The Question Box is a project from UC Berkeley’s Rose Shuman to bring some of the benefits of the information on the Internet to places that are too remote or poor to sustain a live Internet link. It works by installing a single-button intercom in the village that is linked to a nearby town where there is a computer with a trained, live operator. Questioners press the intercom, describe their query to the operator, who runs it, reads the search results, and discusses them with the questioner (it’s like those “executive assistant” telephone services, but for people who live in very rural places).
This is a really good example of how the net can extend beyond the physical boundaries of its wires. I remember being in Entebe, Uganda, and seeing the print shops that were out of the city and off-campus, where you could go and browse a CD-ROM’s worth of electronic text for printing and binding. The CDs were updated regularly by couriers on motorcycle, who brought them from the capital, creating a relatively high-latency sneakernet link over terrain that (for political and technical reasons) the Internet couldn’t cover.
I supposed that there must be an even higher-latency connection further from these print shops, of people who place orders for their wares that are fulfilled once a week, and a still higher latency connection further out, of people who inherit the books once those people are done with them. The closer you are to the live net, the more control you have over the information it delivers.
Eventually, the net’s tendrils will extend to the places where the print-shops are, and they will relocate to the villages, and the people who inherit second-hand books will become the people who order the books. And eventually — through programs like One Laptop Per Child — the live net may reach even the most remote corners.
But the net isn’t binary (well, it is, but not in the way I mean): it isn’t there or not-there. It can ooze in, over the period of years and decades.
The Question Box has been deployed live in Phoolpur village in Greater Noida, close to New Delhi and it was a stonking, smashing success, and will now be expanding further. Check out the project page.