Friday, 21 September

Information and Communication Technologies in Armenia

Information and Communication Technologies in theory and in national projects

At the mass rallies of the late 1980s, when speakers talked about the independence of Armenia, they mentioned Jermuk mineral water, tufa stone, molybdenum and other resources as the main economic foundation for independent existence. Information Technologies (ITs) were not discussed then; they were not yet known. ITs have emerged as part of the "national wealth" over the last few years, years that have been publicly proclaimed as a time of goals and aspirations in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

This began formally in 1996, the year when the Concept of the Creation of a Common Information Zone (Informatization) of the CIS was put forward, when the Coordination Council of representatives of CIS member-states was established, when the first draft of a long-term plan of action was elaborated. The next year, in 1997, Armenia was invited for the first time to take part as an observer in the 5th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy, "The Information Society: a challenge for Europe", held within the framework of the European Union, and was in fact given the opportunity to become familiar with and to participate in European projects on the Information Society.

If within the framework of the CIS only certain projects have been implemented so far and it is hard to take the idea of a CIS common information zone seriously yet, the current year should, if only from the formal point of view, be assessed as effective regarding the development of European cooperation. Nevertheless, although a European-sponsored international conference on ITs took place in Yerevan in 2002, and a project to establish a regional center in Armenia was announced, it is too early yet to speak about real results and prospects.

Over the last few years, local and international specialists and organizations have been carrying out research in an attempt to evaluate Armenia's potential and prospects, and favorable and negative conditions for the development of ITs. Significant is the comprehensive survey by USAID, "Armenia: ICT Assessment (2000)".

Programs have been adopted aimed at choosing strategic targets and specifying policy directions as well as developing mechanisms of implementation. The government's commitment to develop the IT industry in cooperation with the private sector two years ago was laid out in its decision to declare the information technology industry the priority area of economic development in Armenia.

Both local and international organizations continue to implement projects in the field of ICT development. These include trade and economic development, infrastructure renewal, modernization of the education system, reformation of the legislation and other projects. Over this period of time local, regional and international conferences and a number of seminars and workshops have been organized. The current year has been especially rich in such undertakings. Also, short-lived periodicals related to information technologies have been published; it is difficult to study them all, and hardly possible to evaluate today their impact and significance.

This time span has been a period of the spread and development of the Internet all over the planet. At the same time a new field of research - Web Studies -- has emerged and is developing rapidly. Tangible changes have also occurred in Armenia; here too the existence of various problems and tasks that call for examination and research and, unfortunately, a complete lack of such studies can be registered. All this is taking place in unambiguously unfavorable conditions - the monopoly of ArmenTel (Armenian Telecommunication Company), the controversy and scramble surrounding this monopoly, and the complex and intricate ArmenTel-government, and lately Armentel-ArmInCo (the leading Internet provider), relations.

ICT development projects: reality or myth?

Thus, the approaches of the state, the private sector the other players to issues related to ICTs and their significance for the society and the economy have gradually taken shape, as has public awareness.
It seems that a certain attitude toward the development of this field has arisen in Armenia, priorities have been set, and projects and prospects have been determined. The government's declaration of the IT industry as the priority area of the economy, conversations over time at various levels about Armenia's regional leadership in the IT field, and other actions show that strategic principles -- partly explicitly and partly implicitly - have been outlined. Concurrently, an unsophisticated discourse recounting, interpreting and forecasting ICT development has arisen, which needs to be commented upon. There is an apparent politicization determining the trajectory of this rhetoric; the "scientific and technical potential" of Armenia, possibilities in the field of ICTs constitute the main arsenal of this argument, and "optimism" defines the tone of the discussion...

What are the explicit and implicit premises and predispositions that this rhetoric - with which we are being told today about the development and prospects of ICTs in Armenia - feeds on, and what are the theoretical principles upon which the relevant Armenian projects are based? In this connection, for example, the fact that some of the project creators and commentators, while speaking about a new post-industrial or information society, clearly base their opinions and views of new technologies upon the old industrial model of society, is very characteristic. Corollary to this is the industrial rather than information nature of ICT development projects, and that the main subject of discussion is the IT industry and the expected number of jobs created. The experience of India and other countries usually cited as examples must be considered instructive not only for imitation, but also in terms of not repeating their mistakes.

In any case, it seems that ICTs in Armenia are reaching a new stage, though not so much because of purposeful activity as due to outside circumstances beyond control. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw certain conclusions.

