Melanesian Socialism

Vanuatu’s political leaders may espouse all that is best in traditional Vanuatu values, and without a doubt many of them are committed to a course of reconciliation between formal western models of governance and the un-codified body of kastom philosophy and practice. But few have managed to express a vision as simple and as clear as Melanesian Socialism.

I think it’s high time that Vanuatu took another look at Walter Lini’s vision.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Ten years ago last week, Father Walter Hadye Lini succumbed to illness. His passing was a milestone marking the end of the first ascent of Vanuatu politics.

Walter Lini was the first – though not the only – Vanuatu politician to elaborate the unique political philosophy of Melanesian Socialism. The term, loaded as it was with unwelcome overtones for capitalist nations, was nonetheless an apt description of the conjunction of traditional Vanuatu values with progressive western politics.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography clarifies:

“There is little evidence… that he used socialism in the common sense of its meaning; rather, he was attracted by its emphasis on communal action and social responsibility, which seemed much more in tune with traditional Melanesian values.”

There isn’t a politician alive today who doesn’t pay tribute to kastom. Many of them take the role of the traditional chief to heart, integrating it into everything they do. One political observer once remarked to me that Ham Lini Vanuaroroa was the very epitome of the Pentecost chief, and though some outside commentators were quick to criticise his quiet, unassuming approach to governing, his own people wouldn’t have it any other way.

Vanuatu’s political leaders may espouse all that is best in traditional Vanuatu values, and without a doubt many of them are committed to a course of reconciliation between formal western models of governance and the un-codified body of kastom philosophy and practice. But few have managed to express a vision as simple and as clear as Melanesian Socialism.

I think it’s high time that Vanuatu took another look at Walter Lini’s vision.

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Don't Plan On It

What does this (in)famous ‘V’ Factor look like? It is the best laid plans of expats and investors going awfully awry. It’s the sum of the gecko eggs in the computer case, the centipede in the sandal and the rats in the wiring. It’s the axiom that, of a truck, some fuel and a driver, you can have any two at a time. It’s the two-day-late SMS that says, “I’m waiting. Where are you?”

It’s the always-empty service desk, police who don’t patrol, the teacher who’s later than his students, the meeting that’s always one short of quorum, but never the same one. It’s the marvelously, magically receding deadline, beckoning like the endless sunset on a westbound plane.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Recently, I’ve come across references to a phenomenon some expats have wryly termed the ‘V’ factor. Apparently there is some magic variable Vanuatu inserts into every equation that reduces our ability to calculate a sensible output to zero.

As emblematic phrases go, the ‘V’ factor ranks somewhere between Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and those inane office posters warning you that ‘you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.

Joseph Heller penned his famous novel in an attempt to characterise the crushing, often deadly banality of bureaucratic systems. His initially humourous tone peels away layer by layer until death, disappearance and the destruction of innocence leave the surviving characters with few illusions about humanity’s true nature.

Compared to this tour de force of gallows humour, a silly-looking poster tacked onto a corkboard seems innocuous, to say the least, little more than an ineffectual, protesting squeak from a mouse in a maze.

The ‘V’ factor isn’t so harmless. Rather than explain (Catch 22-style) Vanuatu’s unique environment, it substitutes dismissive hand-waving (often accompanied by another beer) for any serious desire to adapt to the reality of the situation. In essence, it’s a quick and easy way of exculpating oneself, of refusing to be implicated in the petty, small-world inefficiencies that define Vanuatu.

The ‘V’ factor is the final excuse of someone who wants into the show, but doesn’t want to pay for the ticket.

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Two If By Sea…

Vanuatu has done well by satellite in the past, and the new VSAT technologies available today are great, but we should not limit our options. Direct investment in a fibre-optic link may not be an option for the government, but it’s reached the point where private sector and institutional funding can take up the slack. Costs will be lower, megabit for megabit, than any other alternative.

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

This week, I’m going to channel the spirit Paul Revere and try to determine where the next invasion is coming from.

The invasion, of course, is the Internet, and the question is: Will we use satellite-based services to meet our needs, or an international fibre-optic cable link, or both?

First, I need to make something clear. Last week’s column looked at the fundamental issues behind financing a fibre-optic cable link to the outside world. It appears to have come across as pessimistic to some because it laid out some considerable challenges and risks.

My contention was never that fibre is a bad option. On the contrary. There are risks inherent to all projects on such a scale and I wanted to make them clear. But my point was only that the traditional role of government as underwriter or guarantor of major infrastructure projects is beyond Vanuatu’s capabilities. There’s nothing stopping us from finding other backers, though.

Last week at an ITU-sponsored conference for Pacific ministers, the World Bank presented a report on the feasibility of fibre-optic cable links throughout the region. The picture it paints is of a timely and fundamentally important opportunity for island nations, and for Vanuatu in particular.

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Again With the Micro-Payments

Rex Sorgatz posted a quick and dirty re-think of how micro-payments could be made to work in a present-day web-browsing scenario. Again, I question the premise of the problem micro-payment purports to solve.

