Hrach Bayadyan

Information and Communication Technologies in Armenia - 5

Dissemination and utilization of the Internet

The previous articles in this series on the process of disseminating and adopting Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) inArmeniadiscussed in general the problem of the local development of the Internet as well. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to examine in this summary article the issue of the dissemination and use of the Internet. The examination of the social and cultural implications and impact of ICTs has been one of the main goals of this series, and the Internet - the present-day means of communication and cultural technology - was supposed to let us summarize this examination, draw some conclusions.

But the problem of bringing to light and assessing this implication and impact within the local context arises before us in this case in all its complexity, if not insolubility. The necessary data and assessment of this problem that would offer more objective and specific examination, rather than the standard quantitative information, don’t exist- the number of computers connected to the Internet, the number of users, the prices, etc. Such an assessment hasn’t been done and it is important to stress two circumstances characteristic of the Armenian situation which are closely interconnected. First, the accentuated functionalism of the prevalent attitude inArmeniatoward modern technology, which completely neglects the necessity to “think critically about the social implications of information and communications technologies. … [and to shape an essential] understanding of both their risks and their benefits.” (to use Caes Hamelink’s wording).

Indeed, this concerns local and international projects and initiatives equally. Thus, the other manifestation too is fully understandable, especially the absence of studies examining the social impacts that follow after the public implications. With all this, what are the tendencies and circumstances that are characteristic of the dissemination and employment of the Internet inArmenia, and with the assistance of which one can, at least preliminarily, outline this process?

Factors in Internet dissemination

I tend to characterize the present situation regarding Internet dissemination and utilization as preliminary and devoid of tangible social, cultural, political, economic and trade significance. Of course, it has some minimal information and communication significance, but its manifestation in the fields mentioned are as yet obscure and unexplored. However, a number of changes in recent years can be registered that directly concern the subject in question - the continued modernization of the telephone system, the growth of the number of home users of the Internet, the opening of centers for paid public access, the entry of the traditional media (press, radio) onto the Internet, the dissemination of computers and Internet connection within the educational system, the emergence of purely electronic periodicals (information, cultural, political), the appearance of diverse Websites in Armenian, the formation of online forums and discussion groups, and so on.

It is well known that unlike in developed countries, the dissemination of the Internet in developing countries raises specific problems related to low living standards, illiteracy, low potential for technological and scientific research, and other circumstances. The issue of the capabilities of post-Soviet societies undergoing arduous transition is more ambiguous (especially because it is under-explored). Although it might have been assumed that the scientific-technological and industrial capabilities of the not so distant past would have become a decisive factor in the local development of the Internet, reality has proven otherwise. This is also demonstrated by studies by international organizations that show the continued decline in the positions of the former Soviet republics in the sphere of ICT dissemination. The main technological component of Internet dissemination is the communication infrastructure, the lack or obsolescence of which can become an insurmountable obstacle for a country.

It is unclear to what extent the communication system in Armenia has been improved and modernized because of ArmenTel’s activity in recent years, but ArmenTel’s monopoly itself (or its policies adopted under monopoly conditions) is rightly considered to be a major obstacle, not only because of the slow pace of the modernization of the infrastructure, but also because of the high cost of communication.

The process of Internet dissemination and utilization greatly depends on the level of education as well as on the ability and capacity to continuously learn and retrain (a system of proper institutions, an up-to-date technological environment, curriculum, teachers, manuals, etc…). When speaking of the high educational level of the residents ofArmenia, one must also make certain reservations. The first is the slow pace of the modernization of our country’s education system, and the insufficient level of the employment of modern technologies in teaching. At the same time, one should take into account that people get the necessary knowledge and skills for the use of the Internet outside the official education system - schools and universities - in so-called institutions of “public education”. This refers to the various private computer literacy courses and training programs which are not regulated at all, and little is known about their standards and efficiency.

It is impossible to meet technological and educational needs without continued sizeable financial investment. Local, foreign and international organizations can be the investors. Here too, the monopolistic ownership of the communication system and the lack of laws regulating the new environment of information and communications create highly unfavorable conditions.

International organizations are a decisive force stimulating the use of the Internet inArmenia. For the time being, it is impossible to imagine the development of this technology without such assistance. In all probability, the “critical mass” of users that creates stability in the process of dissemination doesn’t exist inArmeniayet. On the other hand, the Internet can become a means for socio-economic development only in the case that the necessary number of individuals and organizations do adopt, do internalize, this technology, thus creating the possibility of its self-preservation. Therefore, the government’s task in achieving this goal is to create the conditions that make the utilization of the Internet attractive to business organizations.

The point of view that assumes that the Internet can gradually carve itself out, unifying the necessary forces and shaping the required conditions, is mistaken. This, perhaps, happens in the initial stage, after which management policies and interference mechanisms are required from the government (for example to initiate competition among internet providers with the aim of lowering prices). However, the government’s role is not limited to this. As the experience of developing countries shows, the most important factor for the domestication and development of the Internet is the realization of the economic, social and other needs of the country and the endorsement of the appropriate goals the technology is to serve.

This implies a vision of the future which is interlinked with a strategic plan designed to realize this vision. InArmeniasuch a vision and strategy don’t exist and are not anticipated, and that is why the existing favorable circumstances and capacities are deprived of the strength of coherent and targeted action and efficiency. And finally, the process of the adoption and dissemination of the Internet depends on distinctive cultural features of the given society, which can play a hampering or stimulating role by determining the perceptions and views of the main actors in this process.

The correct perception and evaluation of these features and the ability to weigh them properly will make the management of Internet dissemination more authoritative. Among the main actors are the government, ArmenTel, Internet providers and domestic professional IT organizations. The important role as the source of necessary knowledge and expertise for the dissemination and entrenchment of the Internet is traditionally ascribed to these IT organizations. But the situation inArmeniais different. On the one hand, the high cost of Internet services (because of the ArmenTel monopoly) hampers the development of the IT industry inArmenia, and this has been much talked about.

On the other hand, though one never hears about it, the sustained orientation of the IT sphere toward export greatly diminishes the forces that should serve to develop services of domestic significance, to create educational programs in Armenian, and to create an Armenian presence on the Web,

The use of the Internet and its impact as an object of research

Research by both local and international organizations related to the dissemination and use of the Internet in Armenia has so far been limited to general figures - the standard of living, the standard of education, the up-to-dateness and process of liberalization of the communication infrastructure, communication costs, the number of computers connected to the Internet and the number of the Internet domains, the number of Internet users, etc.

Lacking a diversified research approach toward the process of dissemination and use of the Internet, they naturally say little about the methods and the social impact of Internet employment. At the same time these studies are not based on the results of long-term monitoring and, with a hidden assumption of progress determined by some quantitative characteristics and data, indicate only the most general tendencies (positive and negative).

It is also understandable that each study has its own motives, goals and perspective, according to which the subject in question is examined. We cannot have the same expectations of a study conducted with the aim of enlarging the market as we have of a study concerned with assessing pressing social needs.

And finally it is understandable that under the conditions of the absence of a tradition of communication and media studies, even if the desire is great, it is hard to find the necessary professional ability inArmenia. The neglect of research and the absence of necessary capabilities inArmeniais one of the factors that have a negative impact on the process of domestication and development of the Internet.