>>> Item number 1742, dated 96/06/14 08:03:54 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 08:03:54 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Fri, 7 Jun 1996 From: Tim Carmichael <firstname.lastname@example.org>
When I started working at H-NET and with H-AFRICA one of the ideas that excited me most was the potential of the internet to make otherwise difficult to obtain information and publications widely available throughout Africa at less cost that paper publishing and postage expenses entail.
Over the past year, however, as H-NET came to concentrate on the web, I have become much more pessimistic, since this emphasis requires relatively up-to-date and powerful computers and monitors. The non-graphical web browsers (i.e. Lynx) which can be used on almost any computer are, in my opinion, so frustrating and time-consuming that they only discourage using the web.
While projects, such as the one announced months ago to export old TRS80s to West Africa, are laudable in intention, I worry that they may encourage sending old/dated equipment to Africa as systems are updated here in the States and elsewhere. The problem, obviously, is that as we buy new computers to access better the developing web and other internet technologies, we are sending computers that are no longer sufficient for our needs to our colleagues in Africa, hardly contributing to their ability to take advantage of exciting internet developments or to 'stay up to date' with scholarship in the West. The establishment of 'mirror sites' in Africa may help with connectivity, but in the absence of current hardware, these sites will not solve the problem of technological disparities. Some (older) computers are probably better than no computers at all, but their limitations are profound.
Basic e-mail usage and participation on discussion lists like H-AFRICA does not necessitate state-of-the-art equipment, but what about accessing the electronic journals that are beginning to pop up around the web? What about the images, maps, primary texts and translations that are beginning to be posted? As African Studies textbooks go out of print it is likely that for something like $300-600 they can be published on the web for access by anyone possessing the appropriate technology (these publications will include endnote links to facilitate reading on screen; they may also be printed out; and search engines will function as a sort of automatic index). These materials represent some of the immediate potential of the web for scholars. If African institutions have outdated equipment, all this information may just as well be sitting in foreign libraries.
I'm not suggesting that we in the West should not continue to do what we can to increase the number of computers available to our African colleagues, I just wanted to outline some of the problems which in the near future may prevent the internet from offering to Africa the great services that I hear people talking about, and to encourage discussion of the issue.
>>> Item number 1744, dated 96/06/14 15:27:44 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 15:27:44 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 From: Renato Aguilar <Renato.Aguilar@redcap.econ.gu.se>
There is also a basic problem with the quality of the available telphonic and dedicated data lines. My experience is that in many African countries you gain very little with better servers or modems because the existing lines simply cannot bear the traffic.
>>> Item number 1746, dated 96/06/14 17:46:59 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 17:46:59 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 From: RATH@BINAH.CC.BRANDEIS.EDU <Rich Rath>
I would like to respond to Tim Carmichael's observations about technology, Africa, and the Internet. To begin, I would like to express broad agreement with his pessimism. On my part it is queasiness rather than pessimism. The queasiness is in taking part in a long-practiced underdevelopment strategy; namely, dumping obsolete technology on the "peripheries." I have been unable to vanquish my own doubts in this matter, so what follows is most definitely not an attempt to persuade anyone that technology-dumping is an unabashed good. Nonetheless, I think that addressing issues in a partially unsatisfactory manner may be better than not addressing them at all in hopes of an ideal solution being implemented later. Normally, I can be found encamped among the "idealists" rather than the "players." On the issue of computers and the internet and access, I side provisionally with the players at this point, for the following reasons.
I have developed a number of web sites, the first of them using an 8088 pc with a 2400 baud modem on a school vax account with telnet access to borrowed server space at another school with which I had no affiliation. I have no formal computer training whatsoever and learned html by copying what other people had done at first. The resulting site, the Omnivore News Service, is still around and has won several awards for being comprehensive and easy to use.
Why? no graphics. The _information_ on the internet is still 95% ascii text. As long as HTML remains a subset of SGML (standardized general mark up language), a 20-year-old, stable standard for text markup, then a vast amount of information will be available under the old technologies. My experience with graphics is that the only valuable ones are too big to be really useful on a mass scale and take way too long to load and view. Although I now use a graphical browser, I often use it with the graphics turned off in order to see the file I want to read sooner.
