In Central Asia, The Internet Is a Superior Good

In a recent study, Chyi and Yang found Americans consider the internet an economically inferior good to newspaper content and television coverage. In other words, given increased income Americans will favor newspapers and television as a news source over the internet. The study suggested that while people have no greater emotional attachment to any particular medium, a combination of presentation and ease of access makes print media and television a more favorable way to consume daily information.

Print media and television are certainly not better quality sources of information. In fact Stuart Allan has argued effectively, most recently in a discussion of the development of the BBC online service, that to rebuke the citizen journalist or the amateur content creator in favor of refereed sources is to ignore trends and close off avenues of research and knowledge that scholarship or professional journalism might not explore. The argument that Information Communication Technology or Computer Mediated Communication displace more meaningful information consumption is pedantic, as has been argued by Sharon Strover and others.*

The idea that an increase in income would mean a decrease in internet news consumption does not stand in the case of Central Asia. Discussions by Khan and Annasoltan at neweurasia have shown that in the Turkmen situation (although it is certainly a transferable argument) the internet can only become freely accessible when it is privatized in Habermasian style. The freedom of the internet and the treatment of online content access as an economic good which people can invest in is essential. In early March Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine blogged that the goal of having more direct connections with content creators is not simply creating the fastest possible access to content; it is to create communities and meaningfully engage people. If we do this then people will be urged to take part in movements, Godin’s modern tribes. The goal of privatization of the media is to free the censorship of content from the region, but this is only the end product. The real value of the internet in Central Asia is it’s ability to facilitate connections and build networks that allow the dissemination of information.

Online movements and networks have been shown to take a variety of forms. They might be overt such as in the case of the using Twitter as a means of communication during the 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan (Kendzior) , but they can also be subtle and still have effect. This subtlety is addressed in Shklovski’s piece discussing online engagement in Kazakhstan. Wei and Kolko’s 2005 work argued that the choice to use a language other than Uzbek online could indicate a form of resistance. While the majority of internet users in the region do not actively produce content (Dreisbach), the study of the shift in format of the neweurasia website from a blogging website to a bridge between professional journalism and citizen-produced content is evidence that bloggers “operate on the intra-regional level, creating links between Russian-language blogs and those in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen” (Wilkinson & Jetpyspayeva). The creation of more and more links between content, the incorporation of more citizens into the network, and the dissemination of information by these citizens strengthens the internet’s status as a superior good.

Truth is the most valuable resource in Central Asia. Like cotton or gold or water it is one that is controlled by the state. Costs of access to the good remain high. The most commonly discussed barrier to entry is the censorship and monitoring of content and online activity. As the Committee to Protect Journalists points out, each state in the region exhibits practices that strongly discourage journalists from producing content online, as a recent letter from the director of the CPJ reminds us. A discussion of media laws in the region by Ziccardi points out that “even a simple blog is legally subject to all the same requirements obligations and liabilities as a news magazine or journal”.

However, the greatest challenge to accessing information online is a lack of education. The Asian Development Bank’s 2012 Summary of ICT in Education in Central and West Asia found that telecoms in the region were unwilling to provide service to unprofitable areas, and that when projects were implemented the emphasis was on hardware rather than educating instructors or users. This is reminiscent of Soviet style quotas, updated for the digital world. Thankfully, a lack of education does not prevent the use of the technology especially for young people, as suggested in this talk by Sugata Mitra. This strategy will only slow development in the region, but it will not stop people from desiring access to online information.

Although income is a factor, ICT education is the primary barrier to online information. Overcoming the gap in education gives access to new sources of information, the ability to build networks, and  the opportunity to form your own opinions and share them. Even in an environment of censorship and oppression citizens continue to report on issues that matter to them and even more defy laws to access information. This makes internet news sources and online information access a superior good in Central Asia.

*Chyi and Yang, Allan, and Strover articles can all be found in:
Lee, Francis LF, et al., eds. Frontiers in New Media Research. Vol. 15. Routledge, 2012.