Our Greatest Wealth

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

Being rich is having money. Being wealthy is having time.

Vanuatu is rich in time, if little else. Everywhere you look, you’ll see people loitering, chatting, sitting together, wiling away the hours.

Doug Patterson’s Kranke Kona cartoon contrasts the Vanuatu way with the outside world’s hurry-up approach to life brilliantly: Two amiable men, sitting under the coconut tree, see an expat scurrying by, briefcase in hand, mobile phone pressed to his ear. They ask him why he’s in such a rush. He replies that if he works without respite every day, some day he’ll be able to slow down and enjoy life.

I sympathise more with the two brothers under the tree than I do with the expat. But the real humour lies in the juxtaposition. As enamoured as we all are with having the time to do things well, time is, nonetheless, a finite resource. And while it’s easy to say that time is money, we need to ensure that we don’t focus too much on its price and not enough on its value.

Over the next few years, computers are going to integrate themselves into the lives of ordinary ni-Vanuatu. Already it’s getting harder to find work without having computer skills.

A number of recent developments have moved us closer to having computers in the home than ever before. Cost reductions in broadband Internet combined with the availability of more robust, low-power computers are finally putting everyday Internet within reach of at least 30% of population of Vanuatu. And things are only going to get better from here.

TVL’s recent Internet cost reductions are a pre-emptive response to the government’s announcement not so long ago that the telecommunications licensing regime is being reviewed. The government’s intention is to simplify the process and to encourage competition in all areas of telecommunications, but especially where Internet services are concerned.

The idea is simple enough. Rather than running periodic beauty contests – which is how the liberalisation of the mobile phone market was handled – they’ll simply set some basic criteria, and any company who passes the bar will be issued a license. They will be subject, of course, to ongoing scrutiny by the Telecoms Regulator.

As they did with mobile services, Telecom has seen the light and is committed to compete in the marketplace, rather than in the courtroom. They have pride of place, and this gives them the opportunity to set the tone for the new market. They’ve done it decisively, chopping prices right across the board and broadening their base significantly through their wireless WiMax service.

Expect prices to drop even further when Digicel and other newcomers try to carve out a niche for themselves.

You can now get broadband service at prices that are more affordable than ever before. The basic monthly fee is still steep by local standards, but could easily be supported if it were shared between a few families by attaching a wireless access point to the Telecom device, for example.

In order for Internet to be useful, though, people need computers of their own. More to the point, they need computers that aren’t too expensive to own. This means that not only does the purchase price need to come down, but power consumption and reliability need to improve as well.

Happily, such devices exist. Local families can avail themselves of a number of options. First off, standard computer systems across the board are becoming less expensive, and advances in laptop technology are making themselves felt in desktop computers, too. One can buy a decent quality energy-efficient desktop system these days for significantly less than 100,000 vatu.

Still too rich for you? Consider the latest offering from computer maker Asus. Called the Eee PC, this desktop retails for between 60-80,000 vatu. It requires very little power to operate.

Their laptop version will soon be available locally. It can run a full day on a single charge. The screen and keyboard are tiny, but that makes it perfect for children. It’s also a fair bit stronger and less likely to break down than ordinary laptops, because it doesn’t have any moving parts.

I’ve written several times before about the One Laptop Per Child project. It’s spreading throughout the Pacific now, through the cooperation of the SPC and national governments and NGOs. The first few dozen units have already arrived in Vanuatu, and are being evaluated by Wan Smolbag Theatre.

The Ministry of Education is also embarking on a pilot project to test these robust, low-power laptops in two schools. Further investment and development will be contingent on how they perform in the field.

One of the interesting side-effects of the revolution in mobile telephone services is how they’ve been integrated into that uniquely Vanuatu fashion of idling away the time. I see youth everywhere sitting alone or in small groups, plugging away at their mobile’s keypad.

Some may see this as wastrel behaviour, ‘SPR[*] nomo’ as people like to say. I disagree. Playing games on a mobile phone engages the mind and the imagination in new and interesting ways. And given the increasing sophistication of these devices, there’s actually a lot of learning to be had. More and more these days, the distinction between laptop computer and mobile phone is vanishing. Apple’s iPhone, for example, is a full-fledged computing device that happens to fit into a shirt pocket.

I look forward to the day when youth throughout the nation have the opportunity to while away the hours sitting together under the nambanga, heads clustered around a computer screen.

This isn’t unambiguously good. As we integrate these new influences into our lives, we’ll also be confronted with a lot of material that’s foreign – and sometimes quite offensive – to our conception of how the world should be.

Civil society and government will have a necessary and important role to play in helping to ensure that our children’s time is ‘wasted’ as constructively as possible. It’s encouraging to see them already taking the lead.

But we don’t have to send our kids to school to learn how to use a computer. All we need to do is to give them access to one, and time enough to explore.

I’m of an age to remember when the pupils were the only ones who really knew how the computer systems worked. It was a time when ‘hacking’ was a positive term, and those happy few who had access to their systems became the people who have driven this whole technological revolution.

In my experience – and I have applied this method countless times – all you need to do is identify the bright, curious ones and give them time in front of the keyboard. The rest takes care of itself. A cultural effect sets in, in which bragging rights go to the most innovative, and the whole process takes on its own momentum. Every single one of my apprentices (only one of whom had any tertiary education) has gainful employment in IT.

Courses are all well and good. They serve a definite purpose. Teacher training serves an important role, too. But what we need most of all is that which we’re richest in: Time.

Let’s invest Vanuatu’s most abundant resource into its most valuable asset, and give all of our children time to explore their world inside their very own computer screen.

[*] SPR stands for ‘Spearem Pablik Road’ – a jocular reference in Bislama to someone who does nothing but wander around the main road, waiting for something to happen.