The Fight For Relevance: Beyond CIGF and the NICT Plan

Above: Usable information rarely pierces the speech bubble to enable understanding. Illustration by cienpies/DepositPhotos

People need to get involved.

I attended 2 of the 3 days at the Caribbean Internet Governance Forum (CIGF) at the Trinidad and Tobago hub in St. Augustine, Trinidad, on the UWI campus. It was foreshadowed by Mark Lyndersay’s article, “$1billion for TT ICT Wishlist”, which was appropriate given how long some of us have been at trying to get things going not just in the right direction, but also at the right speed.

It comes to mind that I could write about the CIGF, or I could write about what matters. It strikes me that what matters is what is hidden in a different language that I can interpret on the fly. It strikes me that the mummification by red tape needs to stop in the region for it to even have a sincere discussion about things that are going to affect the global economy beyond the myopia of the bureaucratic ‘wisdom’ of the region.

The Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was kind enough to give me 2 hours of thought on the way into the CIGF hub and 3 hours on the way home each day I attended – at the low cost of $60TT of diesel. Mosquito Creek accounted for roughly 2 hours a day; it comes with the stunning scenery of Junior Sammy (who else gets a contract?) doing roadwork. This is a government plan being implemented on a major traffic choke point in South Trinidad. Again.

I had time to think when I wasn’t braking when some lowered car was dodging a pothole. It seems perfectly reasonable in Trinidad and Tobago to lower a car where there are bumps and potholes; that must have some bearing on how we approach technology… or anything else, for that matter.

Let us take stock. Last year, an artificial intelligence was hired as an attorney. Last year, IBM used technologies on big datasets (‘big data’) to diagnose a rare leukemia in Japan. Google Documents now has Natural Language Processing associated with it.

In fact, there is so much processing of data available on the Internet that at the CIGF, I was fairly certain that Facebook and Google (both sponsors) knew more about the people in the Caribbean than the people there.  After all, years ago Target detected a woman was pregnant before she knew.

It can be pretty creepy what our digital shadows tell the world – everything we do online is analyzed. That information is packaged and sold. There is good that is done with it, clearly, but do you want to have your life charted by these analyses?

People look at the analysis of your digital shadow and determine if you should get that job, or your child goes to that school, or whether they want to sell you that property. As a Manager in 2012, I watched a CFO pull up addresses on Google Maps Street View to see where prospective employees lived.

Was your yard clean the last time Google drove by?

When you look around at people staring at the flat screens of their lives, it’s hard to believe how much technology and policy is involved. With a simple flourish, someone in a government office can give or take away without even truly understanding the depth of what they are giving or taking.

A content distribution deal kept Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Trinidad and Tobago from being aired in the same country it was filmed. The video escaped – such things are a minor inconvenience for people who have been forced to bypass them over the decades – and it wrought some national introspection, for better and worse. Ask anyone on the street about IPv6, and they might stare at you. Ask them about torrents and VPNs, and they will likely at least know someone who knows about such things.

We’re good at getting around technology, just as the blue forms assist in getting around bureaucracy. The best way to attack corruption is by removing bureaucracy, the best way to remove bureaucracy is by technology. In a seeming defense of itself, bureaucracy is hampering technology adaptation.

This is part of the context of anything related to IT in Trinidad and Tobago. Bureaucratese for ‘IT’ is ‘ICT’; but that additional ‘C’ lends itself to dissuade people from thinking that they are the same – that it would be impertinent to ask. It’s a wonderful way to keep the plebeians out of the way.

If they truly wanted to, ‘synergistically leverage multistakeholder input to create a strategy for ICT usage that is efficient and builds capacity to diversify the local economy while increasing GDP’’, why are simple things shrouded in buzzwords and acronyms to the point where even the people using them lose touch with what they are talking about? Perhaps that space between has become comfortable; dealing with people is too inconvenient.   

