Tampons and virtual sit-ins

Tick. Another second passes and those with Internet stocks are zillions of dollars richer, at least on paper, and the stock market bubbles away and the cyber economy powers on. It's all a bit surreal and in dire need of reality therapy. I have dim memories that the Internet was going to bring increased education standards, relief for the information poor, voices to the silenced, and at least three bushels of world peace. Did it all go wrong? Were we kidding ourselves? Is the Net just for hauling in money?

A week or two back I re-ceived a petition via e-mail, decrying the treatment of women in Afghanistan. It was a bit short on facts and there was no indication of to whom the petition would actually be delivered, but think about the potential. With the in-struction to "Please copy this e-mail on to a new message, sign the bottom and forward it to those you believe care", this e-mail will travel the world collecting the voiced concern of like-minded people. The address list on my copy had 38 names alone.

Collecting signatures for a cause is useful, but actually mobilising people in the name of a cause is priceless. The question of whether tampons should be GST-exempt was made public by a small piece in the press but then was picked up and ripped through the community via e-mail and chat rooms. "GST on menstruation" was easily the topic with the most postings at the Mother and Child site (www.motherandchild.com.au). At least two online petitions were circulated, which became the basis for the ensuing e-mail campaign to politicians. That early Internet agitation has meant that GST-ing tampons is still a political hot potato.

Over in New York, even changing the world isn't good enough - the EDT wants to "disturb" it. The Electronic Disturbance Theater (www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/floodnet.html) conducts Electronic Civil Dis-obedience at the "intersection of radical politics, recombinant and performance art". They sound like fun guys to have at a party. EDT's weapon is FloodNet, a freely available Java applet that automatically reloads a page at a targeted Web site every few seconds, aiming to block the site. The more people running FloodNet, the better. The concept is the virtual equivalent of the sit-ins by black Australian and American activists in segregated facilities in the 1960s.

Ricardo Dominguez, one of the founders of EDT, was reported by Time magazine as saying: "We're not into blowing people up or hacking sites. We just want to create a small force field that will disturb the pace of power."

My vote for the power of an Net individual to change the world goes to John Breen, the American programmer who built The Hunger Site (www.thehungersite.com). Do as I've done and make this site your browser homepage and go there first thing every day - one click and at least a couple of cups of food will be bought for the United Nations World Food Programme. It's paid for by corporates that sign up to pay for a quarter-cup of food per click, in exchange for a free ad and links.

At the time of writing, about 330,000 people each day are depressing their mouse buttons just once and consequently sending about 45 tonnes of food per day to the hungry.

I read through the site trying to find the catch, trying to find who was pocketing a dollar along the way, before I realised how cynical that was. Here's a guy using a computer to feed starving kids, and I'm trying to find out what his cut is. Technology is more than stock options and IPOs after all.

A final plug: the number of visitors - and hence donations - is going up at The Hunger Site, but the average number of sponsors is falling. It's the number of sponsors that really catapults the tonnage of food that can be bought, and the list I saw doesn't have any big names. Where are the IBMs, the Compaqs, the Intels? What's more, site stats show that 75,000 Australians clicked there in March this year. So how about it, Telstra, OzEmail, Sausage Software, nineMSN and others? What about converting some of that techno-profit into food? I dare you.

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