Global Village or Digital Island?

A mother shows her daughter how to textElectronic media have been with us for a couple of lifetimes now, and many of the lessons that once seemed revolutionary, even world-changing, have been reduced to mundane platitudes. Here in Vanuatu, however, we would do well to relearn them. A new report from the Pacific Institute of Public Policy gives us that opportunity.

Marshall McLuhan’s rise to prominence as a cultural icon parallels that of television. Today, just like television, he is as widely lionised as he is misunderstood. Like credulous children, we toss around the terms he minted without a moment’s reflection. ‘The media’ has become a shibboleth for corporate commentary on the events of the day, filtered arbitrarily through a lens that sees no further than the next ratings cycle.

McLuhan saw this trend and feared it. Contrary to popular belief, his famous image of a global village was a pessimistic, almost despairing vision. A flickering television screen replaced the campfire at the centre of the human experience, but those huddled around it, seeking meaning in its seductive gaze, were as brutish and unreflective as he imagined early man to be.

It’s a shame he wasn’t around to see the how the rise of personal communications has subverted this dark vision. A new PiPP report, “Social and economic impact of introducing telecommunications throughout Vanuatu”, demonstrates unambiguously that access to personal communications has the power to change lives.

McLuhan’s dark metaphor was wrong in one critical regard: The people sitting around the village campfire are not nearly the simpletons he imagined them to be. Dozens of case studies in the PiPP report demonstrate that even in a world with only the most rudimentary technology, people show ingenuity, perspicacity and intelligence. Given access to mobile telecommunications, they grasp the initiative, improving their lives in almost every way.

The personal stories appearing in ‘Social Impacts…‘ provide striking contrasts between a world bereft of the amenities taken for granted in the developed world and the immediacy of electronic communications. Before the advent of mobile telephony, a process as simple as ordering goods for a village shop involved days of effort and weeks of waiting. Just making a phone call often required long treks over difficult terrain and prohibitively high costs.

The report offers numerous examples of the inordinate lengths that rural merchants go to just to keep stock on their shelves, putting paid (one hopes) to the stereotype of the indolent islander waiting patiently for the cargo to come. If it serves no other purpose, it is invaluable for this insight alone.

But there is a great deal more to it than that. The image it conjures up is not so much of new entrants to the Global Village as of residents of Digital Islands: While communication has improved –and social and economic well-being along with it– the distance from one island to the next has diminished only slightly.

Mobile telephony in and of itself is a boon in most regards, but without complementary infrastructure and services, it is of limited value.

It’s not even clear how our new telecoms infrastructure can be further leveraged to bootstrap access to the Internet. Digicel’s Mobile Internet fees put the service out of reach of the overwhelming majority of its customers, and TVL is simply absent from the field.

Furthermore, lack of access to electricity forces rural residents to spend as much charging their mobile phones’ battery as they do on credit. If they can’t keep even a mobile phone running cheaply, what hope have they of running a computer?

The PiPP report recounts the story of Simon, a lobster salesman based in Ipota on Erromango island. Before Digicel’s appearance on the island, he was forced to rely on the teleradio at the local airport, making delivery of his highly perishable stock extremely difficult. He now relies almost exclusively on his mobile phone to conduct his business. But limited coverage in his area means that he has to ride 9 km on horseback to get reliable service.

The image of a man riding his horse across Erromango’s rugged jungle trails to place a call on his mobile phone says it all. The telecoms market liberalisation strategy represents an historic policy win for the Government of Vanuatu, but unless it’s treated as a first step of a much more comprehensive development strategy, its value will be significantly diluted.

Dozens of stories like Simon’s are peppered throughout ‘Social Impacts…‘, each as illuminating as his. Their lesson is consistently the same: Improvements in transport, access to credit and secondary infrastructure are all necessary if we want to see further improvement in household outcomes in next year’s report.

Another concern raised by the report is the impact on kastom and culture as the immediacy of personal communication provides new channels for information, insight and guidance. While some of them are undeniably positive –women, for example, are making extensive use of mobile telephony to sustain and strengthen their social networks, improving their safety and access to information– these changes present new and largely unacknowledged sources of conflict with kastom’s inherent conservatism.

This year’s survey was nearly an order of magnitude larger than the inaugural report, which was conducted only weeks after Digicel’s initial roll-out. A total of over 900 participants were interviewed this year. The resulting dataset is a goldmine of demographic and economic intelligence whose import extends well beyond the primary focus of the report.

Social Impacts…’ should be read by more than just researchers and policy wonks. Anyone with even a passing interest in development, Vanuatu culture and its leap from a largely unchanged 3000-year-old agrarian culture into the Information Age will find it a fascinating document. Its 140-odd pages are replete with fascinating insights into social phenomena affecting the entire Pacific, indeed much of the developing world.

Comprehensive research reports into the dynamics of Vanuatu society are few and far between. Rarely are they presented in such a concise and approachable format. The report is available from