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.
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
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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