Cyber-imperialism: echoes of the British Raj

April 29, 1996|By Andrew Robinson

VISAKHAPTNAM, INDIA — VISAKHAPATNAM, India -- Internet users in the West extol cyberspace for its free and egalitarian qualities. But in South Asia, cyberspace is showing its more pernicious side -- elitist, undemocratic and as imperially expansionist as any empire.

In India, the recent growth of communications technology has been sparked by the desire of Western software firms to employ Indians at low wages without having to relocate their operations. Yet countless news reports hail it as proof of the country's new technological prowess. Bangalore, with many computer engineers contracted to foreign firms, is dubbed the new Silicon Valley. The proliferation of Internet servers, private e-mail providers, computer magazines and training institutes is cited as India's ''giant leap'' toward economic liberalization and modernization.

''The Internet has the potential to level the playing field between First and Third Worlds,'' enthuses Sanjay Uppal, an information-technology professional who works in the U.S. and India, ''as access to vital information becomes open to all.''

But Mr. Uppal's idea of ''open to all'' is becoming more problematic by the day.

Much like the British Raj, which once installed a vast bureaucratic system in the name of facilitating communications throughout the empire, so the Internet as global village is mutating into the Internet of imperial empire. If Indians once had to translate simple requests into complex bureaucratese in order to participate in the spoils of the Raj, today they face cumbersome and costly computer obstacles to access the economic and cultural privileges of cyberspace.

The most obvious hurdle -- as during the Raj -- is language. Because the Internet can handle only Roman script in ASCII text, Internet users must read and type in English. Not only does this requirement weed out the majority of South Asians (while English is spoken widely, it remains a language of the upper class), it also interferes with efforts to develop computer technologies in indigenous languages.

''I always dreamed of starting a Bangla-language computer network,'' says Nawab Kabir, system operator of the largest computer BBS and Internet e-mail service in Bangladesh. ''The problem is that everyone hears all this hype about the Internet, and the rush to provide Internet e-mail access is very competitive. There's no financial support or time for developing local networks.''

''Local BBS-style networks just aren't sexy enough,'' agrees Eric Ruston, who examines computer communications issues in Africa for the Ford Foundation. ''Everyone wants to surf the Web.''

The Internet itself was a product of massive U.S. government spending. But today, most Third World governments lack both the communications infrastructure and the money to develop their own networks. The distant outposts of Third World cyberspace can be connected only through expensive long-distance phone calls.

All modems lead to Internet

The result is that just as all roads once led to Rome, all the electronic modem-links of the developing world's slowly expanding infobahn now lead to the Internet. And 90 percent of the Internet, according to Toolnet, a Netherlands-based nonprofit specializing in technology transfer, exists in North America, Europe and Australia.

Here in Visakhapatnam, a medium-sized city of 900,000, two private e-mail services compete for customers. Both send their mail via long-distance telephone call to a government-controlled Internet server in Bombay, where subscription costs are more than $500 per year (versus $30 in the U.S.).

If e-mail users living across town wish to communicate between the networks, they must send their e-mail over the Internet -- bouncing the message around the world -- and pay more than 10 times what they would pay for local e-mail (40 cents per kilobyte versus 3 cents).

As during colonial times, so in the cyberspace era conducting business between Visakhapatnam and New York is faster and more economical than conducting business between Visakhapatnam and a smaller town like Vijayawada (pop. 400,000) just 120 miles away.

At the village level, where some 80 percent of the 1.2 billion South Asians live, the Internet remains as remote and unfathomable a concept as other empires of antiquity must have been. Even for the enterprising villager who learns to type in English and earns enough money to afford the expensive computer class, the exorbitant Internet subscription fee and the long-distance telephone call to an Internet server in Bombay or Dhaka or Karachi, Internet access will never be like ''surfing."

''Having an Internet server doesn't guarantee fast communications,'' says Jeron Jonk of Toolnet. ''Egypt has one Internet link for the entire country. The link was so overloaded that when I was in Cairo, I had to wait a couple of minutes for every keystroke to travel out of the country and bounce back to me.''

Perhaps the most prescient view of the future of cyberspace in the developing world comes from a peek inside a typical government office here where enormous desks are covered with towering stacks of unfinished documentation, a dozen paperweights and a thousand and one official stamps. It's the bureaucratic legacy of an imperial system once promoted as equitable and open to all and capable of one day linking the entire world.

Andrew Robinson, a free-lance writer based in South Asia, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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