I suppose you are wondering what a computer scientist, engineer, and unrepentant hippie is doing at this lecture today. Well, I am also wondering the same. So I guess the best I can do with this honor and opportunity is to tell you about why I chose to do certain things and the small but occasionally pungent lessons I have taken away from these experiences.
Being teenagers in the late ’50s and early ’60s in the States, my high school sweetheart and later wife and I were, as they say, ‘politically active’. It was a time of serious social change, and even upheaval, in the States. The movement for Civil Equality was reaching its height and was somewhat successful, and the protests to end the American invasion of Vietnam were starting.
Non-violent protest actually proved successful in the attainment of social ideals, to the amazement of many of us. Not that it was magic. Not that lives were not lost, some in tragically horrifying ways. But idealists taking to the streets were actually able to effect change in long-embedded and diseased social institutions, as well as able to slow and stop the war machine of the world’s most powerful and aggressive nation-state. These were indeed heady times, and lasted well into the ’70s when the United States fled Vietnam in defeat;
But in the late ’70s, as the once-revolutionaries grew up, moved to the suburbs, and acquired dishwashers, America slowly became bland, complacent, materialistic, ruled by an obsession with sick and increasingly sensationalist media, and conservative. But some of us from that generation were left with a deep-seated belief that social ideals were seriously, if not critically, important, and that change could actually be achieved through non-violent social action. I carry this conviction today, and it brings me hope and a positive dream for the future that no amount of MacDonald’s or television could possibly replace. There is a wise bumper sticker that says “Kill your TV.”
We too grew up. I accidentally found a career being a computer engineer, and found myself in the older generation of those who brought some stature to being a nerd. We had kids, now in their late 20s, and have tried to pass on to them our generation’s vision of the possibility of, and even duty for, positive social change.
As privilege and education come with the responsibility, I found myself in the quandary of not knowing what to do with my social idealism. I had no talents to bring to bear directly on politics. Bombing the Bank of America, which had only been popular among a small crowd and for a very short time, did not fit with my non-violent upbringing and beliefs. In those days, computer networking and computer science did not appear to be fertile soil for the blooms of cultural change.
Then, in the late ’80s, computer scientists I had met from Africa, Latin America, etc, started asking for help in getting computer networking to their countries. I soon realized that computer communication could be useful to people in poorer countries; I could see that assisting universities, NGOs, and others was a bit of a social good.
It was also during these years in the late ’80s that some of us had a vision that this computer network thing might become important, and that some abstract ideas about an ‘information economy’ could become crucial to real-world economies and cultures. Putting two and two together, we began to hope that, if we could transfer the communication technology to the universities and NGOs in the developing economies, they might be able to take a significant step or two out of the detritus of colonialism, and play a first class role in the emerging information society, as opposed to the traditional third class seat on the economic and cultural train. The bottom-up model of engineers and scientists helping each other seemed more natural when contrasted with the decades of failures of the top-down colonialist assistance.
So spreading computer networking to the less advantaged would be the form of political action for my middle-age. Again, I do not have sufficient hubris to think that anything which I have done has been significant. The people and deeds which deserve our admiration have been those of the many engineers, both technical and social, who actually built the networks and the human cultures which utilize them to change society. I try to take as many lessons as I can from these brave and persistent efforts. So indulge me while I tell a few of their stories from which lessons could be taken.
One amazing example has been the national network of Peru, a country quite poor and socially fractured, with a European-based society in a few large cities, but an impoverished native culture in the Andes in which the average lifetime of a male who survives infancy is age 25. A Peruvian journalist, Jose Soriano, had been one of the ‘disappeared’ (i.e. imprisoned and tortured) in Argentina, and had escaped to France where he worked for a decade and was introduced to computer networking. He had a vision of bringing the computer network to his country, Peru. Though Jose was not an engineer, he more than made up for it with a talent for projecting his vision to others in a very contagious way, and for getting his country’s institutions to buy into his dream. I met him at a conference in 1991, and he told me that I “had to” come to Lima with him to help start the Peruvian Academic and NGO network.
With about $15,000 of funding from the United Nations Development Programme, in December 1991, a fellow engineer, Ted Hope, and I bought computers, some networking gear, and plane tickets to Lima. When we arrived, we found Jose had gathered five engineers to form the core of the network, one from each of the five leading universities in Lima. They had never met, as those universities had previously not actually cooperated tactically. But Jose had been able to spin the web of his dream and to catch the imaginations of key players at the main institutions. We set up the equipment in a room where half the floor was dirt half covered, the engineers were talented and quickly took control, and in December 1991, a primitive but functional Peruvian network came alive. There was a central shared core, with a link to each participating institution. NGOs and other social activists were encouraged to join, and only had to share the actual operational costs in proportion to their use. Jose always set the tone as Peruvian. The data content was in Spanish and about Peru. Tools were available in Spanish and tools and training were made available in native Andinean tongues. Jose taught me that it was important to adapt the tools to the culture, and that the culture and the people were the important content, not the ‘Northern’ view of what was critical.
But Jose’s vision was not just a network for the upper class. In the following five years, he spread the network through all sectors of the Peruvian culture and economy. There was very low-cost network access and user education in villages in the Andes. There were kiosks in the cities. A myriad of businesses were online, and the income from them was used to subsidize access for the poor. And Jose has a million anecdotes of how evolving social interchange broke communication barriers and helped foster social and economic progress in his culture – without importing Northern MacDonald’s culture.
That this could actually be done in such a poor economy was mind-blowing. And it so clearly made the point that the network could be successfully spread and used to abet change across the society, not just for the rich, for business, or for academics.
