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A L S O__T O D A Y


21st Log
A patent from secretive Transmeta launches a buzz

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T A B L E__T A L K

Is free software finally gaining ground in the OS wars? Discuss Linux vs. NT and others in the Digital Culture area of Table Talk

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R E C E N T L Y

"Griffin & Sabine's" letters go digital
By Scott Rosenberg
"Ceremony of Innocence" CD brings a postcard romance to your screen
(11/13/98)

The 21st Challenge No. 15 Results
By Charlie Varon and Jim Rosenau
Haiku for telemarketers
(11/13/98)

Martin Luther, meet Linus Torvalds
By Thomas Scoville
Linux and free software challenge the Microsoft papacy
(11/12/98)

Is there such a thing as a software monopoly?
By Mike Romano
Microsoft says no -- and its arguments could provoke changes in the antitrust laws
(11/11/98)

Let's Get This Straight
By Scott Rosenberg
The New Yorker's portrait of PointCast displays once more the magazine's Internet ignorance
(11/10/98)

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illustration by katherine streeter
_____Soweto online
Where millions don't have plumbing or telephones, who needs the Net?

BY ANDREW LEONARD | "So what brings you to South Africa?" asks Max as he zips his minibus through the morning traffic in Sandton City, a citadel of white affluence 20 minutes by car from Johannesburg. Max Lentsoane, who is black, is about to take me and a rag-tag band of travelers on a tour of Soweto, the legendary sprawling township that spearheaded resistance to the South African apartheid regime.

I explain to Max that I'm a technology journalist, that I came to South Africa because I was invited to speak at a conference devoted to the Internet. But, I tell him, the conference hadn't seemed all that relevant to the realities of daily life in South Africa. Half-jokingly, I say to Max that I want to find out what people think about the Internet in Soweto.

Max gives me a wry look, then drops his left hand down and hoists a plastic bag with a box inside it from the floor of the minibus. He grimaces.

"My 56K modem was hit by lightning last night," he says. "I have to get it replaced."

I stare at Max's modem with the same dumb look a wildebeest might bestow upon a van full of tourists skittering across the savanna. Then I shake my head once, sharply, to clear out the crumbled remnants of the paradigm that has just gone "poof" in my head.

For two days, I have been sitting in conference rooms listening to white South Africans give talks that could have taken place in Silicon Valley without any pain of dislocation. I've heard about "Moore's law," "friction free capitalism" and the "power of one-to-one marketing on the Net." I've been told more than I want to know about squabbling between local Internet service providers and Telkom, the South African telecommunications monopoly.

All the while, I've been getting itchy, wondering how South Africa's "dynamic" Web economy jibes with the suburban houses surrounded by 10-foot-high walls, barbed wire and electric fences that I see on my cab rides to the conference center every day. I have little patience for the marvelous promise of Web-based multimedia at the best of times, but in a country where the number of people without phones is growing faster than the number of people with them, the prospect of bandwidth-intensive Web applications seems downright criminal. I'm also feeling some standard white liberal guilt about spending time in Sandton City, an enclave that has drained Johannesburg of most of its white population and financial capital, when just a few miles away, the squatter camps and shanty towns of the Alexandra township teem with crime and violence. The 11 Ferraris parked in front of the five-star Michelangelo hotel across the street from my Holiday Inn push me over the edge.

I have been preparing to rant. I have bailed on my conference, determined to head to Soweto in search of the ammunition I need for a diatribe against all things digital. But instead of girding myself for war, I have suddenly found myself disarmed.

Max needs little encouragement. While I am still stupidly grappling with the realization that Max has a faster modem than I do, he is telling me how he wants to set up a cybercafe in Soweto where people can get free Hotmail accounts. He's complaining about his "slow" 486 laptop. He thinks it would be really neat if there were a Web page where people could find out the latest Sowetan news.

"Soweto is not online," says Max. "Johannesburg is online, but Soweto is not online."

N E X T_P A G E .|.Where once the talk over beers was revolution, now it's "access to information"

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ILLUSTRATION BY KATHERINE STREETER


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