We all know the dark side of the Internet revolution. I experienced it myself not long ago when I briefly considered creating a Web site that would be devoted entirely to bad news about famous people -- folks like Donald Trump or Leona Helmsley whom the world loves to hate.
I wanted to call it "schadenfreude.com," after the German word that means "glee at another's misfortune." But I discovered, to my chagrin, that this domain name was already taken.
Okay, then. So I tried "envy.com" It was taken, too. So were "odious.com," "greed.com." "loathsome.com," "vile.com," "villainy.com.," "sloth.com." You get the idea. All the words describing mankind's most disgusting traits had already been reserved by other people for their own Internet projects. The best I could do was "wish-you-ill.com." My wife suggested it, in desperation, to get me to go to sleep. We dropped the misconceived scheme the next morning.
My point is that the Internet has become home to some of the basest emotions known to mankind. There's pornography, obviously -- an endless gallery of demeaning, soul-destroying photographs. But there's also covetousness of our neighbors, unbounded avarice, racist hate speech and vile rantings on every imaginable topic.
I mention this nastiness only because, over the next two months, we will witness a truly noble application of the Internet. Its goal is to use this amazing, wealth-creating technology to reduce the suffering of the world's poorest people. Hard to think of a better marriage of means and ends than that.
The ambitious new project is called "www.netaid.org" It's a partnership between the United Nations Development Programme and Cisco Systems, the company that manufactures most of the routers and switches that power the Internet. They're just beginning a PR blitz, so you're likely to be hearing a lot about netaid over the next few weeks.
The plan is for Cisco to create a huge Web site, devoted to the U.N. agenda of economic development issues. The site will be launched Sept. 8, but the real test will come Oct. 9, when netaid plans a three-city rock concert, taking place simultaneously at Giant Stadium in New York, Wembley Stadium in London and the Palace of Nations in Geneva. Among the producers of this extravaganza will be Don Mischer, who organizes other mega-events such as the Emmy Awards. He hopes the concerts will be carried live on broadcast television, cable TV, radio and the Internet.
The rock music is intended as a lure, to hook millions of affluent viewers on the idea of doing something to help the wretched of the earth. As the rockers blast out their tunes, the Web site will explain how rock fans can help fight global poverty. At the netaid.org site, they'll find categories such as "Ending Hunger," "Helping Refugees," "Relieving Debt," "Cleaning the Environment" and "Securing Human Rights."
Within a few days after the concert, visitors to netaid.org will find chat rooms where they can share ideas, streaming videos and other information about poverty projects around the world, an online foundation where they can contribute money or services, and links to dozens of U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations.
Mischer explains how it's supposed to work: "At various points, we're going to say: `Turn your TV down! Go to the Web site! Do something! Take action!' "
To handle the millions of expected visitors from around the world, Cisco and its partners are creating a site that's designed to have 10 times the peak capacity of any existing Web site. By using more than 1,800 big computers, known as "servers," the site will be able to handle 60 million hits an hour, according to Cisco Executive Vice President Don Listwin.
For Mark Malloch Brown, the new administrator of the Development Programme, the site will be a "cyberspace assembly" -- an open, uncensored extension of the United Nations itself. Much like an e-business site, netaid.org will allow more than 40 NGOs to connect along the supply and distribution chain -- matching donors with projects, matching people in need with people who can help.
"It's thoroughly subversive," says Malloch Brown, "in that old-line dictators will have a hard time getting a handle on it. They know how to keep the U.N. out of their affairs, but they don't know what to do about cyberspace."
Malloch Brown recognizes that netaid is just a beginning. It will allow people in the North who are already connected to the Internet to talk with each other about development. But it won't connect the towns and villages of the South directly into that conversation.
That's the next step, Malloch Brown insists. He notes that Africa has 9 percent of the world's population -- but just 0.1 percent of the world's Internet connections. He sees a hint of what technology could offer the poor in the West African nation of Mali, where villagers are using their World Bank Internet accounts to check global commodity prices before they sell to middlemen.
For many of us, the archetypal image of the Internet culture is a 28-year-old billionaire driving his new Porsche Boxster to work in Silicon Valley. In this version, greed and technology are mixed together in an invigorating but unholy brew. The netaid.org project proposes to take the Internet a step further -- to connect us not just with cyberspace but with the values of idealism and generosity that are the bedrock of our culture.