Virtual Passport

FOR MANY, THE World Wide Web has worn out its welcome. Whereas a year or two ago people were genuinely curious and excited, now you hear people say stuff like, "If I hear one more fucking thing about the Internet, I'm going to reach behind my head and pull my spine out through the base of my skull."

Nevertheless, the Web still manages to amaze, especially when it comes to its international dimension. While technologies such as phone and fax give us entry to foreign lands, only the Web lets us move beyond mere connectivity: Now foreign countries can use technology to talk back to the rest of the world.

One benefit is access to different perspectives on entrenched domestic points of view. ArabNet, for example, owned by ArabNet Technology (ANT), a division of a leading publisher in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, provides a counterpoint to America's mainstream press, which is often negatively biased against Arab nations. ArabNet offers comprehensive overviews of the politics, history, art, and culture of 22 nations, from Algeria to Yemen. The entries are candid and unapologetic, like this one from the section on Iraqi culture: "All privately owned daily newspapers were closed by a government decree in 1967. In the late '80s, there were seven government-produced daily newspapers, the largest being ath-Thawra, which is issued by the Baath Socialist Party."

ArabNet doesn't editorialize, but it does contain links to more controversial sites, like the one run by the Iraq Action Coalition. Their page calls for an end to the sanctions against Iraq, and tells graphic stories about the aftermath of the Gulf War. Suddenly, you're reading about America in a completely different way.

Other countries are using the Web less for politics and more for promotion. Though exponentially less controversial than Iraq, Finland is equally cloaked in mystery. Fortunately, there is Virtual Finland, a website managed by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. Here you can thrill to the haunting Finnish national anthem, "Maamme"; get pointers in the section on saunas on how to make the most of your nudity; or learn about their film industry from Sakari Toiviainen, film researcher at the Finnish Film Archive. Should your personal affairs with Finland prove unsatisfactory, the Virtual Embassy area offers a complete list of Finnish consulates around the world, as well as up-to-date news reports on Finland's activities in international politics. That this remote land can beam so much media into your house is impressive, and while you might dismiss this all as nationalistic propaganda, the earnestness of the site transcends marketing.

Tonga Online is a similarly friendly site, produced with the help of the Microstate Network, a company that helps tiny states have a big presence on the Web. Part Tongan primer, part hug-from-home for expatriate Tongans, Tonga Online carries the online edition of Matangi Tonga, the kingdom's leading current-affairs magazine, sections on Tonga's history, and a neat feature that lets you send an electronic Tongan postcard to a friend. There is also a link to the Kava Bowl, an online forum for Tongans and other South Pacific islanders.

Like Virtual Finland, Tonga Online creates a Web presence for a country otherwise largely ignored. The webmasters at China Today, on the other hand, face a different problem: How do you distill a large, commanding, and rapidly changing nation into a Web page? Furthermore, how to do you embrace the inherent openness of Internet technology when you're largely a closed society?

The China Today site is managed by the InfoPacific Development Corp., with the cooperation of the ominous-sounding China Council for International Quality Assurance. Everywhere there is evidence of the conflict between promoting China as a place to invest, and maintaining the integrity of the culture. The site is filled with slogans like "Motto: Serve the People" and "The Law for the People" alongside exhortations for foreign investors to "make good use of the labor-force and natural resources in central and western China."

A few hours in the Web's international shadow world is a refreshing change from domestic sites. But be warned, some evils are impossible to escape, and call into question the value of having a broader understanding between and among cultures: The China Today site recently featured a story on Yanni's upcoming concert in China's Forbidden City. Said Yanni, "We are eager to perform before Chinese audiences. Traveling around the world is important to my creativity, and I will be able to learn a lot from Chinese culture in my tour." We can only hope the Chinese learn nothing from Yanni. S

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