It took a holiday break in the middle of nowhere to make me realize just how spoiled we are when it comes to new technology. I've had high-speed Internet access for the past several years. Dial-up connections seem like ancient history. Offices have permanent, omnipresent Internet connections, and if you're really stuck for high-speed access you can always stop by one of the city's many Internet cafés.
Perhaps that's why I was cursing a computer screen last week, waiting for what seemed like an eternity while the dial-up Net connection I was using creaked along. That mild burst of Net rage, and conversations with friends elsewhere in the world where the Web is still a luxury, not a right, brought me back to www.itu.int/wsis/, a site I plugged here at the end of 2003.
Next to the endless legal wrangling over music on the Web and the seemingly unending cascade of spam, one of the stories that stuck in my mind from last year was the World Summit On The Information Society. Slice through the verbose committee-speak and you'll find out that this is a two-phase gathering of groups from around the world with the purpose of making the World Wide Web truly international.
The summit took on the lofty goal of attempting to bridge the digital information gap between the haves (us) and the have-nots (the majority of the world's population) when it comes to Web access and the information revolution. The thinking is that by bringing the free flow of information to the rest of the world, all will benefit.
They've got their work cut out for them. The gap between those with and without Internet access grows year by year. Summit organizers insist that everyone should have a similar level of access, from developing nations to rural dwellers and the disabled. It would take $6 billion to stretch telephone lines around the world, money no one seems willing to cough up.
Phase one of the meeting ended with more promises than action, and the second stage isn't set to happen until 2005. Even more depressing is the fact that the summit went virtually unnoticed by the international media.
Obviously, Internet access isn't going to save the planet; everyone knows there's more crud out there than good stuff. What initiatives like this do, though, is put the bleeding-edge high-tech developments of the last few years into perspective. Spending a couple of hours marvelling at the glory of the iPod packaging (love that folding box!) and grousing about low-speed dial-ups seems a bit self-indulgent when you consider just how good we have it.
On that cheery note, this is it for this column and me. I'm off to work in the decidedly old-tech world of radio. For all the developments in instant, constant communication, nothing for me matches the mystery and power of radio. The truly great thing the Internet bestows is the ability to hear broadcasts from around the world.
It's been a blast charting the (relative) spread of the Web, our obsession with being connected and the vast amount of time and money spent on creating new and delightful ways to waste time, like the classic Liam Gallagher/Robbie Williams brawl at www. roundareway.com/game.asp.
Thanks to everyone who suggested a twisted site of the week.
And thanks to the several record industry execs who suggested I should be fired, or at least have my ears boxed, for criticizing their slow response to downloading. I know it's hard to believe, but we're actually on the same side.