Java and plug ins may become useful and informational at some point by adding motion to content, but at present they amount to annoyances on the screen, like an unwelcome fly buzzing around on the book you are reading. Forms work fine on lynx. E-mail, which serves a different purpose that the web cannot replace, works perfectly well with a non-graphics connection. The information rolling down the superhighway is not in graphics and add-ons--its in hypertext's disorienting (to book-readers) ability to put the reader in charge of where to go next. And it is in the text part of the web that the valuable information lies at present. This is accessible using older equipment. Interestingly, when the printing press came out, many thought that illustrations and woodcuts render texts obsolete or subsidiary to the "graphics" once the technology for illustration reached a certain level. Perhaps a similar calculation is being made today.
Tim cites a number of places where he wonders whether old computers will have access:
electronic journals: The information is usually in text format. Graphics are things like a picture of the logo for the journal or an illustration.
images: Not viewable in line, but can be downloaded and viewed separately if they are important enough. Most web sites put an identifying ("alt") tag next to all graphics for this reason.
maps: "clickable maps" almost always have a text equivalent available. Regular maps are images and can be downloaded if needed.
primary texts and translations: These are texts and are accessible with no graphics.
republications: Project Gutenberg, Carrie, and other electronic libraries precede the advent of graphics browsers. Republication of books will continue to be largely text conversion.
endnote links: Already in place. endnotes are a weak form of hypertext (or to the "libracentric," hypertext is footnoting run amok). printing: in place if a printer is available. Dot matrix printers are as obsolete and functional as old computers in this case. Screen resolution even on new computers is 72 dots per inch. Dot matrx printeres generally print at this resolution. There is no use for greater resolutions than what can be seen onscreen.
search engines: Searchable indexing precedes the advent of graphical browsers and is still in place in a way that can be queried and used with older equipment.
With all that said, I return to my original dis-ease with technology dumping. While these computers would remain usable and useful for the present, it is fortune telling to say whether that is true for the future. But without other viable options (Which I have not yet seen), this seems like the way to go for the moment. It does not foreclose the option of seeking better solutions, even at the same time.
In closing, I would like to point out two examples of African responses to this issue. One is the exemplary MISA news service, a world class wire service that covers the whole of the African continent via e-mail connections from various news offices around the continent connected to a
central distribution node in South Africa. They have been providing an excellent source of news and information about African nations from their own perspective rather than filtered through western media. None of what they do requires new computers, but it does require some computer, as well as a minimal information infrastructure. They have done a lot with a little. The other example was a recent posting on one of the Africa lists that affirms Tim's pessimism. In it, someone (I did not save the post) was saying that technology dumping was an old colonial practice and was _bad_. I am not entirely convinced that my own arguments above supersede this, but I see no better alternative offered. In a perfect world (open system) we would all have new computers. In a perfect world (closed system) we would share what we have by shipping off 9 out of ten of our new computers to those without them. I can see no reason not to push toward your preferred model of perfection _while_ shipping off old computers.
There is no way of telling how things will play out at this point--we are right in the middle of things. A decision to act or not act at this point is not only a personal choice, it is one that may have a very real effect on outcomes. So while I agree with Tim's pessimism in many respects, I have chosen for the time being to act optimistically in the belief that the field of possibilities is open in the information revolution, and that any access may have an effect. The lack of access will only have a negative effect.
>>> Item number 1747, dated 96/06/14 17:52:39 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 17:52:39 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 From: "Arthur R. McGee" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
>computers and monitors. The non-graphical web browsers
>(i.e. Lynx) which can be used on almost any computer are,
>in my opinion, so frustrating and time-consuming that they
>only discourage using the web.
I'm not sure if I understand the logic here. What is your gripe about about Lynx?
Even though I have a fast connection, I still prefer to use Lynx when I really need to get some work done and quickly.
What is your alternative?
If you want graphics and all the other neat stuff, that requires lots of CPU power. So, even if we didn't have the WWW and still had Gopher and FTP, you still wouldn't be able to look at any graphics.
You seem to want graphics and everything, while still being able to use a PC-XT! You can't have it both ways, at least not with current technology.
