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Rolling on the Information Super Highway

“Oh! So they have the Internet on computers now.” – Homer Simpson The first time I heard about the Internet, it was 1996.

“Oh! So they have the Internet on computers now.”

– Homer Simpson

The first time I heard about the Internet, it was 1996.

I was 12 years old, living in Nairobi, Kenya and had heard friends from school — mainly the ones from wealthy diplomat families — talking about the time they got to “Surf the Web”. I did not really understand what they meant but decided that I wanted to try my surf skills on the World Wide Web too. Exactly how someone surfed on a computer (California, “Living in the USA”, Beach Boys style), I couldn’t quite figure out. But I was sure it would be fun.

In my seventh grade brain, I had this vision of the Internet like a power point presentation from God: you got to flip through pages like you were reading a magazine until you finally found an article of interest. Who wrote these articles and how they got on the Web were questions I did not bother asking. I was pretty much just stuck on the whole surfing thing.

A few months after the Internet was introduced into my vocabulary, my Dad sat me down in front of our brick-of-an-Apple-computer one day after school and said our family was now hooked up to the Internet.

(“Cowabunga. Surf’s up, dude!”)

After 10 minutes of trying to connect to the Internet via dial-up (Kenyan phone lines were notoriously unreliable), we finally heard the jarring doe-da-dedo-dedo-de music of the Web, and we were on the Information Super Highway. My dad typed “” into the Netscape Browser and showed me how, if I wrote a subject in the text field, Yahoo would magically find a list of websites for me to browse.

Well the only thing I wanted to know about at that time was Fimo, so that was the first Internet search I did.

(For those of you less familiar with Fimo, it is a type of clay that you can bake in an oven to harden. Its main purpose is to create cool beads and one-inch animals. I was way into Fimo in the mid-90s… Funny I have not heard a lot about it recently).

Yahoo retrieved five websites on Fimo. My favourite was the first one on the list, which showed pictures of Fimo beads made by a lady in Michigan. For a girl in Nairobi, this was pretty cool. I spent the next month typing “Fimo” into the Yahoo search box every day to see if more websites had been put online.

OK, the details of my Fimo website excursions are probably as exciting to everyone else as hearing computer scientists explain the code they just wrote. My point is that my first steps into cyberspace — when I could suddenly learn about anything I wanted, whenever I wanted — opened up a swatch of information in my adolescent world.

And as fascinating as that was in my life, the possibilities were even more groundbreaking for others.

Take Kenyans for example. In the USA, people had American Online (AOL), with the robotic catchphrase, “You Got Mail”. In Kenya, there was Africa Online. Africa Online was similar to AOL in most ways except for the fact that it brought the Internet to a place where most people could not afford to board jumbo-jets. Or buy computers. And it also brought the Internet there successfully, even though electricity, phone service and running water were not guaranteed day-to-day.

Africa Online was started in 1994 by three young Kenyan computer whizzes studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts (one at MIT, two at Harvard). Within a few years, Africa Online expanded from Kenya to Ghana, Cote d’Ivore, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. It connected countries that had been for the most part isolated and thus opened up a continent-wide discussion on all things African.

Of course, Internet rates were expensive, since most traffic went internationally, and were priced similar to a long distance phone call.

But despite these prices, one big thing the Internet in Kenya did was allow regular people to ask big questions. Why is our deteriorating infrastructure not being fixed? Why do I have to do whatever my husband tells me just because I am a woman? And why are presidential elections so blatantly corrupt? (The last question, of course, was the underbelly of this year’s post-election violence.)

Here in Canada, the Web also redesigned societal frameworks. Blogging put a big, fat question mark on the newspaper business as it ushered in a new platform for freedom of speech. MP3 downloading (started by oft-forgotten Napster) made music almost free, despite clambering by music industry execs. And social networking (with Facebook and MySpace) redefined what a “friend” really is.

But you already know this.

As we move into the thick of Web 2.0 with fancy wikis and php programming, it is hard to remember life without the Internet. Or fathom how we put up with dial-up. But there was a time less than 15 years ago when the idea of instantly connecting with anyone to discuss anything was so foreign, the only thing we could think to call it was “surfing”.

What was your first excursion down the Information Super Highway like?