Published August 1996
Setting up a web site for the arts in rural Ireland
No matter how organised, imaginative and idealistic you may be, it seems there are always stumbling blocks to realising the simplest of dreams. There is a curious mentality which gets the grants, convinces the money folk, persuades the backers - this does not describe me, unfortunately. An inherited snobbery, perhaps, causes me to distance myself from the tedious demands of form-filling and small-minded, cautious penny pinchers. What masterpieces would Da Vinci have produced if he had spent his days producing business proposals? James Joyce's "Ulysses" would hardly have seen the light of day if the author had been constrained by feasibility studies. While I may not aspire to these levels of excellence, I subscribe to the view that creative endeavour has an intrinsic value that often suffers from too close an eye to the market economy.
As a returned immigrant, I chose to live in rural County Cork, relying on considerable experience of the ways and means of publishing, and the potential for remote working presented by modern technology. That was my first mistake. Technology there may be - getting your hands on it is another matter, and making it work for you is yet another hurdle.
Despite the fact that the warehouses of the world are full of mouldering Apple Macintosh computers, a seeming conspiracy prevails against the small purchaser. On my first shopping spree I went, armed with necessary financial arrangements, to a dealer or, in the euphemistic language of Mac world, an Authorised Apple Reseller.
Delivery took a couple of weeks, even though Cork is the European assembly centre for Macintosh computers. I tried to load lots of goodies from floppy disks - the disk drive didn't work! Many phone calls and a couple of afternoon long trips to the reseller, found me with a replacement computer.
Paper publishing was the game and I began to tout for business. Very soon the shoe string budget had to stretch to a fax/modem, as the nearest accessible fax machine was some miles away. These things cost a lot more here than in the USA - a 14,400 model costing me over $500. I was delighted with the immediacy of communication, despite the fact that most fax machines I was dealing with seemed to be of the hand-cranked variety.
Electricity supply in Ireland is in the hands of a monopoly, whose high-quality engineers are regularly on contract outside the country, while local supply is left in the hands of an ageing and top-heavy management. We have a notoriously dirty power supply, a situation exacerbated in rural areas by sharing lines with large farms, with regular drops and surges at milking times. A few weeks after the fax/modem arrived, down it went in a power surge, Act of God (what a helpful guy!) and we're back where we started.
Thanks to a Taurean streak of stubborness, I persisted in the face of this setback and things progressed on a one step forward, two steps backwards pace. The first major project was a fortnightly, tabloid newspaper that carried arts, literature, technology, environment and entertainment features, and comprehensive listings of music and other events.
Distributed free we developed great reader loyalty, but advertisers, our sole source of income, were slow to depart from safe (some might say boring) media. We poured every penny and ounce of energy into the project for almost a year and a half, always with the carrot of acceptance by advertisers just around the corner. The money got tighter, the advertisers remained, largely, intransigent, so we abandoned the exercise and turned our attention to the world wide web.
In the meantime, due to a small smile of fortune in the guise of a modest legacy, I upgraded equipment, adding a power macintosh, 600dpi printer a scanner to the hardware spec. The Authorised Apple Reseller couldn't arrange print samples, despite regular reminders, over a three month period. I approached an unauthorised wheeler dealer, who promised the earth and delivered computer minus ram upgrade, a hard disk weighed down with unsolicited games, extensions and unwanted clutter, corrupt scanner software and a delay on the printer. Various hiccups but the Taurean streak came to my aid again, and we got operational.
Hooking up to a service provider was easy, getting what you want from them is another story! There is fierce competition among service providers in Ireland at present and I opted for a company that offered free service until the end of the year for the payment of a small set-up fee. Enter my partner, Kevin, who had entered the world of publishing with little experience but great enthusiasm. Having mastered the niceties of cut and paste artwork and preparing photographs for the smudgy, murky world of cheap printing techniques, he was finally realising his dream of dragging us into the 1990s and a global medium. He had a little programming experience and took to the keyboard to self-learn HTML
In the meantime my education was more concerned with unlearning all of the wonderful capabilities and typographical refinements of Quark Xpress, returning to the far cruder capabilities afforded by HTML. We browsed, downloaded guides and tutorials, bookmarked, sent some email and prepared for lift off.
The few web sites based locally had virtually closed the door to advertising revenue - a curious misapprehension prevails that to advertise on the web is a one off exercise - matters such as reach, penetration and relevance haven't emerged yet. The content of these sites focused on selling Cork as a tourism destination, portraying a conventional image of 'leprechaun' Ireland.
