Town and Country

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

It’s axiomatic that in our so-called Information Society, improving communications is synonymous with improving people’s quality of life. Easier access to information is generally accepted as a good thing.

Far be it from me to gainsay the truisms that keep me in pocket money. But I do enjoy being wrong.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my time here in Vanuatu is that trends and patterns are not so universal as they sometimes seem. Things that are self-evident elsewhere in the world should not be taken for granted here. Society, geography, economy and a few dozen other differentiating factors make Vanuatu unique in important ways.

Received wisdom, even from the leading lights of development theory, often does more damage than good if it’s not leavened with a solid grounding in local conditions. And that’s why I’ve been waiting with bated breath for an upcoming report by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PiPP) on the social effects of mobile telephony in Vanuatu.

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[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.

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