We live in the creeping shadow of a technological and social tsunami. Since the last decade of the twentieth century, we have experienced the mass adoption of computers for industrial, commercial and personal use; the interlinking of these devices through the Internet; a dramatic improvement in the user experience of these devices and a similarly drastic reduction in difficulty of building for digital environments. Society has moved from acceptance of computing power for specialised tasks to nigh-dependency on a variety of computing devices to raise productivity at work, remain informed of breaking news, improve overall knowledge with virtual schools and even commingle without leaving the comfort and safety of the home.
Now, through innovation and optimisation, multiple technologies have converged and indeed, will continue to merge. Separate devices have now synchronised into one super-powered micro-marvel. The average smartphone or tablet of 2017 has orders of magnitude more power, speed and portability than a separate cell phone and personal computer from a decade earlier; often at half the cost and a tenth of the original size. Files and interconnections are less reliant on varying operating systems on multitudinous devices and more on generally accepted open standards; we can work on Apple iPads, Microsoft Windows laptops, and Android smartphones almost seamlessly. Desktop computers are becoming obsolete in homes and workplaces, replaced by laptops and smartphones.
The increasing availability of inexpensive, reliable broadband Internet has made continuous, instantaneous communication possible on an unprecedented global scale. Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and fourth generation (4G) mobile networks, along with improved fibre optic back-hauls and fibre to the home (FTTH) permeate the Caribbean, allowing people to work, play and transact from the beach, the home or in the office. Indeed, little separates the two locales once a person has achieved symbiosis with their mobile devices and their Internet connection. Governments are increasingly viewing access to the Internet, freedom of expression on the Internet and service neutrality by Internet Service Providers as civil and even human rights.
Entire industries and even governments have been forced to sink or swim with this rising tide. The convergence of global standardisation, accessible connectivity and a preference for mobile devices has happened so swiftly that the publishers of books, music and newspapers have been left stranded, still struggling to cope with unlikely competitors such as Amazon, Apple and Google. Cable television struggles vainly against the ad-free personalisation allowed by Netflix and content producers such as HBO and Showtime. Perhaps more threatening to all of these established businesses is the threat of personal entertainment, buoyed by ever more powerful and cheaper cameras embedded in smartphones, tablets and personal drones.
People worldwide are finding a great deal of joy and value creating and sharing their own content. This sharing mindset, which is more prevalent in the generations that have been raised in a world that has always been connected, has already extended to the hospitality sector (AirBNB) and public transportation (Uber) to the chagrin of hoteliers and taxis worldwide. It also increases the spread of political views and ideology, cementing local and international supporters and agitators before some governments are even aware of discontent. The Arab Spring of late 2010/early 2011 poignantly showed the power of smartphones and social media platforms in the face of government shutdowns of Internet infrastructure and censorship. Both devices and the software developed for the Worldwide Web contributed to uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Palestinian-occupied areas, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. Governments fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while civil wars rage in Syria and Yemen. Regulatory efforts against malignant activities such as cyber-bullying and electronic infringement continue to play catch up with the speed of innovation and most public sectors lack enough trained professionals and flexibility to even begin to cope with the pace of change.
For many decades now, institutions in the Caribbean have been largely insulated from these sudden changes due to the highly-scrutinised complexity of the offshore financial sector as well as the sheer reliance we have on local banks, insurance firms and credit unions to act as the major lubricant in our economies. Banks, credit unions, lending institutions and insurance companies directly handle our wages, pensions and taxes while providing us with necessary liquidity and occasionally interceding as a reporting arm for taxation bodies. In order to combat the international triple threat of terrorism, organised criminal activity and tax avoidance, financial institutions have collected vast amounts of personal information in the form of billing statements, government identification, and income details, which governments can request during criminal investigations. As such, governments and the financial industry can work closely together – when necessary and permitted by legislation - in a multi-level, highly regulated and very complex relationship across the globe.