In May 1986, shortly after being appointed head of the Virgin Islands Library Services Department, I presented a paper to a regional conference on St. Croix, foreseeing a bright future for information technology in the Caribbean. I said that the rise of the microcomputer had led futurists to predict that office workers would one day be permitted to work from home.
In a Dec. 19, 2019 Beacon commentary titled “VI libraries gone ‘back to the future,’” I mentioned my rediscovery of an article based on that paper, but I could not have foreseen that within a few months governments all over the world would be ordering employers to close their workplaces and arrange for as many of their employees as possible to work from home.
In my paper, I reported on a fictitious, futuristic lawsuit in which a United States Virgin Islander sued the US government department which employed him for the recovery of a deduction from his pay for taking unauthorised leave in the USVI. He argued that his contract permitted him to work at home on his terminal for nine days out of ten; that he paid the cost of commuting himself; and that he worked better at home in the USVI in December than he would have done in Boston.
For Caribbean countries and entrepreneurs, I foresaw various comparative advantages arising from the portability of modern information technology:
- proximity to the US;
- close cultural, economic and political ties with both North America and Western Europe, sharing major international languages and benefiting from international aid;
- comparatively high literacy rates, particularly in anglophone countries;
- great reliance on air transport, requiring a certain level of telecommunication links with the metropolitan countries (the VI was joined with the BA database in London via Bermuda);
- comparatively wide access to sophisticated television services within the region, cultivating familiarity with some electronic technology and managing media services; and
- compactness and proximity to each other.
A prerequisite for their future appeared to be awareness and flexibility in the face of change, such as that being displayed at the time by the owners of 22 holiday cottages in the Grenadines, who had an IBM personal computer for accounting and correspondence but no telephone in the cottages. Guests had to signal their needs by a system of coloured flags. However, the owners planned to install a direct data link to their booking office in the US.
I compared meeting some holidaymakers who expressed desire to get away from it all with the sense of isolation felt recently by conference participants staying in telephone-less rooms in a Jamaican city hotel and the frustration expressed by a Canadian librarian at a major international conference in 1983 who complained that there was no provision in his modern German hotel for the receipt and dispatch of electronic mail.
The latter wording betrayed my own lack of experience with email then. However, I foresaw that the day might not be too distant when Caribbean librarians would take with them their lap (sic) computers and modems to conferences, to keep in touch with their professional and social life at home.
One expert’s report to the VI government claimed that the introduction of computerisation would reduce dependence on tourism and develop different skills and employment opportunities. In that regard, he described the VI as small and beautiful, inspired by the economist E. F. Schumacher’s popular call for the end of excessive consumption by building economies around the needs of communities, not corporations.
His mantra that “Small is Beautiful” has led to the foundation of movements like Fair Trade.
IRA and Brexit
Underlying the European Union’s Brexit agreement with the UK is a determination not to endanger the Good Friday peace agreement with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. One of the IRA’s most notorious actions during its terrorist attacks in England was the destruction of the City of London’s Baltic Exchange on April 10, 1992, by a massive bomb, which killed three people and injured nearly 191 others,
Most uninjured office workers wanted to display the defiant spirit civilians showed during the London Blitz in World War II, but how they could continue to work depended largely on where their homes were. Those living near to London met each other in pubs and restaurants, while those with long commutes preferred to keep in touch remotely.
An analysis after the Exchange was rebuilt found that the workers who met face-to-face concluded the greatest amount of business, a camaraderie denied to most long-distance commuters. The long-distance commuter’s ability to work depended on the information and communications technology available at home.
Benefits of Covid
Despite the death toil, fear, economic destruction and uncertainty wrought by Covid-19, the pandemic has also brought unforeseen beneficial by-products. Smog-ridden cities in Asia, for instance, have become more liveable surprisingly quickly. Even the most crime-ridden cities in the US have become safer. And the accelerated development of conference apps like Zoom has facilitated long-distance work from home.