Tuesday, 18 September

Information and Communication Technologies in Armenia - 2

ICT ideology

The first of the events characterizing the years 1996 to 2002 was the adoption of a program to create a CIS common information zone. The second was the inclusion of Eastern European and the former Soviet states in European projects on the Information Society (IS). At the same time a number of foreign and international organizations began participating in the dissemination of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Armenia. It is common knowledge that the government of every country must play a major role in the development of ICTs and the new economy based upon them. Nevertheless, the government of Armenia has simply not demonstrated the proper comprehension and appropriate responsibility vis-à-vis the problem. This is glaringly obvious within the structure of the government as well.

Although the state has ostentatiously stressed its interest in the prospects of information technologies (ITs), Armenia does not have and, in essence, has never had a state administrative structure which would elaborate and implement the strategy and projects aimed at the development of ICTs, and take responsibility. It was exactly during this period that the Ministry of Information was dissolved. And there is much evidence to prove that the Information and Publishing Agency was not established in 1997 in pursuit of the objective to conduct a consistent state policy in the IT field. For example, in the 1998 program of action of the government of then prime minister Armen Darbinian, and in the methodical instructions on the cultivation of long-term programs of economic development in the years 1999-2001, there was no word at all about the ICTs and informatization.

Local reactions to the technological revolution

No number of councils and commissions of uncertain status can fill this fundamental gap. Thus, it is no wonder that the main spokesman for the Armenian government on the issues related to the ICT sphere is the minister of foreign affairs. Without bearing any responsibility for the field in his official capacity, Vartan Oskanian has the supreme authority to represent, interpret, and foresee its developments. He is the first but not, of course, the only one. Irrespective of whether this is a consequence of the government's incompetence or well thought-out tactics, the result is that numerous issues and problems vitally important to the state and the society are caught in the grip of populism today. These speeches that arise from incoherent information and the absence of political responsibility necessarily bifurcate in two directions - on the one hand they become mere quantitative reports when arguments are needed, and on the other hand strictly abstract and hazy statements, when supporting ideas are expressed.

In the first case, we learn about the number of companies and jobs, the volume of economic growth, etc; in the second case we are reminded that "we must be in communication with the world", "we must be able to reap the benefits…", and so on. The allusions to the development and speedy dissemination of IT are followed by such conclusions as "Armenia can reap the maximum benefits from the information revolution"; "Conditions are being created for the resolution of such important problems for Armenia as the creation of new jobs" (Karen Chshmarityan, minister of trade, industry and tourism); "We must march in step with world developments" (Vartan Oskanian, minister for foreign affairs); "Such initiatives may contribute to reducing the discrepancies between developed and developing countries" (from the conclusions of the regional conference "Electronic Development for the Caucasus"); and "The ICTs have become a major consolidating factor in promoting the processes of regional co-operation", (Z. Mnatsakanyan, Armenia's representative at the preparatory meeting of the summit on issues related to the information societies). As for Armenia's potential in the IT field, the reform of the educational system with the help of ITs, and the resources of the Armenian Diaspora are concerned, these are mainly misunderstood and misused subjects.

It is presupposed in the speeches of Armenian orators that the irreversible development of technologies necessarily brings about social change, and that this change is necessarily positive. This is, in fact, the only public stand in Armenia. This point of view is not only out of touch with numerous conclusions about the threats and dangers of the information age, but also ignores the main forces within the sphere of influence within which Armenia is situated.

Russia will hardly abandon its goal of employing modern technologies of communication in order to maintain its political and economic sovereignty over the territory of the former Soviet Union, because of the unsuccessful pace of the program of informatization of the CIS. It is not prepared to give up its role as the center of knowledge and ideology. During a discussion that took place last January, experts from the Russian Institute of the Information Society proposed their support to CIS member-states in the elaboration of methodology and policy for the building of IS. 
The European project apparently preferable to Armenia should not be adopted without reservation either. In order to include the former Soviet republics, it should be enriched by new approaches. It is already clear today that the enlargement of the European family is accompanied by the development of disadvantageous relationships and inequality for new members.

Over the last two years, projects in the ICT field in Armenia - the results of which are yet to be examined and comprehended - have been implemented in particular by the World Bank. The activity of this organization, which has played a significant role in the establishment of the globalized world, has been scrutinized and radically criticized by developing countries. Ali Mohammadi writes about information technologies as a powerful tool for the process of globalization: "Rapid deregulation policy and the development of computer technology, including developments in broadcasting communications, formed a powerful tool in the globalization process. This has resulted in the domination of world markets by transnational corporations which face very little competition or resistance due to their overwhelming market force. Now multinationals based in the industrialized world have access to all parts of the world" (Ali Mohammadi: ed., International Communication and Globalization, SAGE Publications, London, 1997, p. 68).

