The Internet comes to the Outback

Simon Winchester captures a poignant, pivotal moment in the Outback,when he gives a 7-year-old boy and his lamb their first view of the Internet.

Published June 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In a way, this is the story of the arrival of the next century, and another world, in the lives of a young boy named Rupert and his pet lamb, Gidgee. Not to say that their current lives are in any way wanting, or old-fashioned. It is simply that I watched them be enthralled by something they had never seen before, something that brought tomorrow home to them, like they'd never known.

Rupert is 7, and he is Australian, and he lives with his parents and two sisters and Gidgee the lamb on one of those giant cattle stations in Queensland, 1,000 square miles of bone-dry bushland that supports 10,000 cattle and a like number of merino sheep. I drove 16 hours to get there, all on dirt roads; the closest town of any significance is called Muttaburra, and it is 40 miles away. There is one shop and the man who shears the sheep, and that's about all Muttaburra is or ever will be.

The farm is a century or so old -- the homestead was a post office, carted in across the bush 40 years ago. There is no main electricity, and the water comes from an artesian well, and there is a wind pump clacking in the hot breeze. But there is, and this is the crucial point, a telephone -- and thanks to a brave Australian government program for Outback farmers, it is no longer a party-line hand-crank phone (that went out five years ago) but a radio-concentrated device that gives a perfectly normal dial tone and allows Rupert's parents to call anywhere in Australia, and indeed anywhere in the world.

On my second night staying in the homestead I asked about the phone: If it was possible to call a number in eastern Queensland I would, with any luck, be able to get my e-mail. Could I? No worries, they said -- go right ahead.

And so I hooked up my laptop computer, arranged the settings so it would dial what was, more or less, a local number -- even though the place it was dialing was a good 500 miles away -- and within seconds heard the familiar warbling and clicking of a computer connecting to its server far away in Seattle, I think it must be, and then my previous week's e-mail began to cascade onto the screen.

Rupert was watching all of this, fascinated. He had just come in from clearing some brush, and he was dusty and tired, and Gidgee was sitting on his lap. He asked about e-mail, what it was, where it came from. And so I said to him: If I can get e-mail, I can connect to the Internet. Do you think your Dad would mind? It's still only a local call -- I'll be on for 10 minutes or so.

Rupert had heard of the Net, but had never seen it, and I explained a little what it was all about. I could take him, I said, anywhere in the world he wanted -- I could show him pictures, movies, play him sound, of anything his little heart desired. What would he like?

He thought for a second, as I dialed up the Net, and the familiar welcome picture unrolled onto my screen. He wasn't quite sure what was on offer, and said, as a little boy well might -- can you show me a Stealth bomber?

So I found a Web page from the United States Air Force test center at Edwards Air Force Base and there, sure enough, were short film clips of the B-2 bomber doing training runs over the Mojave Desert. We watched them for a few moments, Rupert being, as you might imagine, enthralled. But then he stopped me. Can you take me, really, anywhere? I nodded. Can you, he whispered -- can you take me to Mars?

I feigned a moment of doubt, knowing full well this would be as easy as pie. OK, I said, let's give it a try. I found the Jet Propulsion Lab's home page and within a second or two there was a button to click that would bring pictures from a satellite then on a Mars fly-by -- a new picture downloaded every 10 minutes. I clicked and, presto, there was the surface of Mars, inch by inch, painting itself onto the computer screen before our very eyes.

And what eyes. I swear the little boy's were as big as saucers as he sat there, utterly enraptured by what he was seeing. He pointed the lamb's nose at the screen and tried to get him to look too. "See, Gidgee?" he cried. "It's Mars!" The surface of another planet, in a lonely little living room in the middle of the Australian Outback. Tomorrow had arrived: Rupert's life, I warrant, will never be quite the same again.

By Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is a contributing editor for Salon Wanderlust. He has previously written about Hong Kong, the Kurile Islands and China.

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