FEATURE.REVIEW: In Some Parts of the World, It's 1996 all Over Again

BY: Kristen Palana

Back in 1996, I was a sophomore Painting Major at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Just one year earlier I had gotten my first email account and had a total of one friend (at Mount Holyoke College) who also had an email account. Every weeknight after eating a questionable chicken patty from the cafeteria, I'd truck on over to the library, connect to the now-archaic Telnet, shakily type in a series of codes read straight off a handout, and sometimes there'd be a message. Sometimes not. Spam hadn't been invented yet, unless you liked tins of pinkish- processed meat.

By the time I was a sophomore, I had a total of three friends who could do email with me. As I slowly began to understand that perhaps making Fine Art might not be the easiest way to pay the rent, I signed up for my first course in Web Design. In 1996 THE INTERNET was destined to change the world. People from every country would be able to communicate instantaneously. The INTERNET was free, and fast, and uncensored. The world was destined to become one tiny village. People would be able to discuss important issues, express passionate opinions, and research and gain access to nearly every topic. The Communication and Information age had begun.

Ten million penis enhancement spam messages later...(I'm not even a GUY!), it is 2005. I actually TEACH web design and multimedia now, and live in constant fear that if I mistype a web address, porn will be projected across twelve feet of screen in front of my giggling college students. Yes, it actually has happened.

The problem with the Utopia that is the Internet is that it has only been available to a small percentage of the world's population. For Net Artists it means that maybe we're not always reaching the audience we want. If traditional Fine Art galleries are for the rich and well connected, the Internet (like a street mural) was supposed to be the ultimate gallery and forum accessible to the masses. In the United States and in Industrial countries, it IS accessible. Even though there still exists a technological divide between the rich and poor, nearly everyone in an Industrial Country can walk into their local library and ...voila! -Connection-information-communication- and random time wasting cartoons and games are at our fingertips. Even my parents know how to do it. My dad likes those Shockwave slot machine games...

This past June and July, I recently volunteered my skills through the organization, Cross Cultural Solutions, to help open the Maua Hills Vocational Training Centre in Rau Village, in the Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania. It was my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, though not my first trip to a Developing Country. (I've long since stop calling them 3rd World Countries. Many find it insulting...)


Rau Village is near the city of Moshi. Chickens and goats wander dirt roads freely. Venders sell fruit and fish on the side of the road, and women carry the goods home in baskets on their heads. There are two ATM machines in Moshi (that work 70% of the time), electricity comes and goes, and since most people walk miles to get everywhere, there's really no need for a Gold's Gym. But they also had about THREE Internet cafes, including the one at Maua Hills where I spent a little over three weeks.

And there, in Rau Village, it was 1996 all over again. Villagers would stop in and take a free "Introduction to the Internet" class and get their first email accounts, thanks to the likes of Hotmail and Yahoo. (The director of the school was smart to realize that once people learned how to do the Internet, they might use his Internet Café as paying customers later.) Men, women, and children in Rau have discovered the time-wasting games, and spend a good chunk of the day playing Solitaire. The teens and adults at Maua Hills had that excited look in their eyes. "This is only the beginning!" their eyes gleamed.

While I was in Rau, I helped Maua Hills add six Art and two Music classes to their curriculum. They were created so students can obtain marketable skills and all the classes were created so they could run on no budget, low budget, or a higher budget, depending on the school's current economic position. I also taught the teachers how to make a website, we got them a free web host and account, and on July 4, 2005 their first official website was born. (Visit it at: http://mauahills.bravehost.com ) They are running the site themselves now, and despite the occasional English mistake or design faux pas, all seems to be on the up and up.

So be forewarned, Net Artists of the Industrial World. The world is still slowly getting smaller, and your audience (and competition) is growing steadily. While there are many parts of the world that have yet to even catch up with Tanzania, It's heartening to know that the technology gap is getting a little bit smaller. It means that more people are having their say, having their voices heard, and wasting time watching silly cartoons and playing Solitaire. We are all so much more alike than we are different.

Please visit Kristen's website at http://www.kpalana.com for Tanzania pics and video (direct link). You can also visit http://www.aurashouse.com -a web project founded by Kristen in 2004 that helps families in the Developing World improve their living conditions.

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