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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Just How Important Is The Internet?
May 2nd, 2000

To my surprise, I have realized in the last few months that not everybody has access to the Internet like a lot of us do in North America. In addition, there are a lot of people out there who do not "get" the Internet, its meaning and its importance. Until now, the Internet has accomplished very little and its potential is still almost unlimited.

We are technologically spoiled

Sometimes we take Internet access for granted. We, North Americans, have plans such as US$20/unlimited or high-speed networking solutions such as cable modems and DSL lines. We are spoiled and we assume that everybody else benefits from the same privileges. The technology at our fingertips allows us to browse for hours without worries since ordinary unlimited telephone lines or dedicated connections are normal.

We even forget that there are folks who do not use the Net, so the lack of a floppy drive - and we thought that they all had e-mail! - forces us to find workarounds or to buy a peripheral to work with those darn 1.4 MB things. These are some of the things around us that we take for granted and we were already forgetting that not everybody is "Internet ready".

Then there is the situation elsewhere around the globe.

Do you know what is the situation like in Africa? At the ITU Africa Telecom 98 Conference, Steven D. Dorfman, Vice Chairman of the Hughes Electronics Corporation, said the following:

Africa has one-eighth of the world's population, but only 1/50 of the telephone lines.
Africa has only 1/30 the satellite transponders per capita that the US has.

Talk about a technology gap between continents.

For the last couple of years, mostly when debating Internet related issues, I have heard repeatedly that Europeans, as advanced as they are, have to pay by the minute when they use landline telephones for local calls. That explains why cell phones are so popular there and why their use of the Internet is still limited. One can wonder if the Internet will progress significantly there and how fast they will reach high-speed access, which seems the only viable solution at a glance.

This leads me to think that we have seen nothing yet!

We already know that millions of people are wired through home, the office or at school. The last time I checked, Global Reach estimated the number of connected people to 288 millions around the world. If a decent percentage of other potential Internet users join the current 288 millions, that figure could multiply exponentially. Just think of the consequences from preventing Net traffic jams to a possible boom in e-commerce.

People do not get it

While more people wire themselves every day, many others do not understand the importance of the Internet and the resources made available because of its existence.

Something puzzled me a few years ago when I first got online. I remember an older man asking me "why the hell" I spent time on this network and telling me that it was totally useless. Of course, he never accessed the Net.

Sometimes, even current users do not know what they can do with their computers when navigating the worldwide network. Friends told me (several times) that the only good thing that the Net had to offer was e-mail.

How wrong! To illustrate what you can do, let me take an example from the classroom this last semester. The professor was telling us how great it was to do research. He told us how he saved thousands of dollars and countless days by finding the information at the right place for his projects on the Internet. It is amazing how many resources are available for free and how advanced searches can simplify your life.

He is not alone in this either. While he saves time and money because of the Internet, other people are starting businesses, expand their current practices, etc. It is a world of opportunity for the daring. So much for the theory that the Internet is a useless venture where no-life nerds gather to discuss hacking techniques and slobber over naked chicks, or that anybody with good knowledge of it has nothing else to do. The myth is still there, but it is overrated.

At the moment, the Internet is not a way of life for the people who are online - except for a minority - but it is a powerful new media that has taken a firm place in society. This technological revolution affects more and more people, and I think that we have seen nothing yet. With time, the Net will continue to reinforce the international tendency to place knowledge before everything else.

Knowledge is power, and the "new economy" bases itself on knowledge. The latter has one foundation: information. What is the best icon to represent today's consumption and distribution of information? The Internet.

I tell you, this whole Internet thing has only just begun. You just watch!

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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