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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Will the technology gap narrow?

We love to take the ending of the year to reflect on what has passed and use the start of a new year to refresh ourselves, our ideas, our relationships, and to think about what changes we will see. I have spent a lot of the past year reflecting and now want to start some of the looking forward, not necessarily from a purely personal viewpoint. As I write rain is falling heavily after a very hot spell. We often associate rain with cleansing so perhaps my topic has a prophetic aspect. But I don't want to make myself seem too grand.

I spent a lot of the last year mastering many pieces of technology, not just what I think of as gadgets but things like an electric piano, and a digital camera; I used more gadgets such as a memory stick; I am also training to teach courses online. I asked my in-laws to recall when various things arrived that have changed our lives, such as the aluminium pop-top can. That particular example was a tough one, coming as it did in the early 1960s when we would all have been very young if born (see a history of cans). The 3-5 year olds in our family use a computer mouse as easily as they do knives and forks; the older children look aghast when we talk about vinyl discs not CDs, etc. New inventions have become so embedded into our lives that we take them to be standards. Who remembers putting water into a car radiator? When I try to recall the changes I have a hard time but I know that a lot of changes have occurred over the past 50 years.

I think the computer and the Internet rank high amongst those inventions that have revolutionized our lives. Here I am writing and hoping to touch an audience I cannot see or hear but I know can stretch as far as the world extends. All I need is an Internet connection to be able to send my submission into cyberspace for others to "grab" it. We have been able to move to a life of "do it anywhere, anytime". The gap between work and social life only exists if you want to have it. What is work, anyway? I don't need to leave my home to bring money into my household. That's a far cry from the lives of my parents, for whom being at home reflected a time when money was not being earned. Their lives were a far cry from their parents' when if you did not go into the fields you would not have food to eat. Yes, we have moved a long way.

The ability to interact through technology is the element that has fascinated me recently. Those of us living in developed economies now have the ability to make financial transactions with the touch of a few buttons, or using a plastic card and some codes to either pay for goods and services or get cash. These things are dreams to many who live in under-developed places, but technology will help change that soon as mobile telephones have new capabilities that will allow callers to get access to financial accounts.

The mobile phone has already revolutionized many lives. It is no surprise that it has changed to course of politics in some countries because people used the phone to call others to give them first results from elections (so reducing the chances of fraud). Stories circulate about how t has changed dealings for simple artisan traders whether in fish or high value goods like gold where even in remote areas traders can get current market prices.

I now spend a part of my day dealing in financial markets and so long as I have a computer with Internet access my "dealing room" can be active. I rarely get concerned about what is going on at my home when I travel; electronics take care of most things and they don't need me there to keep working.

A cousin of mine in Jamaica develops surveillance systems and he could set up infra-red "trip wires" (old technology description for new technology) or embed pinhole cameras in my home that would allow me to monitor visually what is happening at home (or at my business if I ran a store, for example). When that ability provides real benefits we appreciate this new flexibility. We rightly get concerned if technology seems to intrude where we don't want it: we applaud the closed circuit TV that makes its easier to catch criminals, but we are not sure what to think when we see the same technology overseeing what a nanny does in a home. I was fascinated to watch as one of my cousin's clients watched how things were going at his restaurant from his computer monitor; he had 7 mini-screens, including some over the cash register, so could see the movement of every transaction as well as monitor if anyone was trying to attack his premises. The staff know they are monitored but not the extent or location of the cameras. Criminals have not yet caught up to this and it's still shocking to see how brazenly they operate even when they know that cameras are present.

I am not Delphic and do not work in an area that develops things so it is hard for me to foresee what new items will be in my life during the next year. I am comfortable with the changing technology and manage to apply them quickly into things I do. But I know many people who are very intelligent and worldly wise who are still baffled by even the notion of using a credit card. So, I know that the gap remains wide.

This year I bought a BlackBerry and have moved to having access to my e-mail and the Internet where ever I go, and at any time but at a hefty cost for phone calls if I travel abroad. I have used Skype to make phone calls over the Internet for the past 3-4 years, letting me make calls from a computer anywhere either for free or very cheaply. I now find that I can download Skype to my BlackBerry. Now I can put these two technologies together myself, bypass the regular phone systems and keep my international calls at a reasonable rate. With every step forward in technological change a challenge arises for those who have proprietary products, to protect or not? I applaud those such as Linux who support "open source" technology, which is what my new computer uses (for more information see The Open Source Initiative). The Internet has made protection very difficult because the main "working parts" are codes not physical pieces, the devices are important but the codes are essential. But profits can still be generated by making services and goods available freely because this tends to lead to other developments for which people will pay.

My preview is that many more people will realize that they can expand their access to Internet technology for free or at least very cheaply, and that this will make good business sense. That will be great news for those who have yet to benefit from the Internet revolution. Unwittingly, I was forced to give up my work laptop and in needing to have a machine for travel I started on that road myself. While sitting in an airport lounge I read about a laptop that costs less than US$ 400, and weigh under 1 kilogram; that is very affordable portability for many and with all the burdens of airport security checks this seemed a great solution. So I bought one; and it is only available for purchase online--again you see though that if you do not get onto this technology train you will be left behind. The "one laptop per child" programs will soon expand at a phenomenal rate I am sure. The volumes will generate the profits, and most of the world has still not been touched. It sounds like a "win-win" situation. Let's see if it comes true.

1 comment:

Esteban Agosto Reid said...

Interesting post! Hopefully,the gap will narrow in the medium term.