- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

I recently talked to American expatriates around Guadalajara, Mexico. An interesting bunch. They are Internet junkies. Years ago, before the Net, I was briefly in the same towns. Then, virtually everything was difficult and you lived in almost complete isolation. Now the world is their hard drive.

It’s not one use of the Internet that changes everything. It’s the aggregate effect.

Used to be, moving to Mexico (or Thailand, Manila or Kuala Lumpur) meant losing all but a few friends, whom you might never see again. Communication with the larger world meant static-ridden, fade-prone short wave. Newspapers in English usually weren’t available. You were truly isolated.

Today, expatriation is merely geographic. Mexico swims in Internet cafes. Reasonably good dial-up service is available as a matter of course, and tolerable broadband (e.g., 256 kbps) is to be had in many places. In little pueblos in the mountains with horses clopping by, e-mail arrives fine.

Expats use instant messaging regularly to keep in touch with people all over the world. Slightly tech-savvy folk talk by computer to the United States with Internet phone services like Yahoo Messenger. The quality is only so-so, but it works and it’s free.

Partly what makes this possible is that the Internet has become self-sufficient. If you want to use, say, ACDSee photo-management software, you download it from the Web, now easy to do, and charge it to a credit card, also easy. In a few minutes, you are up and running. No checks, packages, delivery problems.

Expats usually say they maintain a bank account and credit card in the United States. Shifting funds, running a stock portfolio and paying bills takes minutes. I met a fellow who, living in Chapala, Mexico, with a bank account in Houston, makes his living by trading currencies in Asia and Europe.

If you think about it, that’s nuttier than several fruitcakes.

Among the dispersed, laptops are the platform of choice. Most come with CD burners. People download music from the Net, burn copies for friends, pass around burns of commercial CDs and software. Arguably, this is immoral. Inarguably, it is part of expat life. The external speakers available for computers are surprisingly good. So are headphones.

Now that DVD burners have come on stream, people will download movies, make copies and pass them around. And most laptops (certainly most owned by expats) have DVD players. With the right video card, you can run the output to a television.

All of this is old and boring technology, meaning that it has been around for at least three weeks. But it is truly wild to be in Mexico, chatting with a friend in Bangkok, while the burros yell eeee-honk outside.

Of course, every publication known is online. In Washington, this is a part of life, like robbery and corruption. In little towns in the Third World, it’s just amazing. People read obscure hometown papers, or papers in London and New Delhi if they choose.

Also on line are thousands of radio stations around the world. If you like Rush Limbaugh, you can listen to him static-free from Jalisco as easily as from Fairfax.

Americans got used to the new electronic life in about a month. But abroad, it’s a whole ‘nother thing.

I met a woman who does Web-site design and maintenance for companies in the United States. All she needs is a good laptop, a fast Internet connection, and the password for the site she maintains.

Digital cameras, of course, make it easy to send photos to the family back home.

Expatriates seem to be moving their lives onto the Net. The ones around Guadalajara drive the move to broadband, use the laptop for intellectual and remote social life, and thrive. It’s wild.

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