By Radiona Nikova

"Like the first Christians who announced heaven as a place where the human soul would be free from weaknesses and the sins of the flesh, today's cyberspace enthusiasts praise it as the place where people will be free from the limitations of the physical form." Margarette Wertheim - "The Pearly Gates Of Cyberspace " The analogy between cyberspace and the Christian notion of heaven is hardly an accidental thought. The computer has become a "cult" object, the Internet a medium and a sign for change, and "change is the process through which future befalls" (according to the futurist Alvin Toffler). The feeling, and perhaps the hope, is that this change isn't just technological. Tim Burners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, who provoked the boom of the Internet in the beginning of the 90's, says the social effect is most important. The development of information technologies intensified talk of "the information society". In the last 20 years this topic has been overridden and legitimised by the development of the communication industry, as well as by the state and political programmes. Digitalisation and technological convergence, interactivity and possible virtuality transform the concepts of space and time, values and meanings... New technologies change the medium and the people, offer new solutions to social, philosophical and personal problems. The Two-faced Janus The new information technologies have been accepted with diverse feelings varying from admiration to fear. What is behind these feelings is a kind of cultural "predetermination" and a specific blend of human "ingredients". The "digital revolution" has given birth to new models of behaviour, life to new values. The culture of "the fast life", of flexibility and non-durability is sometimes rather simplistically connected with "Americanisation", which the majority of Europeans understand as the invasion of McDonald's and the American cinema. The European insistence on its own cultural identity reveals, according to some research, the fear a fast-coming "tomorrow". The USA's progress is indeed turning into a "challenge" (a word often used by the institutions in Brussels) to the citizens of the Old World. And when the idea for a "new world order" is linked with the challenges, the ambitions and the political programmes become more understandable with the help of the new technologies... The change seems different in the eyes of politicians, industrialists, scientists, and "ordinary" people. This last category links new technologies with their everyday use - mobile phones, computers, digital television, the Internet. The Web is one of the symbols of the new technological changes. The duality of the name is obvious - you are either "entangled" in the Web, or you simply do not exist, you are "saved" and "sacrificed" at the same time. In fact this duality is probably the only certain sign of the change. The process of technological change is so accelerated that the processing of data and its obsolescence happen at the same time. The authenticity, to the extent to which it is possible, is not in the reality, but in the imagination: the virtual is equated with the real. Enthusiasts stress freedom of choice, the freedom of identification on the Web. Sceptics stress the manipulativeness and the fictitiousness of freedom, which incorporates the possibility for global and total control (one of the most depressing scenarios of George Orwell). To the former the speed of life on the Web and the world context of messages (irrelevant of their character) are a source of euphoria. To the latter they are a source of pain and fear for their national and personal identity. The lack of hierarchy and bureaucracy on the Web are to some an opportunity for "purifying" communication, and to others - a threat for the whole system of societal links. "The end of history" or "the end of geography?" asks Zygmunt Bauman in his book "Globalization" (referring to the theses of Francis Fukuyama and Paul Virillio). Distances don't matter in the same way any longer. The idea of geo-physical borders in the real world is increasingly difficult to sustain... "All socially-produced factors of constituting, dividing and upholding collective identities such as state borders or cultural barriers seem, in retrospect, simply secondary effects of the speed of moving." THE REAL WORLD IS ON THE "WEB" The information society has been transformed into an ideology for the new generation. What better way is there for them to find an intellectual adventure which can differentiate them from us, give them a feeling of their own identity, significance and future? To be able to communicate with someone, irrelevant of who he is and who you are (in the digital identity you could be a dog, as Nicholas Negroponte shockingly puts it), irrelevant of time and place, irrelevant of topic - is something really amazing. In fact, the technological, economic and political rivalry "on" and "for" the Internet is a battle for utopias, for perceptions, for the reason for existence. How can one preserve the humanistic dimension of communication when its instrumental dimension is overpowering? This is a late and perhaps also pointless question. For whom has the future arrived too early? To each one of us the "information society" has different dimensions. The degree and speed of penetration of new technologies vary according to different regions of the world, as well as according to the fields of human activity. What for some is reality, is a vague prospect for others. There are reasons to talk about "the new aristocracy", "the new elite" - those who "own" the technologies and through them power, control, speed and the future. Shocking predictions for the next century prophesy "feudalism of the avant-garde technologies beyond banal democracy". The global network of communications is promoted in the political context as a possibility for equal participation (by everyone to everyone). But this trait also hides its duality - to some it is an "open door", to others it is a "thin cut" in a thick wall.