As we have already mentioned, over the last several years, whether intended or not, a change in the general orientation, or at least in some fundamental choices of principle and, thereby, in the aspirations, goals, language, etc, away from the CIS framework toward the Council of Europe and a European perspective has occurred. In truth, nothing serious as far as national projects are concerned has been done so far within the framework of the CIS, and the turn toward Europe has until now been superficial and indeed has not yet been conceived as a turn. It is understandable, then, why existing projects do not in practice correspond to either of these frameworks, and this distinctly conveys the absence of a general strategy or even of its prerequisites. It is obvious that strategic projects cannot lack accentuated elements of regional cooperation, yet the cooperation of the so-called South Caucasian countries has in itself no real sense so far. The most ambitious projects are being implemented outside the two frameworks. We can cite as an example projects implemented under the aegis of the World Bank, such as the Armenia Gateway project.

Declarations of the existing possibilities and potential in the ITs sphere continue to be made today. We have been hearing about this for several years now and it is interesting to see what kind of possibilities studies conducted do in fact witness. What kind of changes do the studies conducted over the last years register in their conclusions and assesments? What kind of possibilities are lacking in Armenia, and what are the reasons for this? What is the current situation in Armenia regarding the development of the Internet and Internet services, the modernization of the education system through the introduction of ICTs, cultural and socio-scientific studies on ICTs, etc.?

Projects without an attitude

If we take a closer look at the main terms defined in the preamble of the Doctrine on the Informatization of the CIS - "CIS Information Zone", "Information Infrastructure of the CIS member-states", "Information Technology", "Information Resources", etc (and the same also applies to Armenian documents of the time) we immediately notice the transparent difference between these terms and the terms used in the projects and reports being circulated in Armenia today. A number of main ideas-- "Information Society", "Information and Communication Technologies", "the Internet", "Digital Technologies", "the Digital Divide", "Electronic Development", etc-- have appeared in our vocabulary only over the last few years but, nevertheless, have not raised questions about the appropriateness of their usage.

Meanwhile, it is clear that before they were written into programs, before they entered national or regional strategies, ITs, ICTs and other related concepts were developed in the West through decades of theoretical studies and debates (beginning in the 1970s). Here is what the renowned theoretician Frank Webster says on the subject. In the foreword of his book "Theories of the Information Society" he writes that the concept of "the information society" is not at all neutral and brings with it a number of assumptions about changes that have already occurred and are still going on, as well as about what kind of impacts caused these changes. Under these circumstances, he underlines "The striking thing is that, outside social science, suspicions about the use of the term 'information society' appear to be few. The word is used unproblematically by a wide section of opinions."

After all, as William H. Dutton observes, the widespread concepts related to ICTs - virtual society, cyberculture, etc - are various understandings of "information society" attempting to locate the social significance of the ICT revolution. However, continues the researcher, "While these concepts emphasize the increasing centrality of ICTs to society, they fail to provide insights about the role of ICTs in social change. Moreover, if taken literally, many prevailing conceptions of the information society are misleading".

These theoretical assertions are well supplemented by the very interesting and instructive explanation of a European expert, the Chairman of the Steering Committee on Mass Media of the Council of Europe, Bernd Mowes. In his report on the subject "Ethics in the Cyberspace Age" made at the colloquium "Information Highways: Between Dream and Reality" (Switzerland, 1997) he states: "I am neither an expert in ethics nor a philosopher. I am a jurist and a government official and my work consists in devising political strategies and converting them into concrete legislation. I am therefore more directly involved in giving practical effect to - as well as counterbalancing - the ideas that such philosophers have developed and on which each places a different emphasis."

It is, of course, not my intention to discuss the principles of Mowes' work, but to emphasize that behind documents expressed in a certain impeccable language, there are decisions made by experts, and the link between certain theoretical systems and ambiguous or disputable ideas is not completely dissolved. There are decisions that are dictated by absolutely certain political, economic and other circumstances. Those who create local projects based on the documents developed in different countries, and more often just copy them, must keep in mind this theoretical background and the fact that the decisions of experts are stipulated by various circumstances.

It is necessary to realize that neither ICTs nor the projects for their development and dissemination are universal, that they do not have an all-around significance. When transferred from one society to another, from one cultural environment to another, they require radical re-comprehension through their inclusion in the local social and cultural context. But so far the main local component of the Armenian projects remains "optimism", as though the problem of the transfer of technologies and the difficulties associated with their adoption, and the assertions, based on studies of the experience of other states, of the threats and dangers brought by modern information technologies do not concern Armenia. Even so, it is my firm belief that it is exactly these difficulties and complications, and the willingness to resist the dangers posed by ICTs that can become a real basis for reliable and efficient local projects and policies.

To be continued.

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