Excitement about cyberspace should not blind us to the fate of the earth-bound majority. Reva Klein reports
If the Internet is the revolutionary tool it is cracked up to be, offering new, limitless frontiers of communication, information and commerce across the world, there are a lot of people in that world being left out in the cold.
In most parts of Africa, in huge swathes of south and south-east Asia and in Central and Latin America, most of the population's prime consideration is existence in the face of poverty, disease, war and political oppression.
Communication is a luxury when, among other things, your income is at subsistence level and your power supply, if you have one, is erratic. Even in the developed world, the impoverished of the United States and Europe are outcasts.
Back home on our grey but relatively rich shores, an estimated 80 per cent of families don't have computers at home. It is an easy thing to forget, particularly when you're surrounded by hardware yourself. The impact of technological disenfranchisement has yet to be documented, but we know that children who are not familiar with computers enter the job market, such as it is, at a distinct disadvantage. And since computer familiarity is primarily gained at home rather than at school, because of restricted access during school hours, parents' inability to engage with technology for whatever reason is at the heart of the problem.
While quality computer time is spent at home for the lucky 20 per cent, the rest have to make do without - and suffer the consequences later in life.
But Dr Sadie Plant, a Warwick University research fellow who has set up the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, says that the Internet puts the question of access on a different footing. "None of the old ways of talking about technology have meaning when you apply them to the Net. There is no 'it' to be owned - no question of somebody holding the keys to the door and not letting anybody else in."
But neither, she believes, is there any great reason for people to be clamouring to get on-line at this point. "It's not going to become a mass medium as it stands, since there's nothing that people are desperate to have access to.
"There are various ways that it can develop. It can continue to have a relatively small number of users and remain the deregulated, anarchic playground that it is. Or it can become a mass thing, fusing into all other communication systems. But at the moment, it's economically unsustainable, being held together by people's hopes" Be that as it may, nobody wants to be left behind, and particularly those who feel that conventional technology from its inception has been in the hands of white, English-speaking males.
One example of the determination of the rest of the world's population to claim the Internet as its own was seen at the United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing last summer. There, a recommendation was drafted, making access to information technology and the Internet a human right. If it is adopted by the United Nations, it will put the issues of equality and access to the Internet on political and social agendas the world over.
Closer to home, a growing number of organisations are working to bring the Internet to communities that otherwise would be left in the cyber-void. Although different in style and approach, their bottom line is one of opening minds and worlds, breaking down barriers of fear and misunderstanding.
The chain of fantastically successful Cyberia Cafes is the most commercial manifestation of bringing the Internet to the people. Set up by two women, these are places where, for the price of a particularly good capuccino, you get a stint on one of their banks of computers to cruise the Net or go for something specific.
Cafe workers help you get started to enable you to get to where you want to be in a friendly, relaxed way. Since the original Cyberia opened in central London's Whitfield Street in September 1994, branches have sprung up in Kingston upon Thames, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Their wide appeal is clear to anybody who has ever taken the plunge and had to wait in the queue of men and women - although more of the former than the latter - young and trendy and less so.
Of course, Cyberia cafes are fine for those with mobility, a bit of spare cash and, just as importantly, with the confidence to walk into a new situation to experiment with a much-hyped technological tool.
But one group uses a Cyberia Cafe as a regular base for learning how to use the Net on its own terms. The Women's Internet Group has been organised by LIFT (Learning for Life with Technology), an organisation at the forefront of bringing technology into communities both in this country and in the developing world. This group is comprised of women from a range of backgrounds and professions who want to crack the Net for a variety of reasons, personal and professional.
Val Cloake, who teaches science at a secondary school in Fulham, west London, explains the rationale for a discrete women's group. "For me, there's an ideological basis for wanting to learn how to use the Internet with other women. I see it as empowering, since there are big issues around women in technology. Some of us in the group want to use the Internet as a tool for electronic mail (e-mail); others are interested in the whole notion of a new information system at a formative stage - and that if we [women] are not there at the very beginning, someone else will be."
There are other non-commercial, grass roots-based projects that reach out to those parts of the community that otherwise would not be in touch with technology and the Internet.
The London borough of Southwark is embarking on the construction of a "Mediatec", a library-cum-theatre-cum-production studio in Peckham. The multi-purpose facility includes an Internet clubroom, modelled on the Cyberia cafes, where people from the local neighbourhood can drop in to use the Internet. Already being planned are arts web pages for Southwark.
The London-based Black Computer Users Forum runs regular Internet access sessions at the African Caribbean Market at Willesden Library in north-west London once a month, as well as offering free information, advice and networking services with other black computer technicians and enthusiasts. It also sponsors a home page on the Internet. "Network for Nigeria" is designed for groups seeking human rights, democracy and justice to Nigeria.
A very different kettle of fish is the Marr Educational Resource Centre in Troon, Ayrshire. Housed in a grand old library, it is a computer centre for the community, equipped with 10 work stations featuring a variety of different computers. A range of educational software and multimedia is available. It also offers access to the Internet and World Wide Web, for which a small hourly fee is charged.
Set up by the Troon-based Marr Educational Trust, it is a well-resourced, over-subscribed facility that is being used by the unemployed, the retired, teachers, children, people with mental handicaps and parents who want to try to keep up with their children.
What seems to be gaining ground slowly but surely, nationally and internationally, is the understanding that the Internet is not in itself the issue, but rather it is what uses people can find for it. Maggie Holgate, co-founder of LIFT and the Parents' Information Network, warns against the dangers of "tokenism" when schools use the Internet to make links with schools in developing countries.
"We have to ensure that the benefits to children in the developing world are equal to what we get from them," she says. "There's something very one-sided about the feel-good factor that schools here get by learning about a far-away country. If we're not careful, we could be reinforcing all the imbalances and inequalities that exist between the First and Third worlds."
The same applies to domestic school links, too, between schools in disadvantaged areas and better resourced, wealthier areas.
American feminist Dale Spender concurs with this concern. In her book, Nattering on the Net, she writes: "Despite the ideal potential of the new technologies to create a global, egalitarian community, a virtual world without barriers or divisions, the scene down on the ground is strikingly different.
"The real people in the real world are being divided up into the information-rich and poor: the 'master minds' and those who are 'kept in the dark'. The possibility of the global village, where everyone can have a say, is as yet a long way off. " Unless those inequalities are taken seriously, analysed and addressed, our two-tier communities' divisions will become ever wider. And to do that, a lot of hard thinking and creative resourcing needs to take place to ensure that everyone has a crack at this curiously formless, unrewardingly mind-boggling but potentially revolutionary Internet in some of our midsts.