Another scenario speculates that the Internet may resurrect the idea of direct democracy. Around 250 000 people in Bulgaria use the Web (the figure is provided by "The Internet Society"). Becoming equal as a result of this technological revolution is as illusory, as with every other revolution. Will new technologies reduce the differences between North and South, East and West? If it happens at all, it will not be as rapidly as we wish. "What computers do today for third world counties is register their collapse". These are conclusions of the followers of admirable, but unachievable ideas for the mankind of today - especially the one for equality. The idea for "accelerated development" through new technologies has been launched recently. What they have in mind are the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which could possibly compensate their economic retardation by using technological inventions more actively. It is an enticing opportunity, but whether it is realistic, the future will show. Countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, with archaic communication systems, have the option of installing the most modern technologies in their process of modernisation. This makes sense, if as a starting point it is accepted that less effort will be needed to start "from scratch" than to try to reorganise what exists. The same principle could be valid for the process of "studying" in the information society, too. But will the poorer and less technically developed countries be able to upgrade, to reinvest in technological renewal after this good start? In the medium-term this "catching up" might have no effect. After the international forum on the information society in Helsinki at the end of last year, it became clear that the "Schengen barrier" would be lifted for Bulgarian computer specialists because they were needed in the EU member states. An invitation from Chancellor Schroeder followed. It would really be an anachronism to proclaim the "information society" and at the same time attempt to build new walls and increase the distance. In fact, Bulgaria's invitation to start negotiations for membership to the European Union should be reviewed in the context of globalisation and digitalisation, which will anyway change all institutions and the organisation of our lives. The "internetisation" of the social field makes borders meaningless: the time when not only most capital and goods, but also labour, will "move" on the Web is not far ahead... In the same way it is now possible to buy a product or a service by a click of the mouse, it will also be possible to "click" and be a part of the labour market. New technologies boost employment. In the USA, companies connected directly to the Internet offer 2,3 million jobs apart from the jobs they create indirectly. It is generally acknowledged that high technologies are the most promising direction for which Bulgaria could find its place in the world's distribution of labour. But while we plan how to adapt ourselves to the standards of United Europe, I hope we don't fail to notice that Europe is also trying to acquire a quicker rhythm in "meeting" the future. Europe is indeed facing its most serious challenge for the next decades - the information society and one of its manifestations - the Internet. EUROPE - OVERCOMING THE RETARDATION There are different degrees of inequality. According to recent (March 2000) statistical data, published in the Angus Reid report, there are 300 million Internet users in the world. 39% of them are Americans. In the USA 59% of the population have access to Internet, in Japan 33%. The advantage which some American and Asian states have in the production and mass consumption of new technologies challenges "European ambitions". But "digital inequality" exists in the Old World too. For example, 49% of households in Sweden, 9% in France and 15% in the UK are connected to the Internet (Le Monde, 15 Dec 1999.) To continue with the "Swedish example" - 60% of households are equipped with personal computers thanks to a preferential regime of tax deduction. In that country, with around 9 million inhabitants more and more bank transactions are carried out via the Internet. Sweden doesn't hide its desire to be the European leader in new information technologies. It wishes to create a European Agency for Information Technologies, Communications and Services on its territory (Brussels has not categorically approved this yet). Its main competitor could be Finland, whose progress in this field has received recognition by the appointment of Erkki Liikanen as the European Commissioner for Enterprise and Information Society. Today's Europe is at the level of development which the USA was at three years ago (according to experts' opinions) and cannot afford to fall further behind. This provoked the initiative "e-Europe - Information Society for All" several months before the extraordinary meeting of the European Council in Lisbon on March 23 - 24, 2000. Portugal, which has held the Presidency of the EU since January 1, 2000, included among its priorities the "review of the European strategy for economic growth, competitiveness and employment" in the context of radical technological changes and globalisation. The President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, personally embraced the ambitious task of developing the "economy of knowledge" in specific steps during the next decade. The aim announced by the Commission is that all European schools from Greece to Scandinavia should be connected to the Internet by 2001. The member states achieved a consensus on the need for implementing a legal frame for the electronic trade (during 2000) and for the liberalisation of the telecommunications market (by the end of 2001). Companies will be encouraged to develop their business on the Internet, investments in people and ideas will be made (up to 40 billion EURO). The candidate members are also urged to get involved in these efforts. New technologies are exactly what is needed to accelerate accession. Perhaps the most important fact is that Europe will change more quickly than we imagine today. We must retune our "national" and personal expectations and strategies for the speed and the depth of this change, in order to be in tune with the future, not with the past