Drazen Pantic on Tue, 3 Mar 1998 11:10:18 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Mongolia report

Mongolia on line: from Genghis Khan to Bill Gates

Ulan Bator, 15-21 February, 1998

The OSI, Budapest and Mongolia, organised a training course in electronic
publishing in February in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. The purpose of the
training was to impart the necessary skills to newcomers in the world of
electronic publishing and electronic media. Mongolia has been on line for
almost a year, taking a quantum leap into a new era.  Years of living
behind whatever kind of curtain had left their mark, so very few people in
Mongolia were in a position to take advantage of the new possibilities of
global self-expression.

Because of this, the Mongolian government and the OSI felt that intensive
training in the new media could bridge the gap and also identify new
potential within the nation. The training team, from Britain, OSI Budapest
and B92 Belgrade, were an interesting combination of personalities, skills
and interests.

The basic goal of the course was to teach electronic publishing skills to
the Mongolian participants. These included CD preparation, Web and
Internet techniques and an approach towards more advanced broadcast
techniques on the Internet and electronic media in general.  Each
participant made an Internet project, designing a Web page and going
through the steps of collecting material, preparation and selection and
final assembly.  A competition was held with a prize for the designers of
the best pages.

The participants were impressive, both in their sheer numbers and their
determination to learn new facts and acquire new skills.  From an initial
enrolment of 25, the group jumped to 150, of all ages and occupations.  A
large number of young people were included, but there were more from older
age groups actively participating.  The reception of each new technique or
area of knowledge was unique and touching.  By way of example, after a
lecture on copyright and privacy issues on the Internet, the whole group of
more than 100 participants stood and applauded in an emotional outburst.
Only in this place at this time could a lecture of this kind induce such an
emotional reaction.  And in the face of such a reaction, a lecturer is
simply overcome by his own personal limitations.  Almost all the time,
contact with the group was an open, two-way street:  the trainers would
impart the facts and practice of the new media, while the participants
would lead us towards really important matters.

At present Mongolia has just one Internet service provider, Datacomm.  The
company is young and is owned and managed by a very intelligent and
progressive group of people.  Besides the obvious possibility of
monopolistic behaviour, Datacomm still acts, to a large extent, as a
missionary organisation.  They are also providing daily training as far as
the human limitations of the staff permit.  The company has more than 1,000
users.  There are two places for access by the general public:  a classroom
of the Technical University, with more than 50 computers (which is where
the training took place), and a centre for Internet education.  This
provides the broader public with a venue for cyber-gathering.  The overall
bandwidth in and out of the country is 128 kbs, which is adequate, but
Datacomm has announced a planned expansion.  New providers are also about
to set up.  The price for Internet access is still high, even by
international standards.  This is the consequence of extremely expensive
satellite time and international telephone lines.

Internet and satellite technology are seen in Mongolia as tools for more
than one purpose.  On the international scale, the principle is to present
the country to the world and forge closer links with people worldwide, as
well as entering electronic commerce (whatever that is).  On the domestic
scene, the new technologies are a vehicle for internal cohesion.  Mongolia
is a huge country, with an area almost as great as Europe, but a population
of only 2.5 million.  The telecommunications infrastructure is very poor,
and some regions have no connection at all except for poor quality lines to
the capital, Ulan Bator.  So e-mail exchange and satellite links are a must
if the country is to function in a normal way.

The media scene in Mongolia is particularly unclear, at least to the casual
visitor.  Both print and electronic media are very keen to keep the public
informed with modern news programs, in what they see as a world standard
package.  State television is highly dominant over all other media.
Domestic news preoccupations are more or less educational, ranging from
advice to Mongolians to eat more vegetables, to discussion on whether
prostitution is good for tourism or bad because of the danger of AIDS.  All
television channels, including the state broadcaster, carry regular soap
operas which I suspect, judging by their quality and apparent budget, have
their origins in Russian anti-copyright corporations.  On the other hand,
state television, which leases eight hours of satellite time per day, is
willing to allow independent media to use four hours of that time which it
has not programmed.  Mongolian Television called on the private
broadcasters to provide programming, preferably non-documentary, for the
unused hours.

There are four independent radio and television stations operating in
Mongolia.  They carry little information or political programming, offering
a daily fare of MTV-like broadcasts, serials and films.  So it is very
difficult to talk about critical independent media in the sense we are used
to.  The reason for this situation is not necessarily suppression or any
reluctance to indulge in critical discourse.  The likely reason is that
Mongolia is, to a large extent, a society very free from conflict.  There
is basic social consensus on the major questions of state legislation,
economy and religion.  There may well be more profound conflicts concealed
by the belief that economic development without turbulence will achieve the
most for the welfare of the nation.

Buddhism and tradition are in public focus in these times.  During the
hardline communist period, Buddhism was not banned but, as recently as
1938, more than a million Mongols were killed in a Russian Bolshevik attack
on "the opium of the people".  Traditional arts and culture were also
suppressed, along with all that is now important in the cultural life of
Mongolia.  In recent years many Buddhist monasteries have been rebuilt or
renovated with government funds and supervision.  Many beautiful artefacts
have come to light.  One of the most exciting moments we shared during our
ten days there was a concert by a prominent traditional music group.  The
concert was in honour of Diane Weyermann, Arts & Culture OSI program.
Together, we were the only audience in an otherwise empty hall.  The
orchestra was dressed traditionally carrying their traditional horse
violins.  The concert began and we were exposed to the incredibly tender
and beautiful strains of a music we knew little about.  The strange and
beautiful voices and sounds were a divine revelation, carrying us back to
the glorious time of Genghis Khan.

Knowing what was achieved by this nation in the Genghis Khan era through
discipline and determination, and feeling through the music surrounding us
the beauty of their culture, the question in the minds of everybody in that
hall was where the tools and arms of the new era will take this brave and
determined people.  Digital technology, the Net and new media could provide
them with a framework in which their determination and will could work
miracles.  So with a little luck and foresight , we could just see some
Bill Gates-like digital shamans emerging from Mongolia in the very near

Drazen Pantic
Belgrade, March 2nd 1998

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