Comparitive Internet Cafe Studies
Photo courtest Flick user Marc Shandro
Over the last few months I have taken buses, trains, boats, rickshaws, bikes, and horses through a multitude of cultures and minorities therein. It occurs to me that a lot can be inferred about these places based upon my main means of communication: the internet cafe.
Leaving Japan at the start of my journey, I also left the home of the world’s best internet cafes, which is a term that comes quite short of describing these establishments. The rows of basic computers found in every cafe are accompanied by huge selections of manga comics, DVDs, and video games. Booths are available, complete with leather reclining chairs, with TV setups and game consoles, and just outside are banks of vending machines. In fact, since such places stay open all night these media meccas are the best place to sleep if you miss your last train home. It’s a well-oiled machine, but you pay for it. Service is top notch, but you pay for it.
Into China, we generally find a high level of sophistication in the internet cafes. Connections speeds are fast and computers new. Computer interfaces use customized desktops with a large variety of games and computer software at your disposal, which I have to believe is all pirated. The difference is the Big Brother factor in China. The customized desktops allow them a degree of control over how you are using the computer. Its no secret the Red China has an amazingly advanced firewall system, referred to as the Great Firewall which you can read more about here, that allows them to monitor or block nearly all net traffic. One expat assured me upon opening an email with derogatory comments about China that the internet in only his neighborhood was quickly cut-off. Perhaps, but speed definitely suffers and many sites you must use a proxy to access (The Chairman doesn’t use Facebook). Since I visited during the Olympics, these restrictions were supposedly relaxed a great deal due to the influx of foreigners who don’t normally put up with this kind of totalitarian bullshit at home.
Upon entry into Pakistan, you are now officially on the Indian subcontinent, but with a Muslim twist. Muslim people are exceedingly hospitable and very eager to help (this is different from India), but the technological infrastructure is quite poor with old computers and slow connections. What to do?
Over in neighboring India its a bit harder to categorize. India has a booming IT sector but you wouldn’t know it based upon their internet cafes since all the people educated to operate computers are not working in the local cafe or even in the country in many cases. Speed and hardware are generally better than Pakistan, but the problem lies in the lack of maintenance and administration. For Indian internet cafes, the business model is plug it in and charge money. The result are virus-laden computers with software that is non-existent or outdated.
Every computer in an internet cafe should offer a basic set of software that is up to date. Things like Firefox, Skype, Acrobat Reader, Flash, and Java to mention some basics. This stuff is free yet very few cafes actually have these things installed and ready to use in India. One particularly ignorant cafe worker (they tend to be 12 years old but he was old enough to know better) refused to have Firefox, by far the best and most useful internet browser, installed on his computers. Instead it was an older version of Internet Explorer and thus lacking tabbed browsing (stolen from Firefox anyway) and features like remembering all the sites you have open when the browser/computer crashes… which is often in India with unreliable electricity. In fact without this its quite futile to get anything done on computers in India. So people, myself included, would take their own time, which they pay for, to download this on slow connection speeds and do him a favor by installing it… only to have it removed. No amount of reasoning can explain why this is bad policy to him. Remember, I am making parallel comparisons here. This is the same culture that pours untreated human waste in their “holiest” river in the Hindu religion…. where thousands take a bath in every day.
Never once in India did I use a computer that wasn’t logged in as administrator, giving users full access to download the things that should already be installed and much more that shouldn’t. It was quite shocking to cross the border into Nepal and find things as they should be. Electricity is a big problem, but the things that they can control, like having iTunes ready to use, is done! In fact, internet cafes in Nepal are the best since I left Japan with modern fast machines and clean comfortable spaces. Cost is slightly higher in Nepal versus India, but when things actually work its a small concession.