The Internet in the Countries in Transition
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Though the countries in transition are far from being an homogeneous lot,
there are a few denominators common to their Internet experience hitherto:
1. Internet Invasion
The penetration of the Internet in the countries in transition varies from
country to country - but is still very low even by European standards, not to
mention by American ones. This has to do with the lack of infrastructure, the
prohibitive cost of services, an extortionist pricing structure, computer
illiteracy and luddism (computer phobia).
Societies in the countries in transition are inert (and most of them,
conservative or traditionalist) - following years of central mis-planning. The
Internet (and computers) are perceived by many as threatening - mainly because
they are part of a technological upheaval which makes people redundant.
2. The Rumour Mill
All manner of instant messaging - mainly the earlier versions of IRC - played
an important role in enhancing social cohesion and exchanging uncensored
information. As in other parts of the world - the Internet was first used to
communicate: IRC, MIRC e-mail and e-mail fora, and SMS (short messages services
on mobile phone and other portable devices) were - and to a large extent, are -
all the rage.
The IRC was (and is) used mainly to exchange political views and news and to
engage in inter-personal interactions. The media in countries in transition is
notoriously unreliable. Decades of official indoctrination and propaganda left
people reading between (real or imaginary) lines. Rumours and gossip always
substituted for news and the Internet was well suited to become a prime channel
of dissemination of conspiracy theories, malicious libel, hearsay and eyewitness
Instant messaging services also led to an increase in the number (though not
necessarily in the quality) of interactions between the users - from dating to
the provision of services, the Internet was enthusiastically adopted by a
generation of alienated youth, isolated from the world by official doctrine and
from each other by paranoia fostered by the political regime.
The Internet exposed its users to the west, to other models of existence
where trust and collaboration play a major role. It increase the quantity of
interaction between them. It fostered a sense of identity and community. The
Internet is not ubiquitous in the countries in transition and, therefore, its
impact is very limited. It had no discernible effect on how governments work in
this region. Even in the USA it is just starting to effect political processes
and be integrated in them (for instance, through blogs).
The Internet encouraged entrepreneurship and aspirations of social mobility.
Very much like mobile telephony - which allowed the countries in transition to
skip massive investments in outdated technologies - the Internet was perceived
to be a shortcut to prosperity. Its decentralized channels of distribution,
global penetration, "rags to riches" ethos and dizzying rate of innovation -
attracted the young and creative.
Many decided to become software developers and establish a local version of
"Silicon Valley" or the flourishing software industry in India. Anti virus
software was developed in Russia, web design services in former Yugoslavia,
e-media in the Czech Republic and so on. But this is the reserve of a minuscule
part of society. E-commerce, for instance, is a long way off (though m-commerce
might appear sooner in countries like the Czech Republic or the Baltic).
E-commerce is the natural culmination of a process. You need to have a rich
computer infrastructure, a functioning telecommunications network, cheap access
to the Internet, computer literacy, inability to postpone gratification, a
philosophy of consumerism and, finally, a modicum of trust between the players
in the economy.
The countries in transition lack all of the above. Most of them are not even
aware that the Internet exists and what it can do for them. Penetration rates,
number of computers per household, number of phone lines per household, the
reliability of the telecommunications infrastructure and the number of Internet
users at home (and at work)- are all dismally low.
On the other hand, the cost of accessing the net is still prohibitively high.
It would be a wild exaggeration to call the budding Internet enterprises in the
countries in transition - "industries". There are isolated cases of success,
that's all. They sprang in response to local demand, expanded internationally on
rare occasions and, on the whole remained pretty confined to their locale. There
was no agreement between countries and entrepreneurs who will develop what. It
was purely haphazard.
3. The Great Equalizer
Very early on, the denizens of the countries in transition have caught on to
the "great equalizer" effects of the Net. They used it to vent their
frustrations and aggression, to conduct cyber-warfare, to unleash an explosion
of visual creativity and to engage in deconstructive discourse.
By great equalizer - I meant equalizer with the rich, developed countries.
See the article I quoted above. The citizens of the countries in transition are
frustrated by their inability to catch up with the affluence and prosperity of
the West. They feel inferior, neglected, looked down upon, dictated to and, in
general, put down.
The Internet is perceived as something which can restore the balance. Only,
of course, it cannot. It is still a rich people's medium. Former US President,
Bill Clinton, pointed out the Digital Divide within America - such a divide
exists to a much larger extent and with more venomous effects between the
developed and developing world. the Internet has done nothing to bridge this gap
- on the contrary: It enhanced the productivity and economic growth (this is
known as "The New Economy") of rich countries (mainly the States) and left the
have-nots in the dust.
4. Intellectual Property
The concept of intellectual property - foreign to the global Internet culture
to start with - became an emblem of Western hegemony and monopolistic practices.
Violating copyright, software piracy and hacking became both status symbols and
a political declaration of sorts. But the rapid dissemination of programs and
information (for instance, illicit copies of reference works) served to level
the playing field.
Piracy is quite prevalent in the countries in transition. The countries in
transition are the second capital of piracy (after Asia). Software, films, even
books - are copied and distributed quite freely and openly. There are street
vendors who deal in the counterfeit products - but most of it is sold through
stores and OEMs.
I think that intellectual property will go the way the
pharmaceutical industry did: Instead of fighting windmills - owners and
distributors of intellectual property will join the trend. They are likely to
team up with sponsors which will subsidize the price of intellectual property in
order to make it affordable to the denizens of poor countries. Such sponsors
could be either multi-lateral institutions (such as the World Bank) - or
charities and donors.
About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" and
"After the Rain - How the West Lost the East". He is a columnist in "Central
Europe Review", United Press International (UPI) and ebookweb.org and the editor
of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory,
Suite101 and searcheurope.com. Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor
to the Government of Macedonia.
His web site:
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-11-03 22:44:07 in Economic Articles