Central Asia and the Low-Information Society

As I’ve recently discovered during a three-week field research trip, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and their successor states excelled and still do excel at producing – and demanding from their citizens – absurd amounts of paper and other documents, but Central Asia in particular remains one of the least digital-friendly places I have ever worked in. When I left for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (my whereabouts for the past several weeks), I had originally intended to do some blogging in addition to my dissertation research, but that soon turned out to be more fancy than fact. Finding institutions that offered both power outlets (for my notebook computer) as well as wireless internet access turned out to basically be impossible. Add to that the simple fact that I was working, and traveling a lot – sixty hours of Kyrgyz lessons with excellent teachers at the London School in Bishkek and finding some great archival documents and secondary sources at Kyrgyz libraries and archives – and blogging went, unfortunately, by the wayside.

But now that I’m back in the West (or almost – I write this post from the second leg of a brutal Bishkek-London-Houston-Los Angeles leg home before returning, shortly, to Oxford) I have more time, space, and electromagnetism to reflect. And while there’s a huge amount of information actually relating to that thing called my dissertation that I need to digest further and begin to write up for a spring that will see a lot of conferences, as I begin to reflect about this most recent trip to Central Asia (mostly Bishkek, but also a short weekend trip to Almaty, the largest city in neighboring Kazakhstan), my initial thoughts have less to do with Soviet development thought and modernization, and more to do with the idea of Central Asia as what I might dub a low-information society.

What do I mean more specifically? I can recall discussing the trip to Bishkek around Christmas time with a visiting friend who works for a major technology firm in the Bay Area. He was quite infatuated with geotagging – the technology via which actually existing sites in the real world, say a supermarket, a bus stop, or a swimming pool complex – get “tagged” through applications like Google Maps, Instagram, or Facebook. Over time, the master logic behind geotagging and “geosocial” goes, you could develop a database of not only every store, train stop, their opening times, consumer reviews, etc., for every place in the world; you could, on a more micro level, have photographs that were tagged to certain locations at certain points in time, or even tags associated with individual objects (say, a box of laundry detergent or a pair of sneakers). These developments could potentially have unprecedented consequences for privacy, but the flip side of the dream is that they’d allow for more targeted advertising (hence fewer distractions and more free services funded by advertising dollars) and greater economic efficiency. Simply knowing where, and when every bus in, say, New York, leaves, would make life, and business, much easier for a lot of people.

Over lunch, this friend remarked, jokingly, that he expected Bishkek or Kyrgyzstan in general to be a data-poor society. And in some ways, of course, he turned out to be completely right. The issue isn’t so much that there aren’t amenities in a former Soviet provincial capital like Bishkek. There’s a functioning marshrutka system that can get you where you need to go, cheaply, a bus system that largely runs, interestingly, on buses donated from China in a development initiative, and a surprisingly diverse array of stores: far too many money changers than you’d think can survive in a city of no more than a million or a million and a half people, but also legitimate, semi-sophisticated shopping centers with a good selection of consumer goods, too.

But again, the real problem is not one of amenities but rather data. In Bishkek, nobody seems to know anything, or at least the source of any information, when it comes to public amenities or the kind of information that would normally be available on Yelp! or Google or Facebook Places in the United States or Europe. I became quite familiar with the 164 marshrutka, for example which ferried me from most of my useful sites in the center of Bishkek out to the suburb where my host family lived, but other than a few placards in the windows of the other marshrutkas (i.e. “Osh Bazaar → Kiev Street → Square → Vefa Center”), it’s remarkably difficult to find out in advance where any given marshrutka actually originates, heads to, or  where it stops en route. Every Kyrgyz I asked knew nothing about the marshrutka routes other than their own – as did I – and needless to say, there’s no central database. Throw in opening hours and reviews of institutions, and you have a mess of a situation. Ironically for a place where police officers, money changes, libraries, archives, etc. seem to constantly be asking you for your dokumenty (passport, residency permit, student card, library card, etc., etc.), no one ever seems to have a fixed idea of who you are, why you’ve come to this or that particular institution, if you should be there, or whether they have the information that you’ve requested.

Riding in a Merc ... on Bishkek's Marshrutkas

(The same problem basically persists in Russia, too. While studying Russian in St. Petersburg one summer, one student managed to procure, second-hand, a map of the city that had marshrutka routes on it, and became a god among men for the rest of the time in the city. None of us, the other students, could ever find a similar copy.)

Partly for this reason, I think, some historians are starting to think more seriously about a “history of information” – how people or institutions from merchants to secret services to empires sought to sift through information and keep track of data prior to the more sophisticated consumer- and citizen-tracking innovations we’re experiencing in the early 21st century.  I have read very little in this field, but my initial hunch is that one could make an argument about different “information regimes” for different historical imperial or post-imperial situations.

Concretely in the case of Bishkek, I would speculate that two related processes are going on. One is the continued existence of a propusk (basically, a sheet of paper that allows you admittance to zones of an institution) and dokumenty-heavy system from the Soviet era that still influences institutional governance. Nowadays, in many institutions like libraries or archives all across the former Soviet space, getting things done is a huge pain in the ass, simply because your life depends on keeping track of multiple pieces of … flimsy slips of paper that have a knack for blowing away and sliding underneath cabinets at the slightest indoor draft. At the primary library in Bishkek, for example, ordering a book involves the following steps:

1)                  Put away backpacks and coats in exchange for a baggage token

2)                  Exchange passport photos, passport, and money for a library card

3)                  At front desk, show library card to obtain a kontrolnyi listok (control sheet)

4)                  Go to book ordering room, deposit library card and money in order to obtain zaiavki (order slips)

5)                  Fill out zaiavki, take them to another room, give zaiavki to order-handling office

6)                  Wait half an hour, return to book ordering room, hand in kontrolnyi listok to receive ordered books

7)                  Once done with ordered books, turn them in to receive kontrolnyi listok and library card back

8)                  Upon leaving library, hand in kontrolnyi listok (but not library card)

9)                  Hand in baggage token to obtain backpacks and coats

At the end of the process, as far as I can discern, the kontrolnyi listok is simply thrown out. Potentially, it could be turned into data to gauge who’s using what in the library, but given the lack of computers throughout, that’s highly unlikely. The real reason, one is led to suspect, is that the propusk and kontrolnyi listok system was simply a large make-work scheme back in the days that these libraries were originally built and employed large amounts of people, and when digital information technology didn’t exist, so there was no downside to retaining such a backwards system.

