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Tere Tulemast to Tartu and e-Estonia

Tartu, Estonia
Well, after a brief few days visiting family in Germany we've now made it to the 100,000-strong university city of Tartu in southeastern Estonia (the country's second-largest city). I'm here for the CATaC 2006 (or Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication) conference, which will take place here over the next three days. This is actually my second time here in Estonia - ISEA2004 was in Tallinn, and the presence of such conferences is a clear sign of the keen interest of the Estonian university and government sector in embracing technological and intellectual advances. By now Estonia is one of the best-connected countries of the world, with WiFi hotspots virtually everywhere in the major centres.

The opening keynote for the conference is given by Marju Lauristin from Tartu University, presenting a review of the Estonian experience in moving from post-communism to an e-society. She notes that for a long time, Tartu (the site of a Soviet air base) was a closed city which could not accept visitors, so that an international conference like CATaC still marks a significant change. But Estonian as a small language also enabled a certain amount of resistance to Soviet rule - it provided the base for an oral oppositional culture which remained unintelligible to the rulers in Moscow, which Marju characterises as driving an 'anti-information society'.

Throughout the 1990s, Estonia experiences a post-communist transition, from which it is now emerging as a budding information society, or e-Estonia. This is a significant change for a society in which Daniel Bell as a forbidden author (which meant that such books were available only on special permission). Soviet-style technological modernisation or scientific communism was technologically determinist: it was modernisation without liberation - but Bell's form of technological determinism showed that society could not remain the same if technological developments continued. Information freedom, which became increasingly necessary with further technological development, was an explosive idea, and the assumed progressive role of the proletariat could be deconstructed.

The idea of the information society has been accepted as a key goal both in Eastern and Western European countries, but especially post-communist countries have embraced it strongly. Such countries, or transition cultures, were shown a roadmap for development by international bodies like the World Bank, as a pathway to 'catching up' with the West, in a somewhat patronising and overly monitorial fashion - the development of an information society was seen as a potential shortcut to success, an 'e-Tigerleap'. If Estonia could become an e-'test site', then this could significantly advance the country's development - and so policies to place computers and Internet access in all Estonian schools were instituted. E-commerce and mobile services have become commonplace in Estonia; 60% of the population have Internet access (and 90% of school children have computers at home). It is difficult to single out the contribution of any one government policy, but overall the success of the country is evident: economic growth was above 11% in the first quarter of 2006, and unemployment has dropped steadily; Estonia ranked first amongst the accession countries recently accepted into the European Union.

At the same time, the gap between rich and poor has widened, and welfare and social service levels remain lower than in Western Europe. Surrounding the development of ICT-based infra- and institutional structures are four elements of Estonian development:

  • R&D and the development of a knowledge economy (which remain relatively low);
  • changes through e-consumption and lifestyles (which are limited);
  • new forms of cultural (re)production (which need to be further explored);
  • and new social divisions (which need to be addressed).

This means that there are strengths and weaknesses to Estonian e-society, then. Motivation for change, competitive orientation, flexibility, openness to learning, readiness to overcome hardships, an educated population, and rapid ICT development are all amongst the strengths of Estonian development - while growing consumerism, regional and social disparities, dependence on foreign capital, strong hierarchies and bureaucratisation, a weak state, and a lack of strategic vision indicate potential pitfalls for further advancement (and some such problems, such as overbureaucratisation, might mirror what is happening in the European Union overall).

In terms of social divisions, Marju presents a study comparing new media consumption and social position in Estonia (as indicated by subjects themselves). The study shows that new media consumption and people's perception of their status is related quite directly to personal wealth as well as to the level of use of mobile phones, computers, and the Internet - but not to use of newspapers and television. There are also correlations between Internet usage and education levels (and indeed the highest users are still in secondary education at this point), and a mild division between Estonian and Russian speakers living in Estonia is beginning to emerge (also because Russian-language schools sometimes lack the knowledge of how to apply for government funding for Internet access).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teenagers aged 15-18 are distinct from all other groups by their extremely high and multifunctional use of the Net. Schools face difficulties in providing an attractive environment to such students if they continue in a traditional information-delivery format that is teacher-centred and does not involve learners as interactive participants, but the institutional structure of schooling is slow to react to such changing needs. Beyond this, it also spells trouble for political institutions, e-government, and e-democracy, if students cannot be attracted to such engagement.

Estonia, in fact, has conducted the world's first e-elections in recent local elections, where voters could participate online from their PCs rather than coming to the voting booths. However, young expert computer users who were mainly targetted by such developments on the whole did not participate, possibly because the Websites of political parties and related organisations did not provide attractive offers of information and participation. This means that the Estonian technological progress as yet has not been matched by political and social development.

There is a need for empowerment for women, youth, and minorities; for better civic education; and for more social and institutional change to match technological advances. As Bell said in 1973: "the essential questions are those of values."

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