10 October 2011
Avoiding The Threat of Cyber Colonisation
The Internet and Internet related technologies play an increasingly significant role in the development of our economies and society. Yet, as developing countries 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, at the same time, 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 developing world into an era of what can be termed “cyber colonisation”.
The Signs Of Cyber Colonization
If colonization is the process of establishing control over a country by a more powerful and often distant country, then cyber colonization 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 colonization of the past, cyber colonization 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 and iPhone and Android devices, offering a rich array of applications, 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 local businesses.
- Companies and Governments are planning moves to ‘cloud computing’, but, currently, the ‘clouds’ all exist in North America and Europe.
- Media programming that makes it easier to find out what happening in San Francisco or New York than Dominica, Montserrat or even Tobago.
This list can go on and on; the absence of critical Internet infrastructure like Internet exchange points and root servers; 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 clear and present crisis in the developing world. However, as the Chinese proverb goes, ‘crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.’
In reality, the indigenous human resource potential to overcome these challenges and take full advantage of the digital revolution exists today; as does the technology and capacity to implement. 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 native strengths and shaped to match a defined vision for development.
Emphasis on Enlightened leadership
The challenges that innovators and entrepreneurs face in developing markets in bringing ideas to life can be overcome if greater awareness is brought to leadership requirements of the new "digital" economy.
The underlying factors that currently hinder development and that, ultimately, can obviate the inevitability of cyber colonization include enlightened leadership, coherent vision, collaborative approaches, facilitative regulation, relevant education systems, modernized 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 practical solutions are to be defined, leaders as well as its citizens must first ask what kind of society are we seeking to produce, before treating with what kind of technology, processes and systems are needed to facilitate it.
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 are all necessary to create new points of synergy not only at the national level, but throughout the developing world. A multifaceted approach is the only way to effectively respond to the reality and threat of re-colonization now being exacerbated by technological advances. This is imperative if nations are to preserve their unique identity.
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 characterized not by dependency, but by strong projection of our values, identity and creative capacity.
The reality of changing times places a responsibility upon leaders to define not only the philosophical parameters for development, but also the practical steps. Decision making at every level of society, therefore, must be kept congruent with the vision for future advance.
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.
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 coherent 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 must include continued public sector evolution and education sector transformation.
This highlights the responsibility of advocacy groups, socially responsible businesses and organizations to bring awareness to critical issues, lobby decision makers and help shape a policy environment that can strengthen our communities and enable local action. This type 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 social and economic development 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 every national context. Thus, in our enthusiasm to keep pace with the world we must never forget that an international best-practice typically emerges out of someone in that locale determining a solution or course of action designed to meet their peculiar need.
Developing countries can offer the world “best practices”. They have proven that they can produce the brain power, now the real test for the new era is to demonstrate that they have the mentality to go along with it - a mindset that is convinced of an innate authority and capacity to occupy a place in the new world order.
This is the challenge before all developing societies. To overcome the notion that smallness and vulnerability automatically precludes countries from being strategic and resourceful; creative and innovative; deliberate and progressive. In fact, these constraints ought to propel us all to innovation, creativity and industry to shield our societies and secure our place in the world.
Bevil Wooding is the Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress WBN and an Internet Strategist with the US-research firm Packet Clearing House.