[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
Let me be frank: Vanuatu is, in most ways, a backwater when it comes to technology. There’s no point sugar-coating it. We’re limited by numerous factors, some of them environmental and institutional, but the biggest problem we face is one of perception and imagination.
One of the most difficult aspects of high tech is that it’s intangible and therefore difficult to visualise. It’s everywhere around us, but when you ask the average person to explain what it does or how it works, they’d just give you a perplexed look and move on. We see the icons on the screen, and we know that with the proper incantation they can be made to do certain tasks, but we never really see it working.
A car motor may be incomprehensible to most, but at least it’s visible. We can watch the fan belt spinning and the drive train turning, we can hear if the engine coughs or sputters, we can see the exhaust and tell at a glance if something’s wrong.
Things aren’t quite so clear in high tech. Sure, it’s easy to see when the computer slows down, or when a sheet of paper gets stuck halfway through the printer. But consider this: most of us aren’t even aware that we’re interacting with high technology almost all of the time. We don’t think about the radio, the cash register, the DVD player, the bank machine or the mobile phone as different heads on a ratchet set. But that’s effectively what they are: interchangeable cogs in the same notional machine.
All of these seemingly passive devices can be made to interact in complex and interesting ways. For example, there’s no reason why you couldn’t mute your mobile phone while you’re watching a movie, and instead configure the DVD player to make a few on-screen pixels flash when a call comes in. For bonus points, you could automatically pause the movie when you answer.
It’s not as difficult or as clever as it sounds. The only reason nobody’s done it yet is a lack of imagination.
We’re not at all unique in this regard. The fact of the matter is that, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates included, most of the world interacts with automated systems without giving any of them a second thought.
Here in Vanuatu though, we’re handicapped by numbers. In the USA, if only one person in a hundred thousand spends time thinking up innovative ways to use technology, there’s still a community of three thousand people working on the issue. That’s enough people to fill a good-sized convention centre.
In Vanuatu, however, if only one person in a hundred thousand is working on a particular issue, we’d have two.
Some people will read that as a justification to avoid any home-grown innovation. If just one person working on this takes a sick day, our workforce drops by 50%. Heaven help us if they want to take a vacation. That may sound a little glib, but it’s true. There are a number of critical technical services with only one qualified maintainer in the country.
That liability is not going to go away, but there are ways to mitigate it. First, though, we need to understand a few things about human nature.
Social scientists have identified a phenomenon they call the Endowment Effect. It refers to a tendency among all human beings to value what they have over what they could have, without regard to the actual relative value of the two things. A recent article in The Economist magazine relates how this manifests itself in business, economics and politics.
One aspect of this behaviour is known as Loss Aversion. Briefly stated, Loss Aversion refers to the tendency for people strongly to prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains. It leads to a sense of complacency and unwillingness to consider new alternatives. Worse, in small communities like Vanuatu the sense of ownership some people have over their particular bailiwick is reinforced by what’s wryly termed Job Security. Someone who’s the only expert on a particular subject can inflate their own value and importance by ensuring that nobody else develops expertise in that area.
This creates any number of disincentives for people who want to explore new avenues and approaches. Simple requests for information or cooperation lead to suspicion, territorial disputes and sometimes outright obstruction. While it’s true that we need to be circumspect about wasting limited resources on fruitless pursuits, we benefit more from sharing the wealth, as it were, than by hoarding it.
Ending the telecommunications monopoly is an object lesson: Our innate tendency to overvalue what we have can be mitigated by changing the perception of ownership. When it’s clear that we are stewards of a resource rather than its owner, we act differently. By creating an environment wherein competition and cooperation are balanced, we’ve created radical change in our communications capability. In this particular case, it’s hard to see any downside at all.
But this is only the beginning. Soon we’ll be seeing electronic telephone credit transfer. This creates a low-cost, effective means of transferring wealth from town to village and vice versa. GPRS services will make Internet access available to phones with the right capabilities. Using a service like this, the Tanna chiefs in the Prince Philip cult could stay in constant email contact with their prophet.
There is so much we can achieve on an open and transparent communications platform. All we need to do is put the Endowment Effect and Loss Aversion into proper context. Yes, the things we own have value, and we should by all means protect them from legitimate threats. But adding value to a community-held resource should never be perceived as a threat.
Business managers, politicians and expert professionals need to re-evaluate what exactly is theirs and what is not. Turf wars, so-called job security and exclusive buddy-buddy deals have no place in the management of our core infrastructure.
I recently gave a talk to telecommunications providers from across the South Pacific region. It centered on the contention that building out communications affects – and profits – everyone. Smart telcos, I said, feed the network first, then themselves. By treating their network as a neutral communications platform, they enrich everyone, thereby increasing its use and enriching themselves.
Anything – or anyone – that feeds the network is good for the network, no matter the source. What’s good for the network is good for all the carriers. If we can see beyond our innate aversion to imaginary loss and develop a new understanding of what we really own, we can achieve great things even with the few resources we have at hand.