So, I’d like to tell you a sto­ry. In 1981, in par­tic­u­lar in the spring of 1981, I found myself in Kigali, Rwanda. The back­ground was that in 1973 I’d signed on to the UN as a tech­ni­cal advi­sor in com­put­er meth­ods just as the African cen­sus pro­gram was start­ing, and we were installing new com­put­ers in almost every coun­try in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the excep­tion of South Africa.

I was there because the agent that we had sent over to install a Honeywell mini­com­put­er, which only required 10kVa of unin­ter­rupt­ible pow­er sup­ply to work, could­n’t get the com­put­er to work. So I was sent. And after a few days, we took care of most of the sim­ple prob­lems. But we still could­n’t get the com­put­er to accept the oper­at­ing sys­tem tape.

So clear­ly, what do you do? Well, you go back to the man­u­fac­tur­er, or you go back to a col­league, and ask. At that point, Rwanda had radio tele­phone ser­vice in a two-hour win­dow out of every twenty-four, and it reached New York, the East Coast, at between 2:00 AM and 4:00 AM. You could take a plane and fly out. It would be cer­tain, but the turn­around time was pret­ty long. Or you could go through the UN telex oper­a­tor, the first actu­al email. The telex oper­a­tor had a cen­sor whose job it was appar­ent­ly to strike out every oth­er word, or cer­tain­ly to remove enough words so that the con­tent was thor­ough­ly ambigu­ous. And he had a col­league on the oth­er side, so the reply got the same treat­ment.

So, to make a long sto­ry short, after two weeks we were nowhere. And it drove home to me the con­cept of infor­ma­tion pover­ty in a way that no oth­er expe­ri­ence had. There was lots of evi­dence about infor­ma­tion pover­ty. When we vis­it­ed uni­ver­si­ty libraries in most Sub-Saharan coun­tries we found that the library had approx­i­mate­ly a hun­dred books, and they were twen­ty years out of date. It was real­ly a very sad sit­u­a­tion. And I thought to myself well, you know if I with the knowl­edge of how to get infor­ma­tion failed total­ly, utter­ly, mis­er­ably, in this, what chance do the peo­ple who live in these coun­tries have? They don’t. And so the infor­ma­tion pover­ty sim­ply per­pet­u­ates itself because they’re unable to iden­ti­fy well and solve their prob­lems. Now, that’s not the only thing you need to solve prob­lems, but it’s real­ly real­ly impor­tant.

So when I left the UN and went back to uni­ver­si­ty, acad­e­mia com­put­ing, and met the peo­ple who even­tu­al­ly found­ed the Internet Society, I thought here’s some­thing we can do, en masse, to cre­ate waves of peo­ple who under­stand this. Who come from these coun­tries, who can go back and install—connect their coun­tries to the Internet, install rout­ed net­works, do resource dis­cov­ery and con­tent serv­ing even­tu­al­ly, on the net. It was a cry­ing need.

It was a vol­un­teer effort. Some of the peo­ple in this room con­tributed to it. Randy Bush con­tributed might­i­ly to the start of it, to help make it a suc­cess. Steve Goldstein and Ida Holz were at the first work­shop. Gihan Dias was at the sec­ond. We decid­ed that we would take the time to cre­ate cours­es that would allow peo­ple to do these things, and we would fund to the max­i­mum extent we could, which was almost 100% in most years. We had a will­ing ally in Larry Landweber, who was then Vice President; Vint who was President.

And so we start­ed with 135 peo­ple at Stanford University. Over the course of eight years we trained about 1,500 peo­ple from almost all devel­op­ing coun­tries, and we start­ed a series in Central and Eastern Europe which has real­ly out­lived ours and still con­tin­ues to be an active net­work­ing asso­ci­a­tion. From that work­shop came WALC for Latin America, which trained I sus­pect many more peo­ple, in the thou­sands.

I’m very proud of this accom­plish­ment. I think that the many vol­un­teers who gave up their vaca­tions and much of their time to run these work­shops for the Internet Society were real­ly real­ly in the fore­front of push­ing the Internet out so that tru­ly the Internet can be for every­one. And I’m also very pleased that one of the results of this was that the Internet Society itself turned its face to the prob­lems of devel­op­ment, to the prob­lems of train­ing and help­ing peo­ple, and that trend con­tin­ues to this day. Thank you very much.

Further Reference

George Sadowsky profile, Internet Hall of Fame 2013


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