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Hrach Bayadyan

Information and communication technologies in Armenia – 4

The paths of development of Information and Communication Technologies

How can post-Soviet societies participate in the world process of development of information and communication technologies (ICTs)? What conclusions may be drawn from the experience accumulated so far? Is it possible to formulate one's own problems clearly and find the ways to solve them, without completely subjecting oneself to outside compulsions and without paying tribute to certain prejudices? Is it possible to employ the capability inherited from the Soviet period as well as to find similarities to and to get benefits from the experience accumulated in other societies efficiently, without neglecting the differences that arise from local peculiarities?

If we compare it with the established tradition of studying the experience of third world or developing countries, we must register that there has been little study of the experience of the dissemination of ICTs in post-Soviet societies. Here the comparatively short existence of the newly independent states, the singularity of the situation (the notion of "economies in transition" is not, to all appearances, the best one for raising effective questions), and other circumstances naturally play a role. In particular, it might be said aboutArmeniathat no serious research has been done on either the local experience or the possibilities of employing the experience of developing countries. One should not forget either that unanswered questions regarding the methodology of research and of other theoretical matters exist. And it seems that the programs developed and implemented through approaches chosen without sufficient consideration and preparation have already formed a process and its consequences, which have an inertia that is hard to overcome - within the structures shaped, organizational paths, interrelations, perceptions and expectations.

The only known approach to ICT development inArmeniais the model of "take-off" based on the export of software production, which, as I tried to illustrate in the previous article, is misapprehended and ill grounded, for it is guided more by surface similarities and assumptions than by a knowledge of the real state of things. In my opinion,Armenia's pretensions are based on a wrong conception of both the Soviet legacy and the experience of developing countries (India, in particular), which at the same time implies a very narrow and superficial understanding of the role and significance of ICTs. In the first part of this article we will present a number of conclusions and recommendations that are a result of looking at the experience of the dissemination of ICTs in developing countries, and seem to be especially relevant to evaluating the situation inArmenia.

Of course, the following question, by no means secondary, has remained unanswered as well: in the present period of rapid changes, does this model of economic takeoff still remain possible and promising, or does what was appropriate one or two decades ago already not correspond to the demands of today? The final part of the article is dedicated to a brief examination of the prospects for ICTs, and the currently widespread paradigm of the digital divide.

Development and ICTs

Developing countries must have a clear understanding of the priority problems and preferences to which the opportunities that ICTs provide are to be subordinated (in order to concentrate the existing resources on some main goals and to develop corresponding strategies). However, this subjugation of ICTs to the objectives of social and economic development has various aspects. Thus, a diversified approach toward ICTs is required of developing countries - this is one of the first recommendations that we find in the book by Andreas Crede and Robin Mansell "Knowledge Societies … in a Nutshell: Information Technology for Sustainable Development".

From the point of view of technological sufficiency, it is fundamental that there exist an up-to-date communication infrastructure is fundamental, which will be adjusted to both benefit from the advantages offered by the global networks, and to serve the local objectives efficiently. The limitations or inaccessibility (because of high costs or the lack of proper knowledge and skills) of the capabilities of the communication infrastructure may create conditions unfavorable for the country - producing an even greater dependence on outside circumstances, as well as emphasizing rather than alleviating the existing inequality within the society. The fact that Asian countries have made large investments into the communication infrastructure is also important here.

The developers of ICT strategy must know that ICTs do not operate in isolation. The benefits and risks depend on the social, economic, and organizational context in which ICTs are employed. One of the strategic priorities is the creation of opportunities to use ICTs in those segments of the economy where the country in question has the greatest potential. This implies, in particular, capabilities to adjust, preserve, localize and transform the existing solutions for ICTs in accordance to the particular local needs. Development of sensible, useful and effective ICT application in the local social-cultural context is of great importance. The expression of real needs in ICT language promotes innovation and opens up additional room for the development of local production. It means, on the one hand, to distribute evenly the local capabilities between export and the production foreseen for the internal market, and on the other hand, guided by a sensible strategy of effective ICT employment, to avoid falling into complete dependence on the import of technologies, owing to local production.

Reminding us that both technological and social capabilities are irreplaceable, the authors emphasize: "People'sskills, capabilities, and opportunities for learning are at least as important as - if not more important than - their capabilities to produce the new technologies". It must be also taken into consideration that the usually-emphasized advantage of a cheap labor force ceases to be a decisive factor. Knowledge and the advantage in its employment come to the forefront. At the same time, in parallel with the smooth expansion of communication networks, the role of education becomes greater and greater. One of the important components of the success of Asian states is the large investments made into education. The East Asian states' experience of the last decade shows the necessity of achieving threshold levels of social capability in ICT production. Such capabilities are also substantial for the efficient use of ICTs.

