The Edge of the Web Less than a decade after the Internet began to move into the home and office, it has penetrated Europe's most remote spots--geographically (Lapland) as well as demographically (the homeless).
By Cait Murphy Reporter Associates Thomas Grose, Zsophia Kaplar-Jefferson, Ulla Plon, Jane Walker, Steve Zwick

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The Information Revolution is a bloodless one. Unlike the Russian Revolution, say, or the 19th-century industrial sort, the information revolution seems to have had few noxious side effects. But there is burgeoning concern about the "digital divide"--the idea that some people are being left behind in the settlement of cyberspace.

That is, of course, true. Richer people got online first--richer geeks first of all. They had the money and inclination to play with this fun new thing while the rest of us waited to see whether there was anything to it. But then, that is hardly surprising: New technologies have almost always found their first customers among those with disposable income--whether it be electricity or cars, the steam engine or the television, vaccines or heart transplants. What is more surprising is how quickly the Internet is spreading: There are Internet cafes in countries as remote as Bhutan, and the Web can play an outsize role even in a place like Zimbabwe, where many people have never used a phone.

Europe and America are the front-runners in cyberspace; by 2003 more than half their populations will have gone online at least once. In these places the digital divide is narrowing, thanks to cheaper service, low-cost computers, and the efforts of governments, philanthropists, employers, and parents. Staying unconnected is increasingly due to choice, not to lack of opportunity. No technology in history has spread faster than the Internet. This portfolio puts a human face on that cliche.

The cloistered, London

Steps from where 105 Catholics were martyred during the Reformation, Tyburn Convent has a rich sense of history--and possibility. The Benedictine convent went online in July 1999 (www.tyburnconvent.org); its 18 residents receive dozens of e-mails a day from people requesting their prayers. Here, three nuns watch over Website designer Luke Davies.

The homeless, Budapest

The fall of communism has been a boon to Hungarians; as a whole they are freer and more prosperous than ever before. But not everyone has made a smooth transition: Meet Braun Ferenc Laszlo, 24. Separated from his wife and two children, Laszlo is also homeless. But not hopeless. For one thing, he has his own e-mail address, thanks to a network of free Web terminals in Budapest paid for by financier George Soros. (Soros also pays half the bill at libraries that provide free access.) Laszlo uses the free Web service regularly. Having an e-mail address allows him, for example, to contact prospective employers--"It makes a good impression," he says.

On days Laszlo does not work, the Internet helps pass the time. He likes to chat online or post his poetry. Recently he was trying to track down a Bulgarian Red Cross worker he's attracted to.

Day in, day out, the Web serves the homeless in Hungary: A Website on the local portal lists the addresses of homeless shelters and cheap sleeps; available beds; even what's for breakfast.

The remote, Krasjok

Here in Lapland, in what may be Europe's northernmost village, reindeer herder and linguist John Henrik Eira (below, right) is using the Web to try to build links to other members of the Sami (Lapp) ethnic group (www.same.net). He also uses the Web to keep up with the latest reindeer news and Norwegian government notices. "The traditional media," he notes, "never carry any stories on reindeer." And when Eira has to spend a week at a time tending the herd alone in a remote cottage, a Web-enabled mobile phone keeps him connected. "The Internet is the best thing that ever happened to me in my entire working life," he says.

The elderly, Bonn

For people who remember when electric typewriters were big news, the Web can seem intimidating. Participants at the Kolfhaus Senior Center, though, are catching the wave. Ricarda Valder (at computer, above) decided to bring the Web to them and set up an Internet cafe at the Center last year. The place is a hit, thriving as, among other things, a point of renewed contact for the seniors with younger relatives. "Don't I need a stamp or something?" asks one woman as she sends an e-mail to a great-grandson. "Nein." She beams.

The small farmer, Rodney Stoke

Ask people whether they would like to buy organic food, and they say yes. But they are less willing to pay for it. Organic products are more expensive than conventional ones, a competitive disadvantage. Richard Counsell devised a way to narrow that gap--and to save his family's farm at the same time. Counsell left his banking job in 1998 to help his family cope with the aftereffects of the mad-cow-disease disaster that had devastated the British beef industry. His answer? Turn the Somerset farm into an organic operation and introduce rare breeds. Then in 1999 he set up a cooperative with nine other organic farmers in the area and took their goods online (www.somersetorganics.co.uk). Selling direct cut costs, and the co-op's vacuum-packed meats found a market. All nine farms are now profitable. Counsell says of the Internet: "It has been the salvation of these small family farms." What's next? From the friendly confines of the family's 500-year-old home, Counsell plans to expand the co-op. And he's about to introduce ready-made organic meals for urban slugs who want to heat and run.

The town criers, Crevillent

Though the town of Crevillent is less than 20 miles from the crowds and glitz of the Costa Blanca, the outside world can seem far away indeed. Many of the 25,000 residents like it that way. At the same time, however, the town has felt the lack of connection, even with itself: There is no local radio or newspaper.

Josep Manuel Martinez, a professor at nearby Alicante University, and his wife, Trini Mora, saw the need and decided to fill it. Last year they created a Web page (www.crevillent-digital.com) that serves as the Spanish town's radio, newspaper, noticeboard, and complaints bureau combined. The service is in Valenciano, the local dialect; residents can access the page for details of upcoming events, send in opinions, ask for advice, and learn about local history and traditions. It gets about 50 hits a day.

The outsiders, Jena

Viraj Mendis (center) knows how difficult it is to be an outsider: He is one, coming to Germany in 1990 with his British wife after being forced out of Sri Lanka.

After Germany reunified, Mendis felt that the atmosphere for refugees was deteriorating and struggled to find an outlet for his concern. Then came the Internet. His Website (www.humanrights.de) has notices about deportations, demonstrations, and legislation, and political updates from places like Nigeria and Iran. Oh, and the occasional interview from the Revolutionary Worker. "We get information from the countries we flee from and use the Internet to communicate the harsh realities," Mendis says.

Mendis, who works on the site full-time, concedes that it has not been all that successful in organizing refugees in Germany, noting that they often lack access to computers and the training to use them. But the Website does at least get his message out: "The Internet is an equalizing factor. Unfortunately, it is the only equalizing factor."

REPORTER ASSOCIATES Thomas Grose, Zsophia Kaplar-Jefferson, Ulla Plon, Jane Walker, Steve Zwick