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The Internet: Tool or Toy

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[Photo of Old Man]Recently my brother-in-law asked me if a Chinese- branded router would be as good as the better-known (mainly American) tech brands. Generally, I would prefer a Chinese-branded product to what looks like a Western-branded one but may just be a poor bootleg copy.

Even assuming that all the choices are the genuine article, new tech gadgets will usually work well or fail within a month of purchase. Aside from the fact that nearly everyone (whether they realize it or not) has an ASUS motherboard, I’ve also personally used and am satisfied with communications gear made by Huawei and (the now infamous) ZTE. Knowing my brother-in-law is the really thrifty sort, I told him to go ahead and get the Chinese-branded one, provided that the store promised service and support for it.

But it’s not just about having the latest hardware and software, nor is it sufficient to have a really fast xinhua connection to the Internet. What will matter in the long run is how people make use of emerging technology.

Arguably, many such uses, whether here, in China or elsewhere, are rather frivolous. A recent survey of mobile phone usage in Beijing noted that “the mobile phone is more apt to be used as a functional tool [rather] than a source of amusement by those with higher educational and income levels.”

I must admit I have some rather silly ringtones on my phone. But most of the time my cellphone functions as a purely utilitarian two-way pager, which can also make voice calls in an emergency. I use computers as word processing, (spreadsheet) calculating, Web research, and e-mail messaging tool. The last time I played a computer game was in Christmas 2006. Do I sound like a grumpy old schoolmaster? Perhaps. Yet you may also agree that many younger people do tend to spend an inordinate amount of time at Friendster and YouTube.

In his research paper, Boxu Yang observes that while the printing press was invented in China millennia ago, it was never available to most people— most couldn’t read, much less write. Today, even with the opportunity (and audience) that booming Internet usage provides, relatively few use the new technology for serious engagement. In the Philippines, the use of e-mail and text messaging to topple a sitting President would be an interesting exception, but this attitude and effort is neither ingrained nor sustained.

Studies such as those by Yang also point out that advocacies in China are today largely driven by individual initiative rather than organizations. This is true in China, the Philippines, and the World Wide Web. There are some people who are truly comfortable with the Internet and can leverage it for maximum effect. For the majority, however, the Internet is still nothing more than an interesting toy.

When engaging in the “global conversation” that is the Internet, one will note that there is a tribal nature to these Internet communities, with each tribe centered around something that members have in common.

While the nature of the Internet implies decentralization and the absence of strong, top-down coordinating structures, there do exist individuals and small groups that exercise significant authoritative influence within each tribe. More than mere reputation or brownie points, this represents real social capital and influences the larger online audience.

Even for those who may not be directly involved in political or social activism, the Internet is becoming an increasingly useful tool for business. It would be good if your company already had a regularly updated, informative website. But even without a website, one can start communicating with and engaging other people online.

Since the Internet allows the spotlight to focus on individuals, any such online interaction is best handled personally and not by an executive assistant or staff. Netizens appreciate it when they know they are dealing with a real person. Industry colleagues will certainly be able to tell whether they’re talking to you or your secretary.

E-mail has been the primary Internet tool for over a decade. By e-mail I mean mailing lists (such as Yahoo! Groups) not marketing spam, which is, at best, an annoyance. Many such e-mail lists center around alumni groups; others are active discussion forums for trade and industry communities.

Casual, late-afternoon get-togethers over dimsum and tea will not disappear any time soon. The food is better, and F2Fs (face-to-face meetings) will continue to provide a real, personal dimension to business and interpersonal relationships. However, as online media gain users and importance, it makes perfect sense to initiate and maintain a presence on the ’Net.

print ed: 07/08


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