The Internet and related technologies play an increasingly significant role in the development of the Caribbean.Yet, as countries in the region make necessary investments in information and communications technologies (ICTs), there is a real risk that we may be unwittingly ceding control of critical elements of our technological and intellectual security.
In so doing, we may be missing out on a significant opportunity to take a leading role in the digital economy and surrendering our place in the emerging knowledge-based society. If this trajectory is maintained, current ad-hoc, insular approaches to policy formulation, collaboration, education reform and ICT adoption can lead the Caribbean into an era of what can be termed “cyber colonisation”.
The Signs of Cyber Colonisation
If colonisation is the process of establishing control over a country by a more powerful and often distant country, then cyber colonisation can be described as subjugation of country or society by a technologically more capable country by extending the mechanisms for consumption but withholding power of creation. It is important to note, that unlike colonisation of the past, cyber colonisation is not directly imposed but rather it is being embraced, typically through ignorance, lethargy or uninformed leadership action.
The signs are already emerging around us.
* Internet penetration rates are increasing across the region, but without a commensurate increase in the creation of indigenous content or services.
* Smartphones like the BlackBerry, iPhone and Android devices are enjoying widespread popularity, but regional software developers are yet to register their mark in the burgeoning mobile economy.
* Consumers are increasingly comfortable with online shopping, but overwhelming obstacles in the financial services sector and regulatory environment make it easier to shop on Amazon.com and eBay.com than to transact with Caribbean businesses.
* Companies and Governments are planning moves to ‘cloud computing’, but the ‘clouds’ exist in North America and Europe.
* Media programming that makes it easier to find out what happens in San Francisco or New York than Dominica, Montserrat or even Tobago.
Behind these are fundamental issues such as the absence of critical Internet infrastructure like Internet exchange points; deficiencies in the regulatory environment; outdated legislation; under-informed technocrats and consumers with an increasing appetite for foreign goods, services and expertise.
These factors all point to a clear and present Caribbean crisis. However, as the Chinese proverb goes, “crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind”.
In reality, the potential to overcome these challenges and take advantage of the digital revolution exists today. What we face is more a challenge of paradigm than of technical possibility. The opportunity before us is to define and articulate a clear set of actionable priorities. These must be based on our native strengths and shaped to match our vision for development.
Emphasis on enlightened leadership
The underlying factors that currently hinder development and that, ultimately, can obviate the inevitability of cyber colonisation include enlightened leadership, coherent vision, collaborative approaches, facilitative regulation, relevant education systems, modernised policy frameworks, tailored investment systems and indigenous innovation. What is required is a combination of strategic and practical mechanisms for integrating peoples and systems through ICTs.
Therefore, if the region has to define practical solutions, leaders and citizens must first ask what kind of society are we seeking to produce, before treating with what kind of technology are needed.
Further, the promotion of systemic, evidence-based intelligence is a pre-requisite to providing an accurate context for any development roadmap and a practical tool for government policy and regulatory priorities. Together, these create new points of synergy nationally and regionally. A multifaceted approach is the only way to effectively respond to the threat of “re-colonisation”.
Riding the Dangerous Wind
Obviously, the task is neither straightforward nor is it without significant challenges. It is, however, achievable. We can define for our societies an attainable vision for a preferred future. A future characterised not by dependency, but by a strong projection of our values, identity and creative capacity.
In practical terms, this means that if we say we are after knowledge based societies, we should be able to find the evidence of this in the construct and output of the education system; the tenor and content of the media; and the policies, investments and practices in the public and private sector.
Further, if we say we are after diversification of the economy and promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship, we should be able to identify policies, procurement practices, legislation, research and initiatives that support this.
If we say we want to take our place in the digital age then we must invest and trust in our human capital. We must also build the infrastructure necessary to support and sustain our ambitions.
Whatever the scenario, the evidence should be observable and consistent with the kind of society we say we want to build.
Some other important considerations include radical indigenous innovation; deliberate movement from consumer to producer paradigms and demonstrable commitment to collaboration for collective development. This highlights the responsibility of advocacy groups, socially responsible businesses and organisations to bring awareness to critical issues. This type of advocacy and “issue-evangelism” is absolutely vital to stimulating robust and progressive public discourse.
Taking Our Place
There is prominent precedent in the developing world for such approaches. The biggest impact of countries, such as Singapore, Rwanda, India, China and Brazil is that they are offering developing countries an alternative model for economic growth and development. These countries offer present tense examples of the benefits that can be derived from independent thinking, even in the midst of a highly inter-dependent world.
However, these models are not automatically suited to our unique Caribbean context, or in fact, many other developing regions. Thus, in our enthusiasm to keep pace with the world we must never forget that an international best-practice typically emerges out of someone determining a course of action to meet a peculiar local need.
We too can offer the world “best practices”. We have proven that we can produce the brain power. Now the real test is to demonstrate that we have the mentality to go along with it. This is the mindset that must possess our citizenry — a mindset that is convinced of our authority and our capacity, and that is resolute in its commitment to taking our region forward.
So then, why Technology Matters? Because there is an emerging Caribbean epiphany that greater focus must be put on increasing education and awareness of the critical role technology plays in increasing business competitiveness, improving governance and advancing society.
More importantly, it is time for a new dialogue, at home and across the region, on how technology can be relevantly applied to indigenous challenges and indigenous solutions in the context of a rapidly mutating global economy. Beyond the dialogue, it is time for decisive action.
Bevil Wooding is an international technology strategist and the Chief Knowledge Officer at Congress WBN, a Caribbean birthed non-profit operating in over 95 countries.