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  • Rashid

Digitalisation in Central Asia: In need of perspectives beyond big cities

Updated: 6 days ago


Digital media transformed the way people receive and share information, subsequently reshaping the modes and impact of ubiquitous visibility, influence operations, political participation, surveillance, and other domains and practices. These transformations received substantial scholarly attention through an urban-centered lens. The field of digital transformation more broadly constitutes an unjustifiably urban-centric discipline, almost synonymous with city life. University degree programmes reflecting on smart, vital, and super diverse cities are actively introduced across geographical contexts, while the rural remains on the scientific outskirts.


Neglecting to comprehensively and systematically explore how digital transformation manifests beyond big cities imposes a great risk on digital newcomers. Moreover, it limits knowledge production and informed policy formation.

In Central Asia too, the urban bias is prevalent. Prominent journalists and media outlets operate from the cities and go out to the perceived “periphery” for reports intended to inform and entertain urban dwellers. Major political and cultural events are urban by default. With rare exceptions (for instance, the University of Central Asia), education and science are urbanized and positioned as hubs of enlightenment which the rural folk need to aspire to. Expert round tables, focus group discussions, and population surveys are also rather city-oriented.


When statistics on the Internet penetration rates are presented with pride, little attention is given to the unequal distribution of access to the World Wide Web.

Such urban centrism is especially unjustifiable in Central Asia, given the significant rural population size. In some countries, this number is around half, with 42% in Kazakhstan, 47% in Turkmenistan and 50% in Uzbekistan; and in some, it is at two-thirds or more: 63% in Kyrgyzstan, and 72% in Tajikistan.


In this post, I make a case for an urgent need to explore the impact of digital transformation beyond big cities in Central Asia. In what follows, I first provide a working definition of urban/rural areas and dwellers, taking into account the variety of markers and layers of nuances. I then address the case of a remote community in Zardaly village in Batken Region of Kyrgyzstan, as an example of what digital transformation studies could and should address in the region and bring to the global scientific discussion. 



The rural and the urban: in search of definitions 


There are various approaches to defining the rural and the urban. Of course, there is a more general perception of cities as cultural hubs and civilisation cradles. States take pride in spotlighting their ancient cities older than or at least as old as Babylon. Moreover, there is the perception of central and peripheral. Here Central Asia itself, in spite of being central to those who live there and study the region, remains beyond the mainstream scientific focus. Central Asia Studies programmes are scarce globally and the waves of interest in the region are sporadic and unstable. 


Some schools of thought aim at restricting the rural and the urban focus on population sizes and density. This approach is also problematic as the rural can exist so close to the city and, paradoxically, even within city limits. Here I am thinking about Namangan city limits where my neighbours had orchards, chickens, sheep and cows. At the same time, households that resemble the rural within the city have access to state services, which may not be the case far beyond big cities.


Amid the variety of markers, it is important to dwell on some imaginations and contexts. Perhaps, we could focus on modes of production. After all, agriculture is an integral part of the rural. Protesting farmers, for instance, self-identify as food producers who are at risk of being pushed out from the market by corporations.


Thus, the rural is in charge of food production. Essentially, it feeds the urban. The urban, on the other hand, is in charge of technology production that is subsequently exports to the rural.

But there is also the issue of connectivity. In Central Asia, some rural areas are disconnected from the rest of the country by physical infrastructure and the Internet. Urban technology products penetrate the rural, but what happens next? Let’s take a look at a digitalization success story on the example of Zardaly village in Kyrgyzstan. 

 

The case of Zardaly

 

Zardaly village in Batken province of Kyrgyzstan appeared in the news in 1999 when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) captured the village hostage in an attempt to advance into Uzbekistan and overthrow the government there. Since then, everyone seems to have forgotten about the place, until Internet Society’s Kyrgyzstan chapter brought the “Internet in a box” to the village on donkey backs. An isolated village suddenly became famous once again. With time they brought digital devices and installed solar panels to bridge the digital divide and connect Zardaly residents to the rest of the country and the whole wide world in a sustainable manner. This is a truly unique case where technology can work towards progress and the improvement of the livelihood of people living in remote areas.


Now Zardaly community benefits from digital literacy courses and some dwellers use the Internet to demand services from the state. The state that would not have noticed the village without the Internet.

 

At the same time, it is important to take a few steps back and invest in a thorough understanding of how the arrival of digital devices and connection to the Internet is impacting such remote communities. Here, a variety of inquiries is due. Education and business uses of technology aside, what news content are people exposed to? How is this exposure to digital news impacting perceptions of local dwellers? How do they navigate through propaganda, disinformation and conspiracies that flood the Internet? Are there any steps taken to prevent potential digital crimes from penetrating along with technology? If so, are these measures also urban-centric, or do they account for the rural?


On the example of Zardaly, scholars should investigate the multitude of consequences of digital connectivity.

When residents of remote areas are suddenly equipped with digital technology they too become content producers. So, does this ability to create content bridge the rural/urban divide? This dynamic concerns communication within the immediate community, with fellow citizens at the country level, with state authorities and with the world at large. 


Conclusion 


The unexplored rural terrain offers exciting opportunities for the otherwise urban-centric field of digital transformation. A rural focus is urgent, especially in the contexts where the rural population is large and growing. The benefits of a rural focus are of high societal and scientific relevance. At the societal level, there is an urgent need to build knowledge on the impact of digital transformation in a variety of practices ranging from news consumption to political participation, surveillance, visibility weaponisation and everything in between. This knowledge is central to ensuring a safe and secure transition of newcomer communities into the digital world. At the same time, there is much to learn from the rural be it potential resilience, digitally-mediated entrepreneurship, content creation beyond cities and other practices that are currently neglected.

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Daimerian Mir Ahmad
Daimerian Mir Ahmad
Jul 06

This is a good starting point on digital connectivity in rural CA. Despite you mentioned that rural populations could have a say in politics and decisions made for them with digital connectivity, it, however, sparks the readers curiosity to know what concrete changes digital transformation have brought into the lives of people in Zardaly and other villages. Is it a force for good? How?

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Rashid
Jul 06
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Thank you, Mir Ahmad! Hard to judge at this point. More research is needed, hence the call for a rural focus :)

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