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."
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.
1. Internet penetration rates are increasing across the region, but without a commensurate increase in the creation of indigenous content or services.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Companies and governments are planning moves to 'cloud computing,' but the 'clouds' exist in North America and Europe.
5. Media programming that makes it easier to find out what happens in San Francisco or New York than Dominica, Montserrat or even Tobago.
Critical Internet infrastructure
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absence of critical Internet infrastructure like Internet exchange points; deficiencies in the regulatory environment; outdated legislation; under-informed technocrats and consumers with an increasing appetite for foreign goods, services and expertise.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 road map 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. However, it is 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 sectors. Further, if we say we are after diversification of the economy and promotion of innovation and entrepreneurialism, 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.
Bevil Wooding is an international strategist, innovator
and technology ambassador.
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