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World Wide Jam


cyberspace, italian-style
italy: bernardo parrella

italy: bernardo parrella

After almost three years of cultural exile in the Bay Area, I am heading "back home" to Italy where I will meet up with some old friends, and with some new ones whom so far I've only met electronically.

In Roma, charming and chaotic as ever, I re-connect with one of my first byte-pals, Enrico Caioli. His two-lines Aladin BBS is still located in a damp basement, "like in the good old times", circa 1990. He fills me in on what has happened in the intervening time. "We are facing a clear paradox here: people with good technical skills and a great passion cannot afford the prohibitive costs of a full Internet connection. At the same time those with neither competence nor enthusiam but who can put a couple hundred million lira on the table, get quick attention, and become Internet providers overnight."

No wonder. In the last 12-18 months the Internet has been boosted here as elsewhere, as a golden goose, a huge would-be market. With such ambitions, last fall Nichi Grauso headed the assault and launched Video Online, an investment of US $50 million, 20% of which went into an aggressive promotion including various full-color pages in US magazines and toll-free numbers throughout the world. In spite of some avant-garde ideas, the operation was far too heavy-weight for a still unborn market. In less than a year VOL failed and offered its remains (and tons of debts) to Telecom Italia, anxious for a chance to reinstate its one-time monopoly. And all around, small and big sharks alike, keep circling in the waters of misinformation, looking for an opportunity to jump deep into a (supposedly) fast money sea.

Reality check

Several sources estimate regular Internet users in Italy at just 100-150,000 people, perhaps double that figure when including universities and businesses. And despite a new trend called "civic networks", when it comes to the Net, it is no mystery that most public administrators are still turning their attentions elsewhere. A teacher I met on a crowded train pointed out: "We have launched a project in our K-12 school in Latina (a small town nearby Roma) to collect students opinions and thoughts about disabilities and related matters, distributing them through a small mailing list. The inputs are wonderful, but what are we going to do with them? Public agencies are uninterested, so we must do everything ourselves in order to make this initiative grow. A couple of very old PCs, a couple of old 4800 baud modems and some word of mouth: so far so good...tomorrow, who knows?"

Jumping elsewhere, here is Agorà Telematica. Called the "Italian equivalent to The WELL" by Wired magazine Agorà is a fairly well-managed conferencing system on its feet since 1989. It's there that I located most local "digerati" and cyber-entrepeneurs. Among them, Roberto Cicciomessere, Agorà's CEO, tells me how recently, due to money shortage, they have been forced to slow down the public discussion areas and instead target small businesses. In spite of this change in focus, Agorà is still one of the best places to hang out, and a top ISP, too. The so-called "social telematics" area is also growing, with low-cost networks such as CyberNet, Strano, and Peacelink, and the Cittè Invisibile association, to name a few.


windwalker said:

I am once again a very small child exploring the paths through the Montana woods and find a place of total enchantment where there lived a very wise old man who taught me to talk to the fairies on their huge sunflower telephones and walk down a magic path to where the trout filled pond lay glistening in the sun. An old dead tree stump, carved with nitches here and there and a crow's nest sat atop it waiting for its owner to come cawing back, while I, in awe and wonder, saw a Fairy Post Office which held from time to time, a pack of Wrigleys Juicy Fruit gum, a string of pearls or a nail set to fix my nails. How I loved that gentle soul and often wished his tale be told. His name was Hawkins and the place was Absarokee, Montana

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The cyberpunk movement is still alive and well in city social centers and around the Decoder-Shake publisher (whose boss, Gomma, is the best!). A mention is also deserved for Interacta, a non-profit organization devoted to "create an interactive communication culture," and for Apogeo-Urra, a young but dynamic publisher based in Milano. Yes, seeds of hope, activism and creativity are slowly blossoming online and flooding offline. With a unique pinch of mediterranean flavor and culture, as in the eclectic site aptly named Electric Italy, created by journalist Raffaele Cascone.

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Electric peasants

While driving to Linate airport to get the airplane which brings me "back home" (to California, this time), my mind is crossed by flashing thoughts. Europeans have never really been able to tame modernity, not to mention technology, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard reminds us. Why wonder then, if the Italian way to the global village culture is not so fast or straightforward? In fact, it must include that typical mix of chaos and genius, "laissez faire" and popular humor. Nevertheless, the local zeitgeist carries a unique flavor of culture and innovation. And the Net is exactly here to bridge different people and culture, preserving their diversity as well. Something I have first-hand experienced over the course of my time in the US, while electronically deeply involved with many new friends in the Old World. Despite some frustration, I feel once more united with that bunch of electric peasants. Whether they know it or not, we are all moving toward a new future. Aren't we?

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