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.

If you plot the rise of mobile telephone use in Vanuatu since the inception of the service, you’ll note that at first it started very slowly. Phones and SIM cards were expensive, which meant that only the richest could afford to use them. But prices reached a level attainable by the average wage-earner, uptake was huge. In the course of a few short years, GSM services became the single largest source of revenue for TVL, who reportedly had over 20,000 subscribers as of mid-2007.

Digicel’s arrival this year has only accelerated and expanded the process. Neither Digicel nor TVL will release sales figures or call volumes, but since they launched their service, Digicel has so far exceeded its own expectations that it’s currently out of stock on many telephone models.

The appeal of mobile telephony in the islands is immediate and compelling. Recent discussion on the VIGNET mailing list highlighted a few interesting anecdotes. People everywhere can’t bear to be separated from their mobile phones. They take them fishing, to the garden, everywhere they go. At this week’s Independence festivities in Freswota, the fastest selling item in every store I canvassed was phone credit.

So what does this mean in terms of Vanuatu society? There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the potential for negative effects. Many people with a stake in building communications capacity in Vanuatu privately confide that they’re nervous about a vast tidal wave of information spilling into Vanuatu from the outside world. What will happen to language, kastom and culture? Will our youngest generation throw over tradition, trading in string band music for the latest hip-hop ringtones?

To a certain, admittedly limited degree, mobile telephone services are immune to that kind of thing. Their initial value lies, as I mentioned, in one-to-one communication. The very same kind of communication that ni-Vanuatu have so enjoyed, in the kitchen while grating coconut for laplap, on the road to and from the garden, under a shade tree on a long afternoon, over a shell or two of kava in the evening.

This reflects an integral part of everybody’s life: The casual, constant contact that keeps families intact.

But mobile phones don’t easily allow another equally important aspect of communication in Vanuatu society: There is no virtual equivalent of the communal space. There is, in effect, no nasara, nowhere for the village to come together and consider matters of import to them all.

This has one extremely important effect. I’ve written before about the Coconut Wireless, the informal network of gossip and rumour that has historically provided a remarkably effective and versatile means of disseminating news of all kinds:

“[Coconut Wireless] 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.”

Mobile telephony has given us part of that. It’s given us better, more convenient access to some sources of our daily dose of hearsay. But it doesn’t give us everything. It limits the number of sources we can readily access. This means that there are fewer opportunities to correlate – and mitigate – much of the information reaching us.

Take for example the furore that arose a few years ago concerning the planned visit to Vanuatu of the reverend Sun Myung Moon. Families were divided over whether he should be allowed in, some supporting him, others threatening that it was their sacred duty to assassinate him, should he arrive, because rumour had it that he was a false prophet, possibly even the Antichrist.

Imagine how SMS and mobile telephone conversations could further exacerbate what was already a tense situation.

Conversely, it also provides the opportunity for individuals to become known to a larger proportion of society than ever before. It’s conceivable that the Coconut Wireless’ newfound spread might give us our very first truly national political figure since Father Walter Lini. Depending on the individual, this might be a very good thing indeed. Or not.

The Coconut Wireless becomes dangerous when it’s not leavened with verifiably correct public information. The Internet can provide this. Its very nature gives us back the many-to-one and one-to-many communications that typified the village nasara, where everyone could gather, offers their views directly to the community as a whole, and listen as well to the guidance offered by their chiefs and elders.

Next-generation mobile technology, including GPRS and WiMax wireless Internet services, will provide some mobile phone owners with access to this resource. Projects like One Laptop per Child and the small satellite stations being tested by the government as part of the Pacific RICS project will also fill in critical parts of the puzzle.

But they do so at a price. The Internet is not Vanuatu’s alone. The nasara we are entering is extends across the globe, even to places that many ni-Vanuatu will find foreign and possibly repulsive. Unless steps are taken to positively reinforce Vanuatu culture online, we run the risk of bringing up a generation who consider kastom to be nothing more than a collection of ramblings told by their bubus around the fire.

Vanuatu has invested wisely in its material infrastructure. But even when the last cable is plugged in, the job is not nearly finished. Vanuatu’s cultural infrastructure needs to be enhanced as well. This requires that young and old alike cooperate to translate the best elements of Vanuatu society into this new medium.

Make no mistake: This worldwide cultural nasara already exists. It is up to us to determine how our children enter it, and what they see and hear when they get there.