But even though the reality is starker than the initial vision, the Internet can still influence the developing world's progress just by growing. There's a historic precedent for this theory sitting in your driveway.
When the automobile started to spread across the world, it created its own economy, complete with new knowledge, jobs, skills and industries. It also changed the economics of every other industry through its ability to transport goods and people to more places than water or rail.
The auto's economic utility ensured its growth, but at the outset there was no infrastructure in place to support them--garages, mechanics, roads--so early car enthusiasts had to learn to fix and maintain them.
These early enthusiasts formed the seeds for new classes of mechanics, mechanical engineers and other professionals who advanced automotive technology. As they accelerated the car's development, a whole infrastructure of roads, complementary industries and services grew up around them, creating jobs, wealth and consumers. Motor transport expanded trade, improved agriculture and spawned suburban society.
The business community needs enlightened self-interest in expanding the Internet infrastructure further into the developing world.
The old saw is true: Knowledge is power. It can also be health, food, water and wealth, if properly applied. People want it, and the Internet is the best way yet devised for sharing it.
True, it doesn't directly fill an obvious need in the developing world. The Internet won't pump clean water to remote villages, give malaria shots in mosquito country, or grow crops on exhausted land. It is already, however, giving people the knowledge to fix the pump, track the disease-carrying mosquitoes and find crops that restore depleted soil.
This short-term utility is the reason for expanding the Internet further into the developing world. The end game, however, is the technical knowledge it will create. It's a foregone conclusion that developing nations that want comprehensive Internet infrastructures must train their own people to operate and maintain them.
The training and on-the-job experience people gain from building out their country's Internet infrastructures is just like the knowledge the original backyard mechanics got from tinkering with Stanley Steamers and Model T's. At first, they'll just learn how to keep the packets flowing. Soon, the more nimble minds will see the potential applications to local issues: maybe an Internet application that calculates crop yields under different weather conditions, or sizes international markets for local products.
Extending the Internet further into the developing world nurtures...economic prosperity, which is the most important ingredient of worldwide stability.
Companies are forever trying to find new markets. Helping extend the Internet into the developing world goes one better. It creates them.
What idealists hoped for the Internet--that it would make life better in the developing world--was the right thing to wish for. Self-sustaining economies, with resident knowledge and classes of educated, technically savvy people, are better for their own citizens. They are better for the rest of the world too.
Among the many lessons from Sept. 11 is that what happens in one nation affects many--sometimes tragically. Extending the Internet further into the developing world nurtures--not creates, but nurtures--economic prosperity, which is the most important ingredient of worldwide stability. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is dedicated to closing the "digital divide" between wired and unwired countries.
Some carefully directed support of its efforts--equipment donations, price breaks--will pay economic dividends down the line even as it offers immediate, if modest, social and political benefits in the developing world today.