The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

yet another european tri-color
Big countries and companies talk a lot of smack about harnessing the power of the Internet to make life easier: Using electronic means to reduce or eliminate unnecessary paperwork, speed up communications and get instant feedback. But we all know it's mostly talk. Established organizations--whether public or private--are so hidebound and married to ancient procedure that change comes along at a snail's pace. That's why it'll be a few years before you can do most of your business on the Web.

Unless you live in Estonia, that is. This former Soviet republic, where most people didn't even own a house phone ten years ago, is now the most cyberspaced country in Europe. Half the population engages in online banking, to the point where most people never even deal with a Western-style paper checkbook.

How can this be? I think this is key:

Estonia's progress is especially impressive considering its condition at the time of the Soviet collapse, when you could count the number of modern personal computers on two hands, said technology consultant Linnar Viik. That relative backwardness proved an unexpected benefit. Estonia leapfrogged countries wedded to older technologies.

So often, legacy technologies serve as shackles to progress. This is the whole reason for the Rust Belt, for instance. It's also a way for the bottom-feeders to gain advantage, as is the case for Estonia here. I understand that mobile phone technology has made similar large gains in Africa, because the dearth of traditional phone lines made it a snap for people to commit to wireless services.

Even government in Estonia has caught the e-wave:

"Cabinet meetings used to take between four and 12 hours," said Tex Vertmann, the prime minister's chief technology adviser. "Today, they take between 10 minutes and an hour."

Impressive. But what's with the name of that technology adviser: Tex Vertmann? Tex? I have trouble picturing an Estonian politico wearing a ten-gallon (litre?) hat and cowboy boots...