Rebuilding the Nasara

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

About a month ago, I gave a talk [Powerpoint File] to telecommunications network operators from all over the Pacific region. It dealt with the social aspects of Vanuatu’s communications revolution. Many of the themes I touched on will be familiar to readers of this column.

In a nutshell, I talked about Digicel’s approach to so-called marginal markets and how they relied on Network Effects to generate traffic where there had been none before. Once you have more than a certain percentage of the population using a particular means of communication, everyone else is compelled to join them, simply because everybody is using it.

Mobile telephone services significantly enhance one – and only one – important aspect of Vanuatu culture. They enable family members and friends to stay in touch with one another much more easily than they could before. This has the effect of strengthening some of the bonds that keep small groups together. As such, it should be viewed as a positive reinforcement of many of the things that we hold dear.

But in Vanuatu society, there’s more to communication than conversations between family members. We’ve so far succeeded in re-creating the kitchen conversation by electronic means. But we have no nakamal, no nasara. We have no meeting place we can truly call our own.

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The Case for Openness

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

I’ve been an interested observer and sometime participant in the development of communications in Vanuatu for coming on five years now. In all that time, probably the most interesting phenomenon that I’ve witnessed has been the effect of openness, both within the IT community and among users of this new technology.

I’ve written about this before, of course. Here is a brief excerpt:

“Those in business and government who have traditionally worn the office of custodian of the public good will find that, while the[ir] role is not diminished, it will be shared among a great many others. To coin a tortured phrase, improved communications means that we’ll have to learn to communicate better.

“Barriers between institutions will need to come down as well. Some of them, such as interconnectivity between competing mobile phone systems, will be legislated away, but others will only fall through our collective willingness to accommodate others, to show some flexibility in the face of change, and most of all from our collective willingness to allow these new channels of communication to flow productively in both directions.”

The last 12 months of rapid change have been accompanied by mixed results in this regard. I was originally tempted to report on progress in the form of a report card, but this is neither the time nor the place for naming and shaming. The purpose here is not to embarrass. On the contrary, it’s to demonstrate how taking advantage of Vanuatu’s status as a small community is more rewarding than conventional wisdom might lead us to believe.
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The Coconut Wireless

Last week’s column introduced a broad but important topic about current trends in technology. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take some time to look in more detail about the issues of privacy and access to information. What are the current trends? How are they going to affect us here in Vanuatu? What can we do to mitigate the worst effects and maximise the best of them?

Before we go into detail, though, it’s important to establish a bit of context. We’ve already described how people often make the wrong assumptions about the level of privacy they enjoy when using computers and the Internet. But let’s look at this issue in more practical terms.

Everyone in Vanuatu knows what ‘Coconut Wireless’ means. It refers to the lively rumours that spread via word of mouth concerning anything – or anyone – of interest to people as they idle away their spare time. In small doses, it’s generally unreliable, but when information is amalgamated from numerous sources, an assiduous listener can gather a good deal of interesting (sometimes deliciously scurrilous) and surprisingly accurate information.
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