Networld: High Tech for the Dalai Lama

High Tech for the Dalai Lama

By Maria Speck

With backpacks full of computer accessories a strange mission started towards the Himalaja this year. A group of five men from San Francisco brought the miracles silicone of the Valleys to the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama in India.

Phuntsok Namgyai (l),Dan Haig (2.v.r.), Aris Salomon (r) with staff of the Dalai Lama Photo: Aris Salomon

Phuntsok Namgyai (l),Dan Haig (2.v.r.), Aris Salomon (r) with staff of the Dalai Lama Photo: Aris Salomon

In the valley of the merry snows sneakers belong to the writer’s equipment, like the computer keyboard. It is not easy to bring news from these mountains to the world. Long-distance calls are too expensive. Bad telephone lines make faxing an accidental hit. E-Mail? Well of course, but with sneakers. the men who rose from another world into these valleys of the Himalaja in India named it “Sneaker net”.

And this is how it goes: Write your text on the computer, store in ASCII, get the disc and go. Two kilometers by foot through the valley, in all weather. half an hour later transfer the disc at the next computer. Only now the text can begin its electronic journey around the world.

This time-consuming sneaker network belongs to the past in Dharamsala since short: To do e-Mails the 200 coworkers of the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama can remain seated at the desk now. The government complex is equipped with a modern Intranet. New software makes a dispatching of Mails the children’s game. A Web page is in under construction, in order to keep Exile tibetians around the globe up to date.

The government-in-exile has to thank for the link to the information age to an unusual High Tech mission from the California silicon Valley. Five Computerfreaks organized the five week “work stay” on their own.

The idea evolved from Web architect Dan Haig. The 33 year old quit its thesis over Tibetan medicine, its interest for the in 1950 of China annected country remained however alive. Haig speaks Tibetan and was often in Dharamsala, which serves Tibetians since its escape as new homeland. In 1995 there he met the director of the computer center, Phuntsok Namgyal, “the only human in the valley, who had heard ever of the World Wide Web”.

This meeting entailed an electronic birthday gift for the Dalai Lama: From San Francisco Haig placed the address book for Tibetan relief organizations in the whole world punctually on 6 July 1996 under the Web address on to the network.

The Tibet fan with the pony tail was still concerned, how slowly still the information from Dharamsala flows. Finally he succeeded to convince, by E-Mail, of course, the director of the computer center of the future: The outdated sneaker network is to be modernized, so that the government-in-exile can achieve more rapidly and more effectively the world public.

Immediate support received Haig from its friends, the Web master Stefan Lisowski, the Web designer Ari Salomon and the computer specialist Jack Burris. Not to forget the “Pan Dimensional Telcom God”. That is stated on the business card of the internet expert of the local telephone company, and, above all, 3D-Fan Richard Schneider.

The men, in the age between 25 and 36 years, are fascinated by the High Tech Trip to the end of the world. They invest all years holidays, days off and lost employers payments. And they pack up: Motherboards, processors, modems, enormous drills as well as hundreds of meters of steel and coaxial cables. The total costs are about 60,000 dollar. Donations are responsible for a small part of the costs.

The journey takes 40 hours to Delhi, via Hong Kong and Singapore. A twelve-hour bus travel continues to bring them to Dharamsala. From there still two kilometers by foot to the government complex, accompanied from wild apes.

On the next morning they want to start – but wait! First the tea hour is announced. They have to keep the “local introduction protocol”, otherwise they may not “touch a building”, as Schneider says. Groaning the visitors from the west tell, how they are welcomed for one week: A milk tea at the Ministry of Health, a tea with ministry of education and still another Tea in the ministry of the Interior. The scheduling is gone.

Only one attendance is not monotonous: The men receive one of the rare private audiences with the spiritual leader of the Tibetians. The Dalai Lama welcomes their project, even if he himself, as he confesses to them, does not understand anything about computers. He understands however clearly, as Haig says, “how important new technologies are”.

For 3D fan Schneider a dream comes true. He don’t find words first at with the audience with the “big guy” of the Tibetians. Then however he rolls up his sleeve and shows the Dalai Lama its strong upper arm. There a Tattoo, inscribed with a special colour, shows up. With some 3D glasses “His Holiness” admires the three-dimensional body art.

Finally the “tea party” is over. Between constant power failures it means improvising now: Connecting pieces have to be filed to indian measures and cable masses from the day before yesterday have to be untangled. The men drill and hammer and climb dangerously along roofs, in order to connect the buildings with data cables. Seven Ministries and the library receive connectors for the network. Old PC gets reactivated, new Ethernet cards make them fit for the Intranet.

Premature monsoon rainfalls provide further interruptions. The time runs out. Toward the end power failures again. Despaired phone calls with the power station. In three days is departure. “in the last possible moment” the power returns – the ambitious project can be completed.

Dozens of PC in the government complex are connected today, new ones are getting attached constantly. In order to help in the initial phase, Web architect Haig remains for additional four months. In the valley of the merry snows a “new E-Mail culture” develops. The personal accounts are a hit, their number rise rapidly from seven on over 40.

In this time Haig begins also with the structure of a new Domain name. informs from London about the fight for many decades of the government-in-exile for self-determination. In Dharamsala, however, many other organizations of the Exile tibetians are settled, from the congress of youth to the medical university. They dispatch theyr Information still in a complex way by the post office. The new Web address is to connect soon Exile tibetians from Canada to Nepal. Necessary for it is certainly a satellite dish. A donation activity began.

Since start of this month there is information from Dharamsala over The Tibetan center for human rights and democracy with a current list of political prisoners makes the prelude. Already a picture of the Dalai Lama is sufficient today, thus for human right organizations, in order to bring someone in Tibet in Chinese prisons.

For the Dalai Lama the attendance from the valley of the silicone paid already in a special way. Recently a lightning hit into one of the best computers into Dharamsala. just before a californian had presented “the miracles of a Zipdrive” to the Exile tibetians. The data is saved: On the computer the entire correspondence of his sovereignty was stored.

SPIEGEL ONLINE 44/1997 – duplication only with permission of the SPIEGEL publishing house.