New Technology for a New Nation: Building an Internet Culture in Estonia
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As in many areas of the history of technology, studies of the Internet are still largely limited to the United States and other established capitalist democracies. More research is needed on how such technologies are created, disseminated, and used in the very different context of emerging nations undergoing rapid political, economic, and cultural change. In this paper I explore the development of the Internet in Estonia since its introduction in June 1992, less than a year after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Estonia’s speed in establishing an Internet infrastructure has been remarkable: in the first six years it connected over 20,000 computers, making Estonia the 15th highest European country in network connections per capita. As these figures suggest, Estonians have not been mere passive recipients of foreign technology; rather, various groups in Estonia have actively embraced the Internet for a wide range of economic and social ends. Despite the country’s commitment to free-market economics, commercial enterprises did not take the lead in providing network services. Rather, the government promoted Internet growth through its education and economic policies. A national educational network, EENet, was established in 1993, and in 1997 the Ministry of Education launched a program called Tiger Leap to upgrade the nation’s school system and connect every school to the Internet. The government also created the EEBone network to interconnect the nation’s fifteen county capitals, support regional development, and—looking toward increased economic integration with Europe—help Estonia participate in the European Union’s plans for a “Global Information Society.” In addition, non-governmental organizations such as the Open Estonia Foundation have provided funds to create Estonian-oriented Web content and to train the public in the use of the Internet, and a United Nations report on human development in Estonia has recommended increased public access to information technology. Another important factor in encouraging Internet growth has been Estonia’s historically close ties with Finland, which leads Europe in Internet connectivity and provides Estonia’s link to the rest of the Internet. After assessing the relative importance of economic, political, geographic, and cultural factors in accelerating Internet participation in Estonia, I ask how expansion of Internet access has affected Estonian society. One already visible symptom is a generation gap: surveys show that while 3/4 of Estonian teenagers have used computers, only 1/5 of their parents have done so. Other data suggest that Estonians have adopted a cooperative approach to using what is still a scarce and expensive technology, often going to friends’ and neighbors’ homes to use computers. Drawing on field research, I will attempt to uncover ordinary Estonians’ attitudes toward and motivations for Internet use; the ways in which different social groups have appropriated this technology for their own aims; and how the Internet has fit into—or disrupted—established cultural practices.