We designed a format based on the LIST, our abandoned newspaper, focusing on the cultural wave that is surging through Ireland at present, but not ignoring some of the more obvious barriers to our emerging 'Age of Enlightenment'. Rather than seeking to fund our site through advertising, we looked to direct marketing of quality goods that are being produced in the area.
In the midst of a cultural renaissance, every bush and hill hides a creative talent, beavering away at making things, doing things. Many of these artists, writers and musicians produce extremely desirable material, but the local economy cannot sustain them. Most cannot afford to market themselves beyond the locality, where their unique vision and output is more likely to find a market. The internet is a cheap medium and we embarked on a plan to offer free access to suppliers, working on a commission basis on orders received.
A simple idea, works well for everyone, you say. Not so. More hurdles. The international banking community is no great lover of innovation, and credit card suppliers here are cautious about entering into financial agreements with us when we aren't putting major investment into stock. While home shopping may be a young child in North America, it hasn't even reached the stage of infancy here.
An Irish solution to an Irish problem emerged (i.e. work around things rather than taking them on), and we are now negotiating Associate Gallery and Store Membership for outlets with existing mail order facilities. It may not be the ideal solution - the works of the small craftworker or the self-published author can only be paid for by cheque - but it will get us up and running and, who knows, with a trading track record, the financial institutions may be more considerate to our proposals.
We prepared some test material and contacted our service provider to arrange FTP access. Despite three phone calls over a period of two weeks, when we came to launch time, the server didn't recognise us. Why? Because the webteam, who don't work on weekends, hadn't made the necessary arrangements. Spending an entire weekend on the phone to technical support, who were frequently one page ahead of us in the manual, we got our access and up we went. With a most peculiar URL address, and the discovery that two servers were in operation and we were being shunted over to the 'B server'.
This couldn't be rectified until the webteam came in on Monday. Transfer to the 'A server', which allows easier accessibility, required payment of regular fees - so much for a free service - so the cheque was paid and the order form faxed with instructions to complete necessary transfer arrangements prior to the weekend. You'll never guess, come Saturday, what do we find? The web team has gone home and the arrangements haven't been made. Here we are on Tuesday, our access is now arranged, but we can't afford to launch the site proper until the weekend.
The final, and least surmountable hurdle, is telecom charges. Living in the land of free local calls, and fast, efficient telephone lines, the scenario that exists here is, perhaps, unimaginable. Because Ireland upgraded its telecommunications so late our technology is world class, our engineers are among the best in the world. But the telecom providers are another monopoly, although European legislation is set to change this in the next few years. Like the electricity providers, the management hasn't moved forward, still operating on the basis of turning the handle, picking up the headset and waiting for the operator to answer.
Although I am less than 5 miles from Cork City local zone, I pay trunk rates to call there. Off peak charges, on weekdays, see me paying almost 10 times as much to call my service provider as people living in Cork. A cybercafe in Cork can offer commercial access to the internet cheaper than I can receive it. Only at weekends do rates fall sufficiently to allow me to go online for longer than the momentary sprints I make to collect and post email.
I contacted Telecom to see if I could negotiate reductions - it took three days to get a number for customer relations and I may as well not have bothered. Billing analyses have encouraged various employees to sympathise with my situation, recognising the anomalies, but not offering any resolution.
I emailed every politician I could find online - most of my post was returned, undelivered, something about sites being upgraded! The one response I got was from a member of the Green Party who sympathised but, basically, it's none of his business. We are due a general election here next year and I am now pinning my hopes on it becoming a platform issue - a long shot but the best I can hope for. In the meantime there are reports of frightening population shifts of businesses moving back into overcrowded cities in an effort to overcome the commercial imbalance created by telecom charges.
In the light of the bumps and ruts on the road to the superhighway, it is sometimes all too easy to lose sight of the goal. The buzz of getting pages up first day, only to realise that few, if any, would ever find them. The buckets of stories, information, ideas just waiting to be aired, only to find online time bogged down with server inadequacy. If we can survive long enough to streamline and overcome the difficulties it will be such fun and so rewarding to carry discussion of how we live, and why, to an infinite forum.
The most real concerns of people, the issues of quality of life, are global as much as parochial, and I believe we can all learn from other communities. The World Wide Web has the potential to empower and transform the lives of the meek, the humble, the disenfranchised and we will persist in our efforts to participate in that transformation.
Published in Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - August 5, 1996.