Log on locally, opine globally

The Planet Project would like to teach the world to speak up.

SOMETHING ABOUT THE WEB in its early days inspired a lot of American travelers to take up cameras and laptops and document their experiences. A number of the best early sites—most of them long gone now and a bit quaint even in memory—documented journeys around America or into obscure corners of the world in a Travels with Charley-type travelogue fashion. The Web opened up the world for viewers, and seeing the sights almost live from Tibet or Antarctica reinforced the idea that yes, this Web thing really did extend around the world, if only you have the gear to connect.

Thus began American hegemony in the digital age. Mirroring our blind-beyond-our-borders reputation in the offline world, Americans tended to assume that most of things they saw and read online were put there by Americans for Americans, with a smattering of domains ending in exotic two-letter country codes mixed in for flavor.

Moreover, we assumed access to the Net itself to occur in fairly specific circumstances: on privately owned computers or ones used in the relatively exclusive confines of schools or businesses. People lacking access to such machines in America have been basically relegated to libraries and community centers, and who in America hangs out at places like that? The digital divide—the gap in technology access between the haves and have-nots—seemed to assume that we would have the unwired, like the poor, with us always.

But that geographical/economic digital divide doesn't really seem fair or inevitable now, any more than the thrill of clicking on a .uk or .jp address and knowing that you're going to Britain or Japan is, well, still an exotic thrill. Those hoping to impress us with the Net's global reach and impact are going to have to do a lot more than that to get our attention.

Rick Smolan, one of the impresarios behind 1996's "24 Hours in Cyberspace," thinks he has the answer: Instead of showing us how various we are while using the Net, use the Net to show us how alike we are—even if some of us are nowhere near the Net. The Planet Project, Smolan's latest venture (through his Against All Odds production company and in conjunction with 3Com), is asking folks online and off a series of questions designed to prove, or disprove, that it's a small world after all.

WE'RE ALL BORED of pictures online, and of sounds, and of pretty much every other pyrotechnic your average designer can throw our way. We are not, however, tired of talking about ourselves. The Planet Project is a set of questionnaires with hundreds of questions designed to discover, according to the site, "what it's like to be a human being at the beginning of the millennium."

To that end, the project has been querying people for about three weeks. Originally planned to cover a three-day period in November, it's now scheduled to wrap up on December 7. They're making an effort, too, to look beyond the usual hanging-out-on-the-Net-and-will-fill-anything-out-to-kill-time crowd: Over 500 volunteer pollsters in 116 countries (and all seven continents) have been dispatched with wireless Net devices to gather the thoughts of folks offline—a tiny pebble thrown over the digital divide. Well over half a million folks have taken some or all of the polls thus far.

The eight topics (there's also a ninth general getting-to-know-you section) cover most of the good stuff about being alive on earth at a time like this: health, religion and spirituality, parenting and children, self-image, law and order, sleep and dreams, marriage, and the ever-popular dating and sex. (When we checked in most recently the last category, not surprisingly, had the greatest number of respondents.) Questions arrange from banal ("How much sleep do you get per night?") to the deep ("What's the purpose of sex?").

Being a completist, I did all eight questionnaires; being a pack-dwelling animal (and isn't that the point of this questionnaire?), I asked a friend to take it a week later and we compared our responses. I didn't have to phone a friend, though: The Planet Project is not only posting the cumulative results from the polling but also highlights an off-line respondent in each of the eight sections, helping to put one's answers in . . . perspective? Relief? It's hard to say what the effect is supposed to be.

I do know that between the time I took the questionnaires (on 18 November) and the time my friend hooked up a week later, the percentages for each answer hadn't changed perceptibly, proving either that the planet has reached an equilibrium of opinion or that things have been really, really quiet. How many of us would take a pill so we'd never have to sleep again, if such were available? Thirty-three percent. Do you believe in life after death? Twenty-seven percent of us say no. Have you ever dreamed about dead people and they knew they were dead? Me, Haley Joel Osment, and 19 percent of the world say yes.

As my friend and I went along, we could compare our answers to various featured respondents from the offline poll-taking. Sabaheta Grbo, a 39-year-old mother of four living in a Bosnian refugee camp, thinks people are generally more trustworthy than I do; she also thinks (and I'm still rapt in contemplation of this one) that all crime would disappear if only people had enough money. Bounlap—just Bounlap—of Laos doesn't approve of my views on having children out of wedlock. And Cesar Cahuachi Fachin, a 51-year-old tribal chief in Peru, is looking forward to old age a lot more than me and mine. (For the record, Vera Lentz, the pollster who hiked out to visit Fachin and other Yagua Indians, has to explain the concept of "stress" in the health section, since the Yagua have no such word in their vocabulary. I could just cry.) By the time I was done, I understood that it really is a small world after all, and I am a cynical, slutty, youth-obsessed American in it. And I can tell you exactly what stress means, by the way.

According to Gordon Black, CEO of Harris Interactive, the poll results are already showing curious differences of opinion. Sometimes responses to questions are clearly split along gender lines. For instance, women are twice as likely as men to worry about their weight—except in Spain, where only 8 percent of women think about it "constantly." (Go Spain!) On the other hand, answers to other questions differ greatly between countries, but the men and women in each country think pretty much alike. For instance, in Austria nine out of 10 people (male and female) think it's OK to have a kid out of wedlock. In India, only 20 percent approve. On that topic, men and women think a lot alike; their answers seems to be more influenced by where they live.

Harris Interactive is a partner in the project and will be analyzing the data as it accumulates and after the poll closes. Eventually organizers hope to share their results with schools and with the United Nations, which seems a little more united on some things than you'd expect. (This just in, and just in time for the holiday marriage-proposal season: Ninety-seven percent of men and 92 percent of women think it's OK for women to propose. But only 10 percent of Brazilians think marriage is forever, so if you're dating a Brazilian you can forget I said anything.)

The UN is interested in this poll not least because it's the first time the Chinese—one-quarter of the world's population—have been thus surveyed. For the record, the Chinese say "I love you" on a daily basis less than any other country in the world (about 15 percent of them do so); they're most in favor of eye-for-an-eye justice (80 percent of them are fine with the idea of getting Biblical on your ass); and they're happier with their bodies, with just 27 percent saying their self-esteem depends on their appearance (probably a good thing if you run afoul of that eye-for-an-eye stuff). Across the water from those guys, 79 percent of Singaporeans have no problem with spanking a child—but the French have them, er, beat, with 85 giving the thumbs up to bottoms-up. (In Austria, on the other hand, only 5 percent of folks think spanking is acceptable, which leads to an inescapable conclusion: FRENCH KIDS, MAKE A RUN FOR THE BORDER! ALLEZ! ALLEZ!)

And non-US respondents prefer Gore over Bush. The recent election proved so interesting to the Planet Project folk that they put up a ninth impromptu poll so the world could weigh in on the recent uproar. That Gore preference was, by the way, a 3:1 ratio. Makes you think of Internet voting in a whole new happy light, doesn't it?

 
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