My fundamental objection to online payment is that most people won’t pay for something of unknown value. Speaking for myself (and a few others I know), the moment a website starts putting obstacles between me and the content I want to access, it’s easier for me to move on than it is to leap whatever interface hurdles are barring my path.

That’s because:

  1. I refuse to buy something sight unseen. In the material world, I can at least take a look at the package and compare with a few competing products before I pull out my wallet. On the Web, I can’t really know whether something is worthwhile until I’ve had a look. For a bit of writing of less than 5000 words, that means I need to see most – if not all – of it before I decide what it’s worth to me. For a short video, that means all of it. (The mere idea of a trailer for a 15 minute video makes me shudder.)
  2. The whole point of micro-payment is that the amount is ‘throw-away’ money. Increments so small that we don’t even have to think about it. Forcing someone through the UI equivalent of a toll booth creates an impediment that’s out of scale with the benefit.
  3. As I mentioned before: Online payment is not really payment, it’s reward. So much comes free with the price of admission (i.e. an Internet connection) that the only way we can assess the value of content is in the context of a gift economy. Think of it as a pay-as-you-exit performance, or busking, if you like. Modulo a few stingy, poorly socialised freeloaders, anyone who really enjoyed the show will happily toss a few coins into the hat. But not before they’ve seen the show.

To sum up: It’s best to leave interface and program flow issues alone until we’ve established the proper intellectual framework. Conceptualising a rewards system generates very diffierent results than a payment system. Given that reward and payment systems are both easily circumvented, the only thing we can rely on is the visitor’s goodwill. Place a little box at the exit, allow people to click right past it if they want, and you’ll never have any complaints about access to data.

More to the point, everyone who gives, gives gladly. This is more than just a moral point. The importance of goodwill from one’s website visitors cannot be understated. Remember: karma comes first, reward later, when it comes to online success. In fact, karma is the primary reward. Cash is just a symbolic representation of the goodwill people feel toward you.

P.S. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can accept that others’ failure to give us money is not an interface failure, nor is it a failure in their judgement. For better or for worse, if people aren’t willing to give money of their free will, then the failing is ours, not theirs.

I suspect that some manifestation of the Endowment Effect underlies most efforts to control access to online content. It’s irrational in the online context, but it’s human nonetheless to say, “I worked hard to produce this. I have a right to be paid for it.

Those of us who have more or less grown up online have fewer reservations about the benefits of sharing content without precondition, and I suspect such expectations will become the norm for at least a significant subset of society before too very long.

Boom or Bust?

The economic benefits of a fiber-optic connection to the outside world cannot be overstated. But it’s got to be seen as a labour of love. The benefits to be derived from the operation of the cable itself might never be great. If it’s not managed properly, the cost of failure could be high indeed. That said, the knock-on benefits to the community are numerous.

Call center services for European customers, online education, interactive tourism resources (video feed from the Nangol, anyone?), live video lectures from universities overseas, online consultations by medical specialists, offshore financial transaction processing… the list goes on and on. All of this becomes possible if we improve our basic infrastructure.

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

We need fiber, and we need it soon.

No, I’m not talking about changing the nation’s diet. I’m talking about fiber-optic cable. Made of very long strands of glass fiber, this kind of cable has the unique ability to allow light to turn corners. This means that we can shoot tiny laser pulses into one end of it and have them emerge intact from the other end, even if it’s thousands of kilometers away.

The result? Fast, very high-capacity communications become possible. In laboratory experiments, researchers have achieved rates of up to 14 trillion bits of data per second. Current commercial implementations don’t go nearly that fast, but even a single thread of fiber a few millimeters wide can carry billions of bits every second. Just a few strands would be enough to increase Vanuatu’s total available bandwidth to a large multiple of its current capacity.

So what’s the catch? Why haven’t we invested in a fiber connection yet? Fiji has it, and so does New Caledonia. Why not Vanuatu?

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Drowning in the Bathtub

The last election was a setback for the Right. One of America’s enduring virtues is its ability to find great people in moments of great distress. It’s hard to imagine anyone more able to combat the present economic crisis that Barack Obama. But that doesn’t change the fact that, whether he succeeds or not, he’s facing a dire outcome. Even if he manages to wring concessions out of the more timid Republicans, even if he helps moderate Democrats grow a backbone, even if the stimulus succeeds, he – and the nation – are still in deep water.

I confess I’ve been more than a little surprised recently to see the ripples of shock and alarm spreading through liberal circles in the US recently. Having won an historic election, progressives somehow find it unimaginable that the Republican leopard hasn’t changed his spots.

How dare Karl Rove have the temerity to open his mouth? How dare the Rush Corps pray for failure? Can’t they see we’ve won?

The Left has won, that much is true. But all it’s won is an election, nothing more. This is not the end of the fight. Though they’ve suffered an electoral rout, many Republicans feel they are still on decent ground, and have every reason in the world to feel there’s no great need to change tactics.

For these people, a failed stimulus and subsequent economic disaster is the stuff of dreams. It’s what they’ve been working toward for decades.

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The Numbers Game

A single tidbit of information is nice to have, and useful, too. But when we can plot numerous points on a graph, we can begin discussing trends. And trend analysis is critical when we’re trying to understand long-running processes like the spread of communications throughout the islands.

