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Lost in Translation? The Challenges of Talking "Drupal" in Iraq

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, September 29 2010

Mark Belinsky is an American social-tech entrepreneur, for lack of a better phrase, who is in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil this week as a trainer taking part in a two-day conference called "Emerging Technologies, Emerging Democracies." (Noel Hidalgo, whom some of you might know, perhaps as "noneck," is also part of the training squad in Iraq this week.) Belinsky, who back in the U.S. helps run a firm called Digital Democracy, is in that Kurdistan city to help teach the 150 or so public servants, journalists, and civil society members gathered in the Erbil Convention Center about some of the concepts behind "open source." He's finding it a tough sell, he told me on a call earlier today.

"Even talking about 'open source' is complicated," said Belinksky, via Skype. "Everything is free and open source here, because everything is pirated."

By way of example, Belinsky reported that explaining the concept of Creative Commons, which hinges on the notion of reducing the copyright rights a content creator can claim, becomes a different sort of task in a place where copyright is, itself, an underdeveloped notion. "One of my favorite bloggers in Iraq, Hamoz, didn't want to wait for [the free browser] Firefox to download so he bought a copy on the street for a dollar." The thing is, said Belinksy, "you can do the same for Photoshop." Retail price in the U.S. of Adobe Photoshop: $700. Belinsky also reported that he found it challenging to hold the sort of free and open discussion that might mark small tech gatherings in the U.S.

"It's hard," he said, summing up his attempt at educating Iraqis on the potential of open source, "because it's about introducing concepts of 'what the Internet is' and 'what the Internet can be' at the same time."

Having a bit better time of things, in Belinsky's opinion, is Microsoft. He noted surprise at seeing that the Internet Explorer 4 logo was used as a logo for the "emerging technologies" conference itself. That's not to say that Microsoft's products aren't being bootlegged in Iraq, but the high sticker price on proprietary products conveys some mark of quality still, suggests Belinsky, even if they don't actually pay it. "They know that [design software] AutoCAD costs $4,000," he said, "and they'll say, 'I don't want the cheap sh_t, I want the good stuff.'"

The "Emerging Technologies, Emerging Democracies" conference is being hosted jointed in Iraqi by the London- and Washington-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting and the DC-based International Research & Exchanges Board. The latter, better known as IREX, is operating here under funding from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The State Department, you might remember previously sent a team of American technologists to Iraq back in April, as part of their "21st Century Statecraft" push to share some of the principles and approaches driving the modern American technology scene with the rest of the world.

(This one's for you, Richard.)