Turkey: Where tradition and technology flourish

Part 1 in a series on Turkey: Technological revolution and digital literacy

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country of 75 million with a 7 percent annual economic growth. Its inhabitants consider themselves to be a part of Europe and past surveys have shown that a majority of people want to belong to the European Union. Although culturally different, Turkey has a lifestyle similar to that of Central Europeans.

ISTANBUL | Clad in jeans, a garish T-shirt, and trainers, a man who appears to be in his 20s is queuing at a well-known American restaurant chain in Istanbul. His similarly aged partner is following him closely, making sure that other guests in the crowded restaurant are not stepping on the edge of her all-covering black burqa.

Glass skyscrapers mark the business quarter of Istanbul.

The outfit reveals only the young woman’s profile. Her sunglasses are tilted up on her head, a Japanese camera hangs on her shoulder. Her fingers are clattering on the screen of a large smartphone. This scene is intriguing, almost dissonant, but I quickly realize it is completely natural here.

This burqa may not be the most common clothing feature of Istanbul, where the overwhelming majority of people wear European and American styles. But it symbolizes that Turkish society keeps pace with modernization and at the same time shows deep respect for Islamic traditions.

When visiting a country for the first time, you inevitably weigh your preconceptions. Turkey confirms many stereotypes, but refutes even more, especially in Istanbul, a fascinating city with a unique architectural heritage.

The author of this article had a chance to spend 10 days on a reporting trip to this metropolis of 15 million people.

Ümit Zaim

In the first part of this report series, I provide a glimpse at Turkey’s technological development and how the digital revolution influenced the society. In order to get information from various perspectives, I met Erkan Saka, a lecturer in public relations at the Istanbul Bilgi University; Ismail H. Polat, a lecturer on new media at the Kadir Has University; Hasan Genc, project development manager at the Turkuvaz Media Group; Fatih Ceran, assistant director at the Journalists and Writers Foundation’s Research Center; Umit Zaim, general manager of the Wissen Akademie; and Deniz Ergurel, secretary-general at the Media Association.

It is enough to walk a bit around Istanbul, the economic and cultural centre of Turkey, to learn about the many aspects of development: new cars everywhere, well-organized and modern public transportation, shiny glass skyscrapers in business districts, abundant new construction, and the streets bustling with young people carrying a variety of digital devices.

There is new construction everywhere in Istanbul.

When visiting the Bahcesehir University at the picturesque bank of the Bosphorus Strait, you become aware of the huge potential of information technology in the Turkish society.

This university has a special development department for Android mobile phone applications, and places emphasis on educating highly qualified graduates for the rapidly increasing and demanding technology market. This is especially important in Turkey, where the current unemployment rate among young people with a higher education is 18 percent, twice the overall jobless rate.

 

VAST MARKET POTENTIAL

The Turkish market is huge: it is a bridge between the Arabic and the European world, with many global companies operating here and increasing their investments in the country. There are 65 million active mobile phones, including 20 million smart ones. Turks spend a lot on gadgets, sometimes more than what they can afford. A young woman in the vibrant Istiklal pedestrian street told me that she had spent nearly all her two-month salary on a new phone. She does not regret it, because she has “grown together” with the phone, saying it is at hand every minute of the day.

Levant district of the city.

Famous brands are status symbols, and despite their high price compared to typical salaries, Turks like to emphasize their social position with such devices. Mobile technology can be used almost everywhere – GSM coverage is nearly 100 percent, wired internet coverage more than 80 percent.

Microsoft’s Middle East center is in Turkey, and Google’s local advertising market is among the most significant in the world. Domestic companies such as Arcelik, a leading producer of consumer and technical equipment, have gained a substantial foothold in the European market and are the engines of the Turkish economy.

Istanbul is located in the Western Marmara region, and based on firsthand observations, it is significantly wealthier than most of Anatolia, though one should not generalize. Urbanization is accelerating in Turkey’s Asian region, too. Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, and some of the Mediterranean and Black Sea coastal cities have been developing at a breathtaking pace.

There are many great technology developers among young people – says Ismail Polat of the Kadir Has University.

“Seventy-five percent of the Turkish population is younger than 35-years-old,” says Polat from the Kadir Has University. “As the society is very young and agile, new technologies can spread easier. Young people know the digital world, and there are many great developers among them.”

Zaim, of the Wissen Akademie, explains the seeming contradiction between religion and new technology, as symbolized by the young burqa-clad woman busy with her smartphone. He says Islam does not constrain development; moreover, it is open for novelties and encourages continuous learning.

During my conversations, I encountered different experiences. Some people say deeply religious families allow women to have mobile technology only because the head of the family has vague ideas about the use of these gadgets. The older generation in Turkey, like anywhere else, is slower to catch on to technology. The state administration has made efforts to change this situation: most of local governments offer computer courses and operate internet centres free of charge.

The recently launched ambitious Fatih programme aims at providing tablet computers to children in all schools nationwide. When you are in Istanbul, you can test the internet coverage in the city – just turn on your mobile Wi-Fi and immediately dozens of networks appear on the screen, usually protected by a password.

 

MEDIA BOOM

Turkey’s online news media are also booming, and the mostly free digital platforms have three times the readers that traditional newspapers do. Sales of print dailies are down 11 percent this year, but their prestige has remained and nobody predicts they will become extinct.

Despite the rapid spread of technology in Turkey, an internet security ranking of 25 European countries published in May 2012 showed Turkey at the bottom, with a score of 2.6 points, while Finland was on top with 5.8 points. The ranking weighed the effectiveness of password protection and spam filters, among other security and privacy controls. Experts, however, say computer security is improving in Turkey.

Turkish people are generally optimistic their economy as well as technological development. When talking about problems, they mostly say the situation is better than 10 years ago, that Turkey is on the right track. As for the status of democracy, opinions vary. But that’s the topic of the next article in this series.

Attila Horváth is a reporter for the Hungarian daily Zalai Hírlap. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, co-funded by the European Union, and originally published in Zalai Hírlap. Translated by Borbála Tóth. Photos by Attila Horváth