When the Peruvian engineers learned I was going to Nairobi to help start the Kenyan internet, they gathered funds for me to buy a few hard disk drives (each of which cost six months’ of a Peruvian engineer’s salary in those days) for the Kenyans, saying that they had learned two things: what goes around comes around, and networking is like love, you receive in proportion to what you give. This touches me deeply to this day. And Jose taught me a number of lessons about not being a colonialist. First there was the focus on Peruvian content. Then, when Peruvian engineers needed technical expertise outside my area of knowledge, Jose made it very clear to me that, if I went to the Northern expert and asked the questions and then returned the answers to Peru, this was a form of patronization and colonialism. Jose and other Peruvians were first class citizens capable of representing themselves.
I was to introduce them to the experts and get out of the middle. Brokering and hoarding information are a dangerous form of ‘techno-colonialism.
From this, the slogan for my and many others’ work in transferring technology Southward has been to “Strike out against techno- colonialism.” Jose still laughs at that, but I think it is a happy laugh.
All this time, I had, and still have, a daytime job in computer science and engineering. At a number of conferences, I met a tall, reserved, but wry computer scientist from some strange place in South Africa. Professor Terry and I became friends, united against a common enemy – the forces of corruption and complication of an obscure computer language we both loved. In 1988, Pat visited me in my home, and asked how it was that I and other peers seemed to be conspiring at rather high speed between meetings. I described low-cost computer networking to him, and he flew back home to Grahamstown with a diskette of basic networking software. In a few weeks, he had it working, and was participating at a normal ‘privileged Northern’ pace, with the traffic flowing via the systems in my home in the States. Soon, he wrote to ask if a few of his academic colleagues could also use the net through our connection. I said sure. Within a very few months, use had spread through various parts of Rhodes, nefariously and joyfully propagated by Pat Terry, Jacot Guillarmod, and others. Then I was asked if other South African institutions could also participate.
Well, I had been raised to boycott all dealings with South Africa, as well as Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and other international pariah states. And I was being asked to directly support South Africa’s entry into the internet. Serious soul-searching led me to the conclusion that social change was not likely to be accomplished by cutting off communication. So I agreed on the condition that connectivity would be for universities and NGOs only, and only those which were not apartheid-supporting or enforcing. The administrative work and funding from the South African side was done by Vic Shaw of the FRD. In November 1991, a bit over ten years ago, the first direct full internet connectivity to South Africa (as opposed to store and forward email) was commissioned via a low speed leased line to my home office in the States. South Africa was the second country in Africa to become connected to the internet, preceded by Tunisia a few months earlier.
Rhodes and the Computer Centre staff, especially Jacot, spent considerable time and effort in getting networking services distributed, not only to South Africa’s major universities, but to small schools such as Fort Hare, to NGOs, and to neighbors in Maputo, Harare, etc. Though I was given many small anecdotes, I can not say what effects this had on these societies. And I must note that, though the South African network is large, it does not have the wide and deep social penetration that Jose achieved in Peru. I suspect this is at least partially due to early commercialization of the network, while the evangelistic vision of Jose kept the Peruvian network’s social aims at the forefront for many more years. This is not to dismiss the role that the South African universities, and especially Rhodes, have played in establishing the network in many neighboring countries.
In 1952, Guinea was the first of the Francophones to throw out the French. The French did not take this lightly and ripped out all the delicate infrastructure as they left. The National University in the capital, Conakry does not have a single telephone. With funding from an educator in the World Bank who wanted to be able to communicate with the University and other schools, we connected the University using radio.
The Chancellor, a chemist who got his Ph.D. at Cambridge and then returned home, a deed which leaves me in awe, told me that the net allowed him and the rest of the University to become part of the first world, which was simply amazing. But he also told the following story. Before the net came, if he wanted to meet the Minister of Education tomorrow, he would drive to the Ministry today, climb three flights of stairs, which would take at least half an hour as he was obliged to chat with many friends along the way, make an appointment with the Minister’s Secretary, and then go back to the University to return to the Ministry the following day. He said that the net allowed him to just send an email to the Minister to make the appointment, and was a great boon. But what he learned was that talking to all his friends and associates while going to the Minister’s office was a very important part of his job. Communication is what matters, not the technology that enables some of it.
But the internet has enabled new opportunities for communication. There are many examples of grass-roots multi-national use of the network to achieve social change. There is a small, quiet, informal, international conspiracy of activist environmental lawyers who have been using the net for many years to help each other. For example, when a Malaysian lawyer wrote to her colleagues in the States and Japan that she was losing the battle against the construction of a pernicious chemical plant in her country, a Tokyo lawyer sent her a Japanese book written by the very manager of the construction project saying how dangerous it was and that they therefore needed to build it in the third world. This was a rather successful bombshell in the court in Malaysia.
So, if you will excuse the moralization, I will leave you with the following lessons I have tried to take from these experiences. Technology is not an end in itself, it is only a tool to assist our humanity, and should be used for good. That is technologists must take responsibility for the social results of our work. Techno-colonialism is as dangerous as political imperialism, at least to us nerds and those we enable.
Life is not just about money and capital success; education and privilege come with responsibility to our societies and to humankind which follows us all our lives. And each of us, as individuals, through our daily acts, can and must do what we can to effect positive social evolution and change.
Thank you all for this honor and for listening to the stories of an old nerd. And the thanks of many goes to Rhodes University and it’s people for selflessly helping your neighbors. I hope your generation also goes into the world to make it a better place for your children than you found it.
2002.4.5, Rhodes University Grahamstown, South Africa