ICT development requires a proper science and technology policy. The possibility of innovative applications of ICTs is naturally related to the ability of local companies to conduct research and development. Together with the knowledge created in the context of their application, the new methods of producing and exchanging knowledge are of great importance for developing countries. When colliding with these new methods, the existing educational and scientific-research institutions face new problems. These problems dictate changes in organizational methods and institutional approaches. Without making appropriate changes, "many developing countries risk finding themselves locked into a mode of knowledge production that is increasingly less relevant to their specific technical, scientific, and economic needs".

And finally, clear strategies and policies are required in order to make ICTs serve the country's social and economic development: "When ICT strategies and policies are in place, a limited investment in human and technological capabilities can have an enduring, catalytic effect on development concerns…" There are no universal ways defined once and for all. There is a need for strategies fitting the peculiarities of a given country to bring the dangers to a minimum. Prudence and a balanced approach are required, for example, to withstand the threats posed by the liberalization of the market. Using innovative legislative and regulatory instruments to create new coalitions of resources is preferable to leaving ICT diffusion to the market or attempting to use a heavily centralized public-sector structure to direct the path of development... 
The passages briefly discussed above were chosen with the aim both to present the results of research and to emphasize the main omissions in the process of ICT development in Armenia. The Armenian government's approach toward this problem cannot, of course, be considered diversified. On the contrary, it is strictly one-sided. The updating of the communication infrastructure, and its efficient utilization and accessibility still remain under a question mark because of Armentel's monopoly and policies. I have already emphasized the eye-catching tendency to centralize the main capabilities of a country toward the aims of export. Similarly apparent is the isolation of the production of information technologies, both from the social sphere and the economy, including the branches considered leading. Bringing this into correspondence with the present-day requirements of the science and education system, as well as other issues of principle, still escapes the government's attention today.

The Global Digital Divide

The call to reach the West in technology production is now considered to be dangerous by a number of leading experts, as it can become a cause of the even greater dependence of these countries on the West. Replacing this utopian view in recent years as the widespread paradigm of thinking about the future of non-Western societies is the "digital divide". This carries its own superficial interpretation-"All we have to do is join together" along with the substantiation of the idea and policies of "bridging the divide"

In reality, the participation of developing countries in the global process of ICT development is more difficult today, when the Internet, rapidly spreading and gaining decisive significance, "is the technological tool and organizational form that distributes information power, knowledge generation, and networking capacity in all realms of activity". This quote is from Manuel Castells' book, "The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society", from which are also the following quotes and main assertions.

According to Castells, "the apparent simplicity of the issue [the digital divide] becomes complicated on closer examination. Is it really true that people and countries become excluded because they are disconnected from Internet-based networks? Or, rather, it is because of their connection that they become dependent on economies and cultures in which they have little chance of finding their own path of material well-being and cultural identity?"

This divide has various measurements. First, it is technological: gradually, differentiated ways of using of the Internet are taking shape (different levels of accessibility and thus clear stratification of users) based on new technological solutions. In particular, some technologies allow asymmetry between emission and reception (the reemergence of mass-broadcast on the Internet). It seems that the emergence of an imbalance based on the Internet may give birth to a great cultural and social imbalance in the future, as first-generation children of the Internet grow up in sharply different technological environments.

Second, this divide is the result of a knowledge gap, which forms a less obvious but perhaps more decisive measurement of the digital divide. The new learning is oriented toward the development of the educational capacity to transform information into knowledge and knowledge into action. According to Castells, school systems throughout the world are not in line with this goal. Furthermore, a number of circumstances of an accumulative nature are bringing about various imbalances which will condition the insurmountable knowledge gap of tomorrow. There is a substantial rift between schools from the point of view of technological sufficiency. There are sharp differences among levels of teachers as well as pedagogical methods and approaches. And because so many things are lacking in the schools, the cause of promoting children's internalization of new technologies is borne by families, and here the education of the parents plays a role in the emergence of differences.

Finally, the digital divide has a global measurement. The worldwide network based on the Internet includes certain individual segments of society (in the main city centers, social groups with globalized activities, and high-level education) and leaves out those places and segments of society that constitute a majority, which at the moment don't represent an interest. And "being disconnected, or superficially connected, to the Internet is tantamount to marginalization in the global, networked system", since today, development without the Internet is the same thing as industrialization without electricity in the Age of Industry. Thus, as Castells states, "The new model of development requires leap-frogging over the planetary digital divide". As we see, again, we are talking about take-off, but a qualitatively different take-off, one that calls for an Internet-based economy, powered by learning and knowledge-generating capacity, able to operate within the global networks of value, and supported by legitimate, efficient political institutions.

To be continued