It’s clear that Vanuatu is undergoing a historic change where communications are concerned. Our next steps will depend largely on how we understand the effects of our actions. Everyone in Vanuatu is best served by an environment of equal and open access to information.

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

At a public meeting recently held in Port Vila, Digicel Pacific General Counsel David Dillon estimated that Digicel and TVL combined have about 100,000 active mobile subscriptions in Vanuatu. If that number is correct – and I believe it is – it means that the number of subscriptions has increased by a stunning 400% in less than a year.

100,000. Let’s think about that for a second.

In the big cities of the world, selling 80,000 new subscriptions is a modest achievement. But here in Vanuatu, simply finding that many is a herculean feat. Extrapolating from the 2001 census numbers, we can estimate that there are roughly 55,000 people living in Port Vila and Santo today. Pick any reasonable percentage of people actually using mobile phone services, and it quickly becomes evident that reaching the reported subscription level requires pretty significant penetration into places that had never had mobile services before.

Digicel, TVL and the government of Vanuatu have achieved a truly remarkable thing. This is nothing short of a communications revolution.

Nobody doubts that the effect of opening the telecoms market is a fundamental transformation in the way Vanuatu society interacts. But it’s difficult to characterise the exact nature and scope of the impact.

It would be nice to quote statistical chapter and verse, but we don’t have enough publicly available information to do so.

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Nice Work if You Can Get It

I put all my columns and photos online simply out of a desire to communicate. The fact that I’ve been able to parlay this output into a consultancy that is earning me more now than my previous salaried position is more than a happy accident, that’s true. My web presence is my calling card. But I would publish my material online regardless. The bottom line is that I love the act of creation, and I feel gratified when people derive some value from it.

Andrew Sullivan links to a few posts about the continual struggle to make the Internet pay. Personally, I find both sides of this online payment argument silly. Neither Felix Salmon nor Seth Roberts are on the mark, and neither of them really understand what motivates people to make payments for non-material goods delivered over the Internet.

Micro-payment for Internet content is not flawed in and of itself. Like so many nice ideas, though, it has few decent exemplars at this stage of the development of the Internet.

People will find a way to manage micro-payments, and some people will profit thereby. Why? Because people are willing to reward people for their contributions. Radiohead made significant profits from the online release of their album ‘In Rainbows’. Many people paid more than the recommended minimum contribution Radiohead requested. President Obama’s online campaign was premised not on sales but on the moral argument that people should participate in the process of change. The monetary exchange in each case was symbolic; it was not payment for services rendered but reward for exemplary behaviour.

This really is the crux of the issue: Internet content is part of a gift economy, an economy of plenitude that bears a stronger resemblance to the West Coast native practice of potlatch than anything Adam Smith might have envisioned.

Simply put, people don’t pay for things on the Internet; they don’t have to. So we create content as a labour of love, and if people value it, they reward us, first with their attention, then, in certain circumstances, with their material support.

I put all my columns and photos online simply out of a desire to communicate. The fact that I’ve been able to parlay this output into a consultancy that is earning me more now than my previous salaried position is more than a happy accident, that’s true. My web presence is my calling card. But I would publish my material online regardless. The bottom line is that I love the act of creation, and I feel gratified when people derive some value from it.

Some people have recognised my expertise in my particular niche of the online world – and its applicability to their needs – and that provides enough income enough to keep me working online. Their rewards make my online work possible.

Lastly: Seth’s response is based on a false premise. The vast majority of Open Source developers are well remunerated for their efforts. This is a perfect case in point: Those who benefit from an improved environment (in this case, commoditised, easily customised software) are usually willing to reward those whose work improves it.

None of us have a well-developed understanding of how things will play out in online content creation. But we have to stop thinking about it in terms of product and sale. It’s reward for services rendered.

Two Boards and a Passion

It is this natural flair for drama, performed as directly and viscerally as any Hollywood star could ever hope to do, that sparked Smolbag’s incredible growth. For two decades now, they’ve taken on contentious and difficult topics, many of them directly confronting uncomfortable tabus. Without fail, they’ve managed to engage with people, to educate them and inspire them to action.

In light of the often intransigent, conservative nature of Vanuatu culture and society, I find their consistent success at once mystifying and inspiring.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Before William Shakespeare penned his first words, Spanish culture was ignited by a soldier, adventurer and scholar named Lope de Vega. Considered one of the great playwrights of all time, he transformed Spanish culture by creating simple character-driven plays, written for the first time in colloquial Spanish.

One of his most enduring pronouncements was that theatre consisted of nothing more than two boards and a passion. All that is required, he said, is a platform to stand on, and a script that evokes passion – in the character and in the minds of the audience.

Vanuatu’s own Wan Smolbag theatre shows us just how true this is.

In the late eighties, a young British couple arrived in Vanuatu. With nothing more than a bag of costumes and a few passionate companions, they created a revolution. What started as a dynamic troupe of players is now a national – and regional – institution, one of Vanuatu’s cultural crown jewels.

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