>>> Item number 1748, dated 96/06/14 17:55:24 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 17:55:24 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 From: Misty Bastian <M_Bastian@ACAD.FANDM.EDU>
Someone has come up with an "answer" to this, evidently. Has anyone on H-Africa heard of the "Africa One" project? As I just learned at a conference at SUNY-Binghamton, this project--an attempt to completely surround the continent with undersea fiber optics cable capable of bringing in the most up-to-date of communications--is already underway. (The project's symbol, by the way, is a map of the continent, lassoed by the cable.) The plan is to "spike" selected sites within the continent--urban sites, of course--from the master cable, making heavier communications traffic possible. This, I was told, would bring Africa into the 21st Century and connect it up to the rest of the globe. Of course, the decisions about who is going to be "spiked" and when the "spike" will take place are being made outside the continent, in the boardrooms of multinationals. If anyone has good information on this project, I would be very interested in receiving it. Perhaps there is a website already in place that tells us of the wonders in store? And maybe we should talk about the UN's "special initiative on Africa" while we're at it.
>>> Item number 1749, dated 96/06/14 17:57:07 -- ALL
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 17:57:07 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 From: Misty Bastian <M_Bastian@ACAD.FANDM.EDU>
Having suggested that someone look for Africa ONE on the Web, I decided I should do it myself. People might take a look at the following:
For a nice discussion of "the South" and the internet, try:
>>> Item number 1752, dated 96/06/16 09:37:18 -- ALL
Date: Sun, 16 Jun 1996 09:37:18 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Sun, 16 Jun 1996 From: Wenke Adam <firstname.lastname@example.org>
>There is also a basic problem with the quality of the
>available telphonic and dedicated data lines. My experience
>is that in many African countries you gain very little with
>better servers or modems because the existing lines simply
>cannot bear the traffic.
This is true in many cases, but can improve over time. Anyway, having a fast modem will keep the few existing telephone lines less encumbered with slow traffic.
As for dumping dated computer equipment, try getting a spare part for a 286 or a PC/XT in Africa or anywhere else in the world, nowadays...
...Or thinking of being stuck with olde software: what are you supposed to do if you get a text in MsWord or Excel or whatever, and only have older versions of WPerfect or Lotus to run on your dated PC?
>>> Item number 1754, dated 96/06/16 22:05:15 -- ALL
Date: Sun, 16 Jun 1996 22:05:15 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: 16 Jun 96 From: Peter A Rogers <Peter.A.Rogers@Dartmouth.EDU>
I share Tim's concern about issues of Internet access, technological change, and virtual humanitarianism in Africa. The pattern of N-S (W-E? N by NW?) maldistribution of information services seems to mark yet another order of colonial/post-colonial political economy (but perhaps we can include here al-Bakri et al. in the pre-colonial trajectory of "information services"?). Seriously though, this discussion is of utmost significance to producers and consumers of knowledge about and from Africa.
Although I am inclined to see the dialogue as a critical appraisal of global information networks, I find it ironic to note that until recently questions of modems, CPUs, etc. and Africa generally fell within the province of "what kind of equipment do I need to facilitate my field research?" among scholars of Africa. Then, perhaps, we have also become painfully aware of how difficult it is to maintain personal/professional contact with and support for our colleagues in most parts of Africa.
Obviously, the questions go far beyond this. Witness, for example, the events in Nigeria during the past three years, and especially since last November; Internet communications, one way or another, have produced an amazing range of texts. From Shell's Web page (c. early December) chock-full-o' corporatist justifications for its Nigerian modus operandi; to the intense (and not so intense) discussions taking place on at least two very large (expatriate) Nigerian newsgroups; to the Nigerian consulate's recent efforts to provide a vehicle for the "Butcher of Abuja" to ride the mis-info superhighway.... This does not begin to scratch the surface.
BTW, there will be several opportunities at ASA this year to share any number of observations, questions and concerns about "Africa & the Internet" (not necessarily under that heading), from political-economic, technological, pedagogical, and other points of view.
>>> Item number 1758, dated 96/06/17 19:55:23 -- ALL
Date: Mon, 17 Jun 1996 19:55:23 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Mon, 17 Jun 1996 From: Simon Katzenellenbogen <MFSHSSK@fs1.art.man.ac.uk>
The discussion of technology dumping, out-dated pcs and African access to the internet prompts several questions in my mind.
- Is it really necessary to have such rapid technological change? I accept there really isn't a lot we can do about this as the process has acquired a momentum of its own. We should, however be questioning where we are going and why.
