in the United States, GreenNet in England, and Web in Canada had been linked to one another since 1987 under the auspices of the Institute for Global Communications (ICG) (O’Brien, “APC Computer” 111). IGC’s technical director, Steve Fram, indicates that the genesis of APC was not easy: “We struggled for a long time about what an organization should look like, and after a lot of discussion, settled on the idea of the APC.” (qtd. in Sallin). In 1989 and 1990, progressive nets in the South joined the APC network, beginning with Nicarao in Nicaragua and AlterNex in Brazil. The association now has 16 international member networks in 94 countries, serving more than 25,000 users (Sallin); a complete list of current members can be found in Appendix 1, below.

APC is impressive in its balance between Northern and Southern networks. Even though North American-based networks have more than one-half of all subscribers, the association’s decision making system balances stakeholders in different regions. Networks with 100 subscribers have one vote, 100 to 1000 users two, and those beyond 1000 subscribers have three votes (Sallin). As well, APC’s operation is decentralized; each network is autonomous, independent, and internally-managed (Sallin). For example, the policies of Ecuanex, the APC network in Ecuador, are set by an annual assembly held with the 21 member organizations who are the end-users of the system (Sallin).

The main services of Association for Progressive Communication networks are electronic mail and computer conferences (O’Brien, “APC Computer” 112-113). Electronic mail from APC users can be sent to virtually any other networked system in the world, including Internet, Bitnet, UUCP, FIDONET, and commercial online service addresses (ibid.). Conferencing is the main function of APC, however, with over 900 discussion areas focusing on social concerns such as human rights issues, peace and disarmament, the environment, education, and so on (Association for Progressive Communications). Most conferences are public, providing current information of a variety of topics useful to activists, journalists, researchers, and other end users. APC also provides links to telex, access to news services, and databases. A complete list of current APC services is found in Appendix 2, below.

APC networks have an impact beyond simply linking activists and others in the North and South. As Roberto Bissio, executive director of the Instituto del Tercer Mundo, writes, computer networks can “close the circle’ from negotiation and lobbying processes, at the international level to the actual development and environment protagonists at the grassroots level” (29). APC has been chosen by seventeen United Nations offices as an information provider on global issues, including the UN Center for Human Rights, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Inter-Governmental Negotiating Committee on a Framework for Climate Change Convention (INC/FCCC). APC networks have been chosen as the official carriers of information for UN conferences, connecting NGOs around the world to one another and to the policy making process (Sallin). Howard Frederick argues that APC has created a “global civil society” of NGOs, protecting the public sphere from commercial and government interests (284).

A number of challenges remain for the APC networks and similar efforts, however. It may be beyond the ability of APC-style projects to address the other half of the networking equation: as Gabriel Rodriguez describes it, “the network as a human phenomenon in the communication of individuals” (2). For APC to be effective as a component in international policy making, it must be able to gather information and opinion broadly from the grassroots; similarly, information must be distributed beyond the activist community among real people in a variety of setting. With only 25,000 users worldwide, this is a significant challenge indeed, requiring extensive work on the local level to reach even a small proportion of effected communities.

There is also some question as to the information which APC is distributing. The APC conferencing structure is completely separate from the broader, global Usenet conferencing system. Although the majority of Usenet conferences may not be appropriate to APC’s social goals, many contain useful information on topics ranging from agricultural techniques and scientific research to co-operative decision making and activism. Similarly, APC networks do not provide direct, login connections to a number of sites which provide useful information about development and social issues. Web staff have indicated that providing access would create too much “noise” (unwanted information) on the system, but one wonders if this decision should be made by Web staff or by its users (O’Brien, interview).

APC networks provide an essential resource to NGOs and are the basis for further, and possibly more effective, services. The solutions which the network organizations have developed are not perfect, but they do represent a significant effort to mediate between local and regional needs and the broader context of Northern-dominated information flow. As we have seen, the gap between information rich and information poor may well widen as new communication infrastructures are put into place; projects like APC can mediate the damage of this growing gap by providing two-way communication and access to resources at a low cost to marginalized communities in both the North and the South. ~ John Stevenson

Appendix 1: Association for Progressive Communications Members, 1994

Name of Network Location Founded
Alternex Brazil 1990
GreenNet England 1990
IGC Networks United States 1990
Nicarao Nicaragua 1990
NordNet Sweden 1990
Pegasus Australia 1990
Web Canada 1990
Comlink Germany 1991
GlasNet Russia 1991
EquaNex Ecuador 1992
Chasque Uruguay 1992
SangoNet South Africa 1993
Wamani Argentina 1993
GLUK Ukraine 1993
Histria Slovenija 1993
LaNeta Mexico 1993

This date signifies the year each network became an APC member. Many of these networks were operating independently prior to these dates.

(Source: Sallin, Susanne. “The Association for Progressive Communications: A Cooperative Effort to Meet the Information Needs of Non-Governmental Organizations.” 14 Feb. 1994. Electronically distributed,

Appendix 2: Association for Progressive Communications Services

Electronic Mail – connectivity with every major computer network service worldwide, including the Internet, Bitnet, CompuServe, Dialcom (including TCN and UNINET), MCIMail, Connect (including HandsNet) and more than 30 others.

Information resources – discussion forum on issues and values ranging from environmental education to strife and social change in Eastern Europe; energy policy, climate change and biodiversity, to the full facts on the Earth Summit; from democratic change in Africa to the latest on East Timor.

News Wires – including the InterPress Service, Pacific News Service, Africa Information Afrique, CERIGUA and Greenpeace.

Fax and Telex – inter-connectivity at extremely low rates.

Local dialup – access facilities and experienced local support staff in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, England, Germany, Nicaragua, Russia, Sweden, the United States, Uruguay.

Access – from more than 40 countries via the Internet, and access through packet-switched services (including US Sprint and BT Tymnet) from more than 90 countries.

Computer Conferencing – with multiple-site participation, and private, semi-private and unrestricted access options. Capability of interchange in USENET and other formats.

Remote system support – using either the UUCP or FIDO protocols.

Mailing List and File distribution services – using multiple message formats.

Online Databases – full-text databases including Agenda 21, Environmental GrantMakers, Rocky Mountain Environmental Directory, Third World Resources, Greenpeace Press Releases, United Nations Information Service, short-wave radio transcripts, and Pesticide Information Service.

Custom login banners – computer conferences and billing services for groups.

Internet Services – including telnet and WAIS.

Consulting and Technical Assistance – ranging from installation of complete email and BBS systems to full support for your organization's specific needs for computer communications and information exchange.

(Source: Sallin, Susanne. “The Association for Progressive Communications: A Cooperative Effort to Meet the Information Needs of Non-Governmental Organizations.” 14 Feb. 1994. Electronically distributed,


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Copyright © 1995, 1996, 2001 John Harris Stevenson,