It is with the assistance of World Bank loans that the developing countries traditionally have striven to implement projects to appropriate and develop ICTs. The provision of loans is accompanied by instructions on the reconstruction of the economy and, in particular, on the deregulation of telecommunications (through privatization and liberalization), which as a rule serve not the interests of the country in question but the interests of transnational capital. This essentially alters those views on the possible impact of ICTs on the economies of developing countries that are based only upon the prospects created by the technological revolution. In this sense, the longstanding experience of developing countries provides Armenia with marvelous material for sobering up and inciting more serious reflections, if considered in a much broader sense than the ICT-sphere success story of any individual country. 
These are, in my opinion, the main forces whose influence on the fate of ICT development in Armenia will be decisive, and with which the developers of national projects are obliged to reckon.

The components of ICT ideology in Armenia

As we have already mentioned, the official speeches about ICTs, while neglecting the real political charge inherent in the field, politicize the issue, subordinating it to momentary political goals. Thus, the government appears in a favorable light by adopting the correct stand toward this important and promising economic sphere. The idea of regional leadership underscores this further. Additional politicization takes place when ICTs are presented not only as the key for the solution of various social problems, but also as a means for the development of regional cooperation.

The familiar method of substantiating these assertions is to cite as evidence the scientific and technical potential of Armenia. Vartan Oskanian reminds us of this once again and more pointedly in his interview with .am Magazine: "Perhaps our country is somewhat an exception from the common rule"; "We have a powerful potential"; and so on. We have heard about Armenian exceptionality many times; thus we do not wonder that in the ICT field the slogan is once again "Ours is different". The prevalent optimism in the rhetoric on ICTs is political in depth, and even at the price of simplification, attempts to disguise itself in the veil of technological optimism. And thus, technology is virtuous and capable of reforming everything. This interpretation simplifies technological progress as well, depriving it of cultural and social dimensions. Therefore, the technologies are universal, there is no problem of localizing them, and their meaning is presented simply and clearly. It is necessary to utilize one's own potential… Naturally, all the new and old problems and threats related to ICTs, of which it is impossible to be unaware - the widening of the information gap, information colonization, the loss of the national identity, etc - are carefully sidestepped. If ITs are a challenge for Europe, if in the new situation, such principles fundamental to the West as freedom of speech and democratic values are endangered, for Armenia, such problems have not been noticed as yet.

And in the end, another major question falls into oblivion: Who is this desired information future for, in accordance with the number of new jobs promised-- society, or a new elite?

The meaning of technology

Another aspect of the complexity of the situation is that these superficial speeches not only represent the intentions and programs of the government, but also, and much more importantly, define for society what ICTs, IS, and other concepts are. And in this way, societal opinions and expectations are formed that are very difficult to change later on.

It seems that the linking of ICTs to regional cooperation is also an attempt to ascribe to the technologies a meaning both comprehensible for the West and important locally. Hence, it is worthwhile to examine, even in passing, the important question of the social meaning of ICTs as well. Let us, for instance, consider this version of the substantiation-comprehension of information endeavors: "Prospects of regional cooperation" for Europe, and for the Armenian public, "regional leadership and new jobs".

Regional leadership, while not a meaningless idea, seems insufficient for bringing about the necessary public understanding. Perhaps it is necessary to seek more tangible and plausible social and cultural realities that could legitimize such ideas. In its turn, the subject of "new jobs" is too simplistic to become the "inspiring concept" that will spark the public imagination and reveal to the people the desired prospects. And second, this assumption is simply wrong - it is a well-known fact that when the ITs are sufficiently disseminated within society, jobs exhibit a tendency to decrease as much as to increase.

If in fact technologies are a means of self-transformation for society, then the adoption of new technologies implies some transformation of the society itself, especially when we are dealing with a sizeable technological change. What ICTs are and what meaning they have is one side of the process, the reverse of which is the reexamination of national identity in the gulf of post-Soviet uncertainties, where many of the symbols of national identity have been dissolved or have become meaningless. It is understandable then, why ITs may become a newly-brought-to-light element of national self-identification, which is regarded today as a trend that has just taken shape but is already being exploited.

To be continued.

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