Now, however, institutional or societal needs for “full employment” appear to me to retard the use of almost any digital technology for these former Soviet libraries. Introducing digital catalogues, more than expensive, would beg the question of digital ordering, which would render dozens of library workers obsolete. Perhaps on a more fundamental, or speculative level, any step that would render the kontrolnyi listok obsolete would broach the question of why library employees spend a significant amount of their time keeping track of something thinner than toilet paper, and why library users have to devote more mental energy to not losing their listok than to … actually carrying out research.

Digital catalogue, what's that?

I have no idea how these libraries will evolve – or not – in the next twenty to thirty years, but I will be curious to see how obsolete they can become as institutions before nobody uses them (besides history geeks like your author here) or they’re forced to respond to change, somehow. It’ll be interesting.

If this Soviet institutional legacy, driven by a need for “full employment”, is one of the factors driving the low-information society in Central Asian countries, I also wonder about the extent one could view low-information societies as a defense mechanism against foreign commercial or political penetration in a digital age.

The starting point for the thinking here is the work of the respected Yale anthropologist James C. Scott, who has written extensively on governance and means of state control, especially in the mountain highlands of Southeast Asia but also more synthetically in other works. In some of his recent works, Scott has argued that some of the cultural traits we view as “backwards” in Southeast Asian mountain highland societies – cultivation of grains other than rice, illiteracy, tribalism – represent less a  failure to make some teleological leap forward to more advanced societies (centralized states with highly productive agriculture), and rather a conscious choice on the part of local populations to opt out of, or avoid the ambitions of states in the area.

While I’m reluctant to make any definite conclusions about what the deal is in Bishkek, or other Central Asian low-information societies, I wonder how much Scott’s theory about “backwardness” as a defense against penetration might capture part of the situation in a place like Bishkek. Without ever fully embracing IT technology in businesses, or having a modern, reliable transportation network beyond a system of ill-regulated taxis, Bishkek, or Almaty or Tashkent for that matter, is unlikely to become a reliable – predictable, one might say – commercial hub in the way that formerly backwards places like Seoul, Dubai, or Tel Aviv were only fifty or sixty years ago. The same is true of public administration: as I learned from attending a seminar with Kyrgyz MPs, many legislators in what is Central Asia’s most open and democratic country rely purely on anecdotal evidence from constituents and trips to their regions, rather than statistical analysis produced by economists or policy wonks when it comes to decisions like what the country’s policies on casinos in Bishkek should be. There’s no objective reason why politicians should have to avail themselves of such think tanks and so on, but he quality of governance might be higher if they did.

Buckle up when flying with Air Kyrgyzstan

And yet the advantage of staying “backwards” for both the private and public sector alike is that it makes it difficult for “sophisticated,” often Western or Chinese firms, to dominate the marketplace or exert undue influence on policymaking. It’s possible that someone could try to expand the data set fo Yelp! to Bishkek, but would it work in a society in which few people eat out and in which restaurants often seem to exist to execute a few standard dishes – laghman, plov, borshch – and there’s not the same individualistic culture of foodiness-as-identity that some bicoastal Americans cultivate? I’m not so sure. Foreign airlines, like British Midland Airways and Turkish Airlines operate comfortable flights in and out of Bishkek, with far, far, far better safety records than Kyrgyz carriers. Yet in spite of the known safety issues and often comparable prices, the Kyrgyz carriers manage to stay afloat, in part because everyone seems to rely on physical travel agencies with special in-deals for the national carriers, rather than the sophisticated flight search engines like Hipmunk that I increasingly rely on when making travel decisions. Cultural preferences and and institutional preference to keep things analog and dokumenty-heavy make it difficult for friction-reducing technologies like search engines or consumer reviews to have their maximum impact. Legislation, too, remains imperfect, but at least it’s our imperfect, uninformed by the technocratic (but potentially suspect or alien) thinking of foreign consultants.

Will places like Bishkek look more like San Francisco than Kabul by, say, 2030? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t rule a “no” out, either. Increasingly, young Central Asians appear at ease with technology, and more and more people have smart phones, even in a country as poor as Kyrgyzstan. But what some of the digital utopianists may miss is how much people still rely on in-groups (family, extended family, regional clan) to make important decisions about purchases and for information in general. Having a smartphone may mean that you now stay even more connected with the guy who’s the brother of the uncle of the fiancee of your aunt – not that you’re suddenly creating large amounts of data in the same way that more individualistic, less community-bound Western tech consumers are.

It would be sad if countries like Kyrgyzstan – which was wonderfully open and easy to do research to in comparison to Russia or Tajikistan – continued down the road of low data and low information in ways that made it frustrating and difficult for outsiders to show up and get on with life in cities like Bishkek or Almaty. Many might be turned off from visiting or discovering these countries, which would be a real shame, especially as the region’s future remains unclear after an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. For now, I’m happily plugged in, turned on, and ready to roll for a productive Hilary Term at Oxford – but also eyeing the next flight back to an information-poor but people-rich part of the world.

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