- How many outdated computers would be the equivalent of the necessary low technology pumps and associated equipment to provide all Africans with clean water?
- Where should our priorities lie - computers or clean water?
>>> Item number 1760, dated 96/06/17 20:28:36 -- ALL
Date: Mon, 17 Jun 1996 20:28:36 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Mon, 17 Jun 96 From: Morris Simon <MSIMON@UA1VM.UA.EDU>
Regarding the current discussion on technology 'dumping' in Africa, I recall a similar debate nearly a decade ago when serious microcomputer users were making the transition from CP/M to MS-DOS machines. The idea of 'dumping' old "Trash-80s" and Kaypro portables found appeal as tax write-offs for jobbers needing to eliminate 8-bit hardware and software from their inventories. I was involved in a limited way in urging such contributions to be made, since 8-bit word processors and spreadsheets were better than no microcomputer resources at all.
And now, it seems like "deja vu all over again". I've been using all manner of both graphic and non-graphic web browsers for years, and have been designing enhanced web pages with frames, Java gimmicks and similar frills for most of that time. But when I use a browser to get information, I use Lynx. As a recent poster said, most of the data on the web is text and the imagery requiring high-end delivery systems is nice but unnecessary as far as information processing is concerned.
In the few technical and business areas where multimedia presentations are essential, I would not recommend using the very unreliable and slow communication links to and within Africa for such work. Ever try to view a Java enhanced page at 2400 baud?
Meanwhile, as with the old CP/M vs MS-DOS debate, some is still better than none. Information via text-browsers is still fast, accurate and convenient. And in circumstances involving unreliable communication lines, Lynx might well be better than Netscape Gold plus Java.
>>> Item number 1763, dated 96/06/17 20:58:25 -- ALL
Date: Mon, 17 Jun 1996 20:58:25 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Mon, 17 Jun 1996 From: John_Dunn <email@example.com>
As somebody who uses a 386 and the LYNX system, these "antiques" have opened my eyes to H-Africa. Sure, I'd like to have a Pentium and a zillion giga-whatevers to allow greater access. On the other hand, my dinosaurs sure beat nothing, and they were free. Now if anyone figures how to get those dream machines, consider sending some down to the barbaric wastelands of South Georgia!
>>> Item number 1775, dated 96/06/19 08:59:20 -- ALL
Date: Wed, 19 Jun 1996 08:59:20 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Tue, 18 Jun 1996 From: Misty Bastian <M_Bastian@ACAD.FANDM.EDU>
Re: technology dumping. Part of the problem is that there are many more washed up PCs than there are handpumps and other "low tech" artifacts floating around, unwanted, among what I've begun to think of as the "charitable classes" of the First World. The objects that would make more sense in some Third World/Southern/nonwestern contexts are not sitting around in the technologists' basements. If there was a market where the unwanted PCs could be converted into the cash that could buy the handpumps, then we might be getting somewhere, but here we have the obstacle of western-style consumption (and production to feed that consumption) to contend with: who would buy the outmoded PC? For what purpose?
Meanwhile, those who make the handpumps see a smaller and smaller market for their product...which effectively means that fewer handpumps will be made. PCs, on the other hand, are made with reckless abandon--partially because they _will be abandoned_ in another four or five years, tops. As I type this post, on a computer new last September, the smaller, sluggish computer (owned by the person who occupied this office last) sits on the floor beside me. Thus far, I can find no one in the college system who will agree to remove the old computer; mainly because no one seems to know what to do with it. I wish I could transform this Mac Classic II into a handpump or a gasoline generator, but I don't know how to. On the other hand, it could be packed off to someone who wants a computer badly enough to take it, slow as it is. (If college regulations would allow that, of course...) See the problem?
>>> Item number 1789, dated 96/06/24 08:55:51 -- ALL
Date: Mon, 24 Jun 1996 08:55:51 -0400 Reply-To: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> Sender: H-NET List for African History <H-AFRICA@MSU.EDU> From: Harold Marcus <email@example.com> Subject: Reply: Point of View: Africa & the Internet Date: Sun, 23 Jun 1996 From: Tim Carmichael <firstname.lastname@example.org>
As Peter put it, I intended my original post as a "critical appraisal of global information networks" and I have enjoyed the responses. However, it seems to me that the thread took a course of debating the merits/disadvantages of graphicaland non-graphical browsers, and Lynx in particular. I read into this that if non-graphical browsers like Lynx can access most of the information on the web, then the level of internet technology necessary for Africa may unproblematically remain low.
