Museum displays human side of the Internet

WASHINGTON (AP) — An autistic child. Rebels in a Mexican jungle hideout. A chimpanzee behind red bars. A monk in an Egyptian desert. A writer in a bathtub.
Seemingly random images, they’re actually linked, on the Internet and in a Smithsonian exhibit that documents “24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave.”
The photographs seek to capture the human face of the online world and the way it affects people’s lives.
“The photographs show that cyberspace is now a marketplace, a battleground, a house of prayer, a secret retreat. It is a place where we meet, and to which we venture alone,” says a note at the exhibit.
The exhibit, displayed through April at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, features the work of more than 150 photographers who fanned out around the globe one year ago Saturday to document a day in the life of the Internet. The images became a series of linked World Wide Web pages, their subjects united by the impact the Internet has had on their lives.
The display highlights different themes: Human Touch, Open for Business, Earthwatch, Into the Light, To the Rescue. A striking feature is how little the computer is depicted in the photographs.
“It really makes the point that it’s not just a world of geeks and computer nerds any more,” said David Allison, chairman of the museum’s division of information technology and society.
“The people who are not into the technology probably don’t have a good appreciation of the wide range of uses the Internet has,” he said. “For those engaged in it, the exhibit allows them to see themselves in a different way, that it is not just a world of screens and keyboards.”
Rick Smolan, a project director, said the exhibit shows a lot of people are around “who now can reach out through these little tiny wires and find other people who are trying to solve the same problems, who care about the same things.”
Take the picture of Annapolis, Md., resident Barry Conner, seated on a toilet, his arms around his 11-year-old son Brent. Next to it is a photograph of Carolyn Baird, a mother in Newcastle, Australia, with her head on the shoulder of a young man.
The images alone could be mere portraits of familial affection. But there is more.
It was the first hug between Connor and his son, who is autistic. Without child care, the Connors cannot attend local support groups. They discovered an on-line mailing list about autism hosted by Baird, who has four autistic children.
“It’s a tremendous support,” Connor said.
A photograph of a masked Zapatista rebel smoking a pipe beside one depicting a woman breast-feeding her child tell how Mexico’s guerrillas use their Web site, Ya Basta — Enough Already — from their jungle hideout to get their message to the outside.
An urgent online call for medical assistance brought hundreds of offers of help within hours.
In San Antonio, Texas, the computer saved the lives of eight chimpanzees slated for medical tests that would have killed them. With the help of a modem, animal rights activist Carilyn Bucher took their cause to the World Wide Web and within weeks raised the $126,000 needed to save them.
Joseph O’Dell, on death row for a murder he claims he didn’t commit, calls cyberspace “the court of last resort.” Using a Web page created by Boston law student Lori Urs, he is lobbying for a new trial.
As part of Odyssey in Egypt, a 10-week online archaeology project, students in Grand Haven, Mich., work alongside archaeologists excavating a fourth-century Coptic monastery at Wadi Natrun in the Egyptian desert.
Archaeologists send images of their discoveries on-line; students make replicas. At the same time, the students receive e-mails from a monk who lives near the site.