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A Note From the Desert

While everybody who matters is at SXSW this week (another conference? I am utterly exhausted just thinking about it), I’ve had an amazing shortage of phone calls and emails, and hence the opportunity to mull some things over.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in Southern Delaware. The interesting thing about the area is that it’s so verdant – fields and fields of soybeans and corn, and chickenhouses lining the routes to the beaches. It looks like a foodie’s paradise.

It’s not.

Those soybeans and corn are all genetically-modified. The chickens are stuck inside those chickenhouses and never let out, and many cannot even walk. They are stuffed with that GM feed and grow at an alarming rate, and turn bright yellow. Then Purdue slaughters them and ships them all up and down the East Coast.

If you want to eat well…it’s difficult. There are a few independent diners in the area. There is one upscale sort of bistro. There are no food co-ops. The only farmstand is 40-minute drive from just about anywhere – it is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is, in the words of Michelle Obama, a food desert. People shop for food at Wal-Mart, and a couple of bodega-like stores, and that’s pretty much all there is besides the stunning number of fast-food restaurants.

I’ve also mentioned previously that the area has no bookstores. In addition, there are no movie theaters. No concerts – classical or otherwise. No plays, except for the high school productions. There is a small library. It is a cultural desert until you cross the state line into Maryland.

It sounds grim! It is. Were it not for the gorgeous beaches, it would be an extremely depressing place. This is how I grew up – and why I no longer live there. I went back to visit my mom not too long ago, and the Enterprise Car Rental guy who picked me up said, adamantly, “If it weren’t for the Internet, I couldn’t stay here.”

And that’s it. The Internet has literally made things tolerable for folks who have no access to anything beyond subsistence. Netflix, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, Overstock.com, iTunes – these make a richer, more interesting life even possible. The Internet has just enabled my high school Home Ec teacher to organize a CSA – connecting a few independent farmers and large gardeners with people who are hungry for fresh produce.

Three times in the last month, I’ve found myself in conversations with entrepreneurs who attest that the appetite for a richer, more interesting life is more or less universal. And there are many, many deserts all over the world – quite a lot of them literal deserts.

The Internet is really making it possible for people in developing areas (nations, counties, what have you) to get access. To books, music, movies, ideas – knowledge. Appetites are huge – even for English-language content. People are starving for more than just food in these deserts.

People like Arthur Attwell and Ramy Habeeb are focused on watering these deserts. I find their work extremely exciting, for some very visceral, obvious reasons. If I had had access, as a kid growing up in my desert, I might not have had to flee just to preserve my sanity. I might have been able to stay and help make it better. I might have found good work to do right where I was, and improved things for others who – for a myriad of reasons – couldn’t have ever left and had to suffer where they were.

Arthur Attwell was telling me that some Africans are downloading books via text messages on their phones. SMS by SMS, they are reading. It won’t be long before smartphones invade the African continent, and real ebooks will be possible. But already, the hunger is such that these readers are willing to put up with an insanely inconvenient way to read – because the drive to open up the world beyond their own desert is so great.

That drive is what will improve developing areas – it is the oasis. And the Attwells and Habeebs can provide all the direction, all the assistance, they possibly can. But the infrastructure – metadata that makes search and discovery easier, less arcane; identifiers that point out exactly what it is you’re looking at; rights information that makes it clear what is accessible to whom – is the irrigation. That’s what will ensure life.
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