I was surprised at the support Lynx received, and went back and looked at it again. Its most recent version is much improved from when I last used it many months ago (from the Lynx Help files about the 2 May 1996 upgrade: "No final [revised] version had been released for almost a year and old versions of Lynx could not handle the changing environment of the Web very gracefully."), but I still have some "gripes" (if that is what they are) and concerns. I do not deny the general usefulness of Lynx now, but I still wonder about the future and what Lynx can continue to do in Africa (and southern Georgia? etc.). 1. Lynx is fine if you already know the URL of the site that you want to visit, and in those cases Lynx is indeed fast. One exception is a problem I have encountered several times in Lynx, but not in other browsers: I follow a link but cannot move back to the previous screen. In one case, where the text and notes were in separate files I couldn't return to the body of the paper. I have no idea what causes this problem.
Also, I still find doing web searches or browsing the web for new information to be more time-consuming in Lynx than in graphical browsers. In the end my annoyance may simply be a matter of personal choice, but if others agree then this must be seen as a limitation of Lynx, especially if one pays for connection time.
2. Despite some support for frames (borders dividing a page into sections), Lynx messed up several web pages that were not carefully tagged (for both graphical- and non-graphical browsers). If the frames are written only for graphical browsers, even if the information on that page is primarily text, it does not display properly in Lynx (i.e. if it shows up at all, it is jumbled and unreadable). This is a basic programming issue, and shouldn't pose a problem on professional pages (it did in at least page I found), but individual academics' pages may not be so neat.
3. Lynx now reads tables, which is a great help, but it will struggle with recent changes in scanning programs. For example, OmniPage Pro was designed to overcome common scanning mistakes such as incorrectly replacing "s" with "5," vice versa and so on. It does so by taking a low-level .gif image of the character and substituting the image for the character to reduce errors. Since Lynx cannot recognize image files those characters will not show up in Lynx. And since one of the major advantages of Lynx (and what makes it work so quickly) is that it only recognizes text, texts scanned with programs like OmniPage Pro will appear quite flawed. If Lynx is revised to recognize basic images, then it will become an entirely different beast altogether and may in turn present new hardware problems. It is also possible that the scanning software will be improved in the future so that similar characters can be confidently distinguished, negating this problem.
But that leaves the problem of hand-writing and other alphabet sets. it is not now possible to scan hand-written documents as text files reliably. Nor can we scan, as text, documents written in, say, Amharic, Tigrinya or Ge'ez (I don't know about Arabic), and consider the plethora of Asian writing systems (except Japanese which apparently can be sustained by Lynx). I am excited by the potential to make rare or unpublished primary documents gathered in the field more easily available to other scholars, which may also facilitate Africans specializing in countries other than their own, but Lynx has a long way to go before it can provide assistance here.
I personally think that the importance of graphics and images on the the internet will increase. This may be in the form of hand-written or non-Latin alphabet texts being scanned as images, or it will utilize Java scripts for purposes such as displaying 3-D files. One example is a scheme in the works for H-AfrArts. The editors will post images and descriptions of stolen African antiquities so that museum curators and collectors can check to make sure that the objects they are thinking of acquiring are not stolen artifacts. It is hoped that this effort might help curb the illicit traffic in antiquities that is robbing many African nations of their cultural patrimony.
I think that the Lynx dialogue has offered good insights on the issue of Africa and the Internet so far, but that on the technological side we are at an impasse (others may disagree with my interpretation, of course), unless others can clarify the directions that HTML and scanning, or other things, are moving, and the likelihood that Lynx will continue to be updated (Univ. of Kansas has ended its financial support of Lynx) so that it can continue to attempt to sustain the fast-paced developments.
I agree with Rich's optimism about the possibilities for Africa of the internet, but I do so because I WANT to and not because the little I know of the situation encourages my optimism. He is correct to say that "lack of access will only have a negative effect." But while we do what we can to improve our colleagues' internet access throughout Africa I think that a bit of pessimism, or voiced dissatisfaction with programs like Lynx, will be healthy and might help prevent wasteful mistakes and reduce future regrets.
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