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Last Updated: Friday, 23 January, 2004, 10:18 GMT
Turn off, log out, shut down
Dot.life - how technology changes life, every Monday
By Maggie Shiels
In Silicon Valley

A tech veteran is boldly going where few of his friends and colleagues dare follow - he has cut his links to cyberspace and hit the road to find out more about life on the other side of the Digital Divide.

Steve on his laptop
One final click...
For the past 20 years, Steve Cisler has proudly worn the badge of one of the world's digerati. How could he not? The 61-year-old lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, and he worked at that holy grail of computers, Apple. He also set up many projects around the globe to help others get online.

But this week Mr Cisler has pulled the plug on his link to cyberspace and is now a man living life offline.

"A lot of the people I know and work with see those offline as needing to be saved, that they are doomed if they are not online. But I don't believe that. I think the vast majority of people believe there is more to life than the internet."

Such talk is practically heresy in a part of the world that's earned its fame and fortune from computers and the world wide web. But Mr Cisler hasn't gone to the dark side without good reason. His decision to cut the umbilical cord with his internet service provider is being done in the name of research.

"My going offline is incidental," he told BBC News Online. "I thought I would put myself in other people's shoes who aren't online, and find out why and how they get their information. Clearly the vast majority of the world isn't busy surfing the web and I want to know why."

According to statistics from august bodies such as the Nua Internet survey and Nielsen-Netratings, just 600m of the world's 6.3bn people are wired to the web.

Yet those online often forget that they are in the minority.

"I asked someone to guess how many people are online - she thought about 90% of the world. But it's more like 12%. Of course, for people outside of Silicon Valley, dividing the world like that is a bit arbitrary."

If not, why not?

The Digital Divide is the topic du jour for governments, business leaders, civic groups and non-profit organisations the world over. Just last month it was highlighted at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva.

Some people can't understand it; others envy me because they're so tired of e-mail and spam and Nigerian 419 letters
Steve Cisler
The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, "a digital divide threatens to exacerbate already-wide gaps between rich and poor, within and among countries."

But talk of the connected and the unconnected is still too simplistic a way of looking at things, Mr Cisler says.

"I think one of the problems with this phrase, the 'digital divide', is that is lumps all of those not using the technology into an undifferentiated mass. We need to understand the many reasons why people and organisations are not connected. I hope my project will put faces on the unconnected and dissolve the dichotomy."

Reasons for being offline include personal choice or a lack of education and access, economic barriers or political roadblocks. Cuba, for instance, last week announced it would limit access to an approved elite.

Road trip

In an effort to humanise this unconnected population, Mr Cisler has hit the road in a silver mini-van that will be his home from home for the next few months.

Steve packs his van
Preparing to hit the road
While his first stop may only be 150 miles away in Fresno, he plans to speak to people around California before heading south to the US border and on to Texas. A further trip is planned for Mexico and Latin America, as well as South Asia if his funds hold out.

Instead of sitting in front of a computer, using the vast resources at the tip of his fingers, Mr Cisler will rely on old-fashioned methods to gather information.

"What I will find difficult is researching the places I hope to visit. I won't be able to go online and get a map, or look up the background to an organisation. I will have to go into libraries, to call people and speak to them. So it's going to be a lot slower in some ways."

He has also promised that now he has severed all connections with his ISP, he won't lapse - despite what his friends may think.

"Some of my friends have a bet that I will be back online by 21 March. Others have reacted to my going off as if I am totally leaving this world, committing suicide. Some can't understand it, others envy me because they are so tired of e-mail and spam and Nigerian 419 letters."

While Steve might have closed his e-mail account, he is taking his trusty laptop on the road, along with a printer. He intends to write a regular newsletter and mail it to a friend who will publish it on his weblog.

Proof perhaps that there is no escaping the internet after all.

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