One World, First World

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 October 1996

I’m no cynic. I love the idea of human evolution, and I love to believe that technology has a role in it. As the interactive mediaspace extends around the globe, eradicating obsolete national and ideological boundaries, I get a thrill. I like going online and feeling what it’s like to access servers, cultures, and people on the other side of the planet.

The Internet, as an idea anyway, has transformed our perception of the planet – much as those first pictures of the earth taken from the moon did. Just as those photos of a moist blue planet with no political boundaries launched the environmental and world peace movements, the Internet suggests to its participants that we are all members of the same, global community. In spite of the way Internet servers are labeled, the electrons passing between them know no religious, racial, or national allegiances. And now, neither do many of us.

Those of us enjoying online interaction are coming to understand that we may be part of a global organism. As airy-fairy as it sounds, computer networking helps us feel connected to something greater than ourselves. The consumer culture that served to divide us into separated, lonely individuals, is finally spreading a product that serves to do just the opposite. Internet enthusiasts, though participating from separate terminals in their office cubicles, residential apartments, and suburban bedrooms, are experiencing what it is like to be part of a worldwide, virtual community. This counts as positive, transformative progress.

But if even a hundred million people were online - far more than the most enthusiastic Internet promoters currently claim - this would account for less than two percent of the world’s population. What about the other 98-plus percent?

One of the current frontiers on the Internet is the so-called Third World. Today’s users - the “early adopters” - understand that they are communicating in the rather stale and rarefied air of the educationally, technologically, and socioeconomically elite. We long to make the Internet a more inclusive community, and are beginning to realize that neither our perception of the world nor our range of communication have ever truly extended beyond our own electronic infrastructure. Our fledgling Gaian sensibilities make it incumbent upon us to correct this sense of cultural isolation and disparity.

As a result, we are making efforts to invite Native Americans and indigenous peoples around the world to participate with us online. Educators are building computer labs in the inner cities, and well-meaning hi-tech companies are funding web sites for the Australian aborigines. A United Nations commission on which I served set as one of its chief goals the extension of the digital infrastructure into developing nations, with full knowledge that such efforts might undermine the separatist or imperialist foundations of the very nations funding the effort.

As we, the digital elite, become more aware of the disparity between we digital haves and the indigenous people who seemed destined to have-not for years to come, we understandably and sympathetically yearn to extend our newfound global perception to those we think don’t yet enjoy it. This is an admirable but misguided effort.

The Internet is elitist - but maybe it’s the elite who need it the most. I have received a number of letters from educators around the world concerned about their observation that only the white children in their classrooms seem interested in media literacy and Internet studies. The aboriginal children in Australia, indigenous children in Canada, and Native American children of the United States appear, to their teachers, less fascinated by and engaged in the datasphere. They have the same innate ability to learn the skills - they just seem less enthralled by it all.

While it would be simple (and probably racist) to suggest that these children “of color” are generally less privileged than their white counterparts, and haven’t yet developed a taste for the luxury of electronic mediation, I think there’s another reason for their apathy towards the electronic Gaian mind.

They already get it. Their cultures and spiritual practices are already infused with the notion that the world is a singular, coordinated being, and they have been patiently waiting for us to catch on.

Perhaps the Internet is merely Western Culture’s dry, white, electronic way to experience what most indigenous cultures have known all along: that we human beings are connected to one another, and in an ongoing relationship with the planet on which we live. It was Western culture, through marketing, television, imperialism, and ethnocentrism, that lost its sense of planetary community - so much so that to even mention such a concept gets one labeled as a hopeless New Ager.

The Internet will surely help developing nations join the global economy and participate more fully in world politics. Our efforts to extend the practical benefits of electronic communications to places that don’t have them should be encouraged and funded.

But our hope that the rest of world be brought online so that they, too, can experience the joys of planetary awareness is naïve. The best possible consequence of our Internet is not that we will bring the other 98 percent of the planet online, but that our isolated little pocket of society will finally be encouraged go offline and into the real world.