Appropriate Technology – Take Two

We need to take steps to improve access to information, learning and communications for all ni-Vanuatu. The steps we’ve taken so far are necessary, but not sufficient. We need to do more. And in the absence of a coordinated national strategy, we should take small steps like this simply because we can.

The cost of failure is measurable, and probably low. Maybe there won’t be a huge surge of new employment; maybe it won’t help local small business people as much as we like. If it doesn’t work, though, at least they won’t suffer for the mistake.

Though we can’t really know exactly what the value is on the upside, we can all agree that if it does work, it will benefit people in countless small ways: expediting business, enabling both formal and informal political, social, religious and community networks, encouraging learning and exposing people to a world that many have never encountered before.

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

I got some really good feedback from last week’s proposal to create incentives for those kinds of computer equipment that are most suited to creating opportunity and improving access to information for ni-Vanuatu.

Not all of the news was necessarily good, but all of it was useful. Daryl Moon, who runs the local Datec store, responded that he’d done a little math on the issue, and he found that computer vendors would certainly be able to sell computers for less if they were constructed locally from tariff-exempt components.

But he went on to explain that in order to justify hiring extra staff for that purpose, he would have to sell 20 computers per week – a number which, he suspected, exceeds the weekly sales of all local computer retailers combined.

I also had discussion with a few local economists and trade experts. One of the issues raised was the difficulty of actually measuring the outcome of such tariff exemptions. Generally speaking, government is willing to accept a drop in revenues in one area provided that it sees an increase elsewhere (VAT income from increased sales, for example) or that the social benefit is sufficient to merit the cost.

As I reflect on these conversations, I’m beginning to realise that, ultimately, the most compelling argument for Appropriate Technology incentives is not economic in nature. The capstone on this discussion is a moral one.

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Appropriate Technology

Technology is complicated, and in relation to other aspects of daily life in Vanuatu, it’s expensive. But its value to society is indisputable.

Without a doubt, the Government needs to develop a clear, comprehensive policy concerning use of technology within its own sphere of operation, and on the national level as well. But that will take time, and there’s much that can be done in the mean time.

The benefits of telecoms market liberalisation are undeniable, but as the Pacific Institute of Public Policy rightly pointed out in its baseline study of social effects of the opening of the mobile market, more needs to be done. Uptake for business purposes is still low. Secondary infrastructure needs work as well, and if we want to see the same growth in Internet as we’ve seen in mobile use, we’re going to have to take steps to make it possible.

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

One of the joys of working in IT is the endless tide of change that seems to run through it. The stereotypical geek – and I confess I bear a strong resemblance to him – is constantly, almost pathologically curious. Like mynah birds we flit from one shiny piece of technology to the next, changing our song moment by moment.

Some may find it dizzying. Just as they get used to one set of jargon terms, the lexicon changes and their stuttering education in techno-Babel starts anew.

IT professionals typically work with about a six month window before the bleeding-edge products they’re using slip down the next rung of the ladder of obsolescence. After about two years, they’ve dropped away completely.

Governments and other institutions often find this a constant source of aggravation. It takes so long to develop standards that they’re often outdated even before the testing, analysis and verification is complete.

But their mistake is one of emphasis….

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