And Lyndersay wrote about the draft National ICT plan. The Minister responded but did not answer, just as I saw a young man ask the CIGF about social network usage and punitive measures by government. It was dissembled through the the most political means – finding the part of the question that can be answered while doing the least damage and, incidentally, allows for the least progress.

Let me reiterate the main thrust of that question, Honourable Minister: How on Earth do you think this administration can make plans longer than the election cycle? I ask you this as I suffer the Point Fortin highway project in more ways than one, a perfect example of starting and stopping.

Don’t think me of a political bend, either – the fairy godmother distribution of laptops was also something that shouldn’t have been done if someone actually looked at the data coming back from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, nevermind common sense.

Everyone had an opinion when Ryan Rayad Mohammed was taken into custody for writing on Facebook, “Someone should find ROWLEY daughter and wife and slit their throats n rape them.” – a reference to the Prime Minister’s family, and at best an ill-advised thing to write. Ask anyone about where the government stands on such things, and between the strong opinions you’ll find little in the way of informed opinion.

It’s hard for most people to consider how what they write on Facebook can affect themselves and others. It’s hard for most people to consider that policies and agreements dictate what they see and what they are capable of seeing through the modern looking glass. Even at the CIGF, I heard people talking about these being public spaces when they are not – they are privately held spaces, by corporations, where things can be seen in public.

Their terms of use and end user agreements allow for some things and not others; governments trying to legislate such spaces only can do so with the cooperation of said corporations.
I heard someone say that Facebook data gets deleted at the CIGF – where policy is being discussed; where people are supposed to know this stuff. The reality is much more nuanced, as an article from 2013 demonstrates.

These are people discussing policy. My word, and did I mention that no one drew the line between IPv6 and the implementation of Digital Rights Management (DRM)? It’s not your rights that are being managed.

And Google? Let’s not forget them.

Did I mention that Google and Facebook were sponsors of the 13th CIGF?

Speaking truth to power, on the other hand, does not cost as much. Or does it? To make a post more visible, you pay Facebook; to make a website more visible, you pay Google. It takes less, though, but they make their money – and for a price, someone can get information that could identify people attempting to speak truth to power, even while government requests for information may be stymied by the legal department.

Money talks for these stakeholders.   

Brass Tacks

It was a time of reflection, particularly along the stretch of Mosquito Creek, as I saw how the Trinidad and Tobago government has managed to do everything but fix the bottleneck at Mosquito Creek over the decades. I thought about squandering of funds that Dr. Roger Hosein recently put a figure to – $77 Billion, between 1999 and 2016.

What’s one more billion dollars in that gaping abyss?

At the CIGF, I heard about ‘training people’ by people who didn’t know the changes in technology, or the reality of it, over the last 5 years. It’s silly to think everyone should know everything, but when dictating policy there needs to be people who are aware of what is happening and how it impacts the future, particularly when things like basic income are being tossed around because of the rapid technological advances. It seems peculiar that the colonial mindset that doesn’t allow for things to be done locally is so unaware of what is going on in the rest of the world.

It scares me.

This is why people need to get involved. You don’t need to be a geek to get involved; you don’t need to speak in a string of 1’s and 0’s. There’s the Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society. There’s the Internet Society of Trinidad and Tobago. Join, discuss, and speak up.

Taran Rampersad

Taran Rampersad has over three decades of experience working with technology, the majority of which was as a software engineer.

He is a published author on virtual worlds and was part of the team of writers at that won the Utne Award.

He is an outspoken advocate of simplifying processes and bending technology’s use to society’s needs.

His volunteer work related to technology and disasters has been mentioned by the media (BBC), and is one of the plank-owners of combining culture with ICT in the Caribbean (ICT) through CARDICIS and has volunteered time towards those ends.

As an amateur photographer, he has been published in educational books, magazines, websites and NASA’s ‘Sensing The Planet’.

These days, he’s focusing more on his writing and technology experiments. Feel free to contact him through Facebook Messenger.