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PNG’s digitally deprived – there are millions of them

Digital technologyPHIL FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - Whenever major social, political or technological changes occur there are always people who are left behind.

In most cases these are people who either lack the wealth or education to keep up with everyone else.

This has been particularly so in the case of digital technologies and nowhere is it more pronounced than in places like Papua New Guinea.

We know that there has been a huge uptake of mobile phones in PNG thanks in large part to Digicel, but appearances can be deceiving.

Once you travel out of the larger towns the number of mobile phones drops off sharply.

And where they do occur they are usually only used for simple tasks like making calls and sending texts.

The more sophisticated adoption of the Internet in its many forms just doesn’t seem to be happening.

Often it is used only by men and boys to access pornography. Women in the bush don’t use the Internet.

Go further out to the more remote villages and islands where the majority of Papua New Guineans live and you seldom see a mobile phone or digital device.

This is not surprising. How do you re-charge a phone if you haven’t got access to an electricity supply, generator or solar power?

The lack of digital technology penetration was something we worried about when we instituted the annual Crocodile Prize for literature.

In the end we had to accept the inevitable and concentrate on the cyber world.

All the time, however, we were conscious we were missing out on a very large block of potential writers and readers.

With this unsatisfactory situation in mind I’ve been watching with interest various recent attempts to transport the digital world into remote areas.

I’ve yet to see one that has been successful.

With all the goodwill in the world, these efforts have succumbed to the realities of everyday life in the rural areas of Papua New Guinea.

Without training in how to use, look after and maintain digital devices they invariably break down, never to be replaced.

With no regular power sources, batteries go flat and are either thrown away or, more likely, sold to a relative or friend in town.

Often devices are stolen, as are the supporting technologies like solar chargers.

Whatever the original intent of the digital program, be it to encourage people to read or to give them access to things like health and financial advice, it all eventually comes undone.

Digital technologies are wonderful things but only so in places where people can afford them, understand how they operate and, more importantly, are culturally disposed to their use.

In rural PNG this culture hardly exists. It hardly exists in the same sense that a reading culture doesn’t exist or a scientific approach to problems doesn’t exist.

Papua New Guineans are smart and innovative but if the circumstances aren’t there for them to exercise these talents then they remain latent.

It is a major failing of successive governments that these possibilities haven’t been recognised or capitalised upon.

So, like the Crocodile Prize, we can set up a program and have great success with it but are always aware that our success will be limited.

The Crocodile Prize has been enormously successful in the major towns and big centres but travel outside these areas and people hardly know what you are talking about. Even in the squatter settlements of the cities no one has heard of it.

For anyone contemplating launching a project in Papua New Guinea this is a fact of life.

Rather than trying to capitalise on the incredible advances in digital technologies it might be more sensible to go back to the past. To the past that currently exists in most remote rural areas.

And just what is this past?

It is boots on the ground.

It is the hard slog of actually going out to communities and talking with them face to face. And not just once but as long as the project exists.

Digital technologies are an easy option but often they are not the best option.

Think about that when you are making your grand plans.


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