1. The InternationalNet – A Catalyst for Change? By William Bowles

February 2000

1. The InternationalNet – A Catalyst for Change? By William Bowles

When I started New York On-Line around 1983, the ‘computer culture’ belonged exclusively to white male middle class, young and mostly American, ‘nerds and geeks’. Either that or the military. Most were at university or on their way to one. But I didn’t come from that kind of background at all. I came from a working class intellectual, London family, who were completely self-educated and self-taught. I think my generation was the first to get formal, tertiary education and even then, only a few of us ‘made it’.

Looking back, I can see now what excellent role models both my folks families were for myself and most of my cousins (there were lots of em) as my mother and father came from large families, 19 or 20 in total. Russian Jewish immigrants on my mother’s side and half Romany Gypsy, half English on my father’s side. Most were progressive if not actively involved in working class and left politics, some professionally. In all, three generations of ‘progressive’ families, who were either new immigrants or newly transported to the city from the country. My folks generation cut their teeth in the 1920s ’30s, whereas I cut mine in the 1960s and 70s.

Today, a lot of you reading this online, probably have no computer background at all . You’re probably sitting at your desk (of course, during your lunch time, right?) having discovered the online world in an entirely different way than my experience of it. And interestingly, as I come from England but write for a mostly South African audience, the question ‘of whose culture is it?’ comes up and who precisely, am I talking to? This is especially poignant right now as questions about national identity have come to the fore in South Africa, some of it extremely negative and some really progressive.

All my family were internationalists, in the truest sense of the word and most were good people. I was raised in a multi-national environment, with our family friends and comrades coming from all corners of the earth but mostly from Britain’s colonial or former colonial ‘possessions’. My father and one of his brothers Ellis, spent a lot of time in South Africa in 1930s and 40s, working with the then Communist Party of South Africa (Ellis went on to be the ‘front’ for the African Communist ’til the day he died). Some of my earliest recollections are South African (books, photos, works of art that my father brought back from his travels to SA).

What am I writing as then? a South African or as a Brit working/living in South Africa? I find it hard to separate the two or is it three? cultures out. I live in Jozi and Jozi is my home town too, just as New York was, when I lived there. Yet I’m still a Londoner at heart (but a London saturated with US culture in the form of music, tv and movies), perhaps even more than being a Brit, at least that’s how I perceive myself. And just who am I writing for? George Hill, Yfm’s news editor, asked me this question the other day and I tried to answer it as best I could. I’m trying to answer it here in a roundabout kinda way.

So okay, here I am in Jozi, writing on a South African, youth radio website (Yona ke Yona!) which touches down god knows where in the world, with English being the only ‘common denominator. When I started New York On-Line all those years ago in a loft in Brooklyn, who would have expected it to be a catalyst that connected three generations of people bridging a time-span of 70 years and three continents!

At the end of the day, being raised an ‘internationalist’ is not really about politics at all, it’s about culture and attitudes, emotions even. It’s about how you ‘feel’ about the world and its people and how you relate to them.

So who says the Internet doesn’t connect people in really meaningful ways? That’s why it’s important for all of us to master it as a medium of communication, not simply yet another passive means of consumption, ‘for finding information’ or for ‘being entertained’ – not that there isn’t room for being entertained – plenty of room – but to explore it as a creative means of communication and exchange of ideas. It’s also why it’s so important that it spreads to every nook and cranny of the world and not remain the exclusive domain of the wealthy and privileged countries of the world. After all, this was the issue that got me writing here in the first place, so if it can work for me it can work for anyone.

All content on this site is copyright © 1987-2003 William Bowles unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved. You have the right to reproduce content from this if it is not-for-profit, non-commercial use or for ‘fair use’. For commercial reproduction, please contact the copyright owner.

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