Connectivity is about people rather than technology
This is an edited summary of the speech delivered by Peter Kenilorea Jr at the inaugural Pacific Connect Forum held at NSW Parliament House on 6 September.
Pacific people have been connecting for thousands of years through traditional means, using a host of languages and tools such as drums and conch shells. Islanders used paddling canoes and catamarans with sails to venture between different islands, and now cars and telephones have been joined by broadband to move connectivity into another realm.
Pacific Islanders now straddle the analogue and digital worlds. While other cultures may have lost their traditional modes of communication, they remain strong in the Pacific, and Pacific Islanders should never forget long-standing cultural connections in pursuit of new technology.
The vast ocean divides Pacific nations but also unites them. The Pacific is the ‘aquatic continent’, and so connections between Islands have always been maritime. Pacific people were able to navigate by the stars and read the waves to discover new lands and opportunities. The arrival of aircraft allowed people to fly over the ocean at much greater speeds, and now digital connections allow people to communicate at the speed of light through cables beneath the ocean.
A new submarine cable should reach the Solomon Islands by the end of 2019, giving it almost instant connection to the world. People still paddle their dugout canoes to go fishing in the Solomon Islands, but they also take jets around the world and look forward to better internet connections. Technology came first to the developed world, but small Pacific Islands can now leapfrog older infrastructure to grasp the opportunities offered by state-of-the-art digital solutions.
While these changes are welcome, Pacific Islanders should retain their sense of who they are and their long-standing, deep-seated traditional connections. Australia may dabble with tribalism through its sports, but it runs through the blood of Pacific Islanders. Tribal and community allegiances should be nurtured in the future and new technology should not take people from their roots.
New experiences often provoke a natural sense of trepidation and caution, and older people may look on digital change in the same way. However, we should have faith in the future and the power of technology to transform the lives and livelihoods of Pacific Islanders. The excitement of high-speed internet is tempered by the dangers it can conceal, but initial fears will subside when people embrace it and move forward. The digital Pacific can move forward at the speed of light, while holding on to its past.
Digital connections in the context of the Pacific may appear different to other regions in the world. In 2007, only 1.8% of people on the Solomon Islands had access to the internet at home. A decade later, in 2017, that figure had increased to 19%, while mobile phone use reached 78%. Progress continues to be made and with courage, creativity and imagination, Pacific people can work with their Australian friends to make the most of new opportunities.
The ocean which separates people in the Pacific is also the ocean which unites them.
Peter Kenilorea Jr
Peter Kenilorea Jnr has previously held the position of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade in the Solomon Islands government and was International Civil Servant with the UN Secretariat in New York.