Seminar #10. ‘The Citizen-Engineer: Conceptions of the Digital State in Estonia, 1990-2010‘.

WhenWednesday 22 September, 2021, 16:00–17:30 CEST (Central European Summer Time) on zoom (
PresentersAro Velmet (Assistant professor | USC Dornsife, US)
DiscussantKatrin Tiidenberg (Professor | Tallinn University in Estonia)
AbstractAfter the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the nascent Estonian state faced an information problem. It had to, nearly overnight, build new registries and databases that were compatible with Western standards, develop its own independent bureaucracies and build new communications infrastructure that could handle all these tasks. As a result, much of the initial state-building in the 1990s was done by ICT engineers and entrepreneurs, many of whom were trained or worked at the Soviet-era Institute of Cybernetics.

This talk, based on over thirty oral histories conducted in 2018 and 2021, explores how, in the process of building out ICT infrastructure and national registries, these engineers reimagined the relationship of the state to the citizen. Specifically, I explore two narratives that shaped the values and decisions of these engineers. First, the engineers believed that technological automation could prevent forms of corruption and undemocratic behavior that defined Soviet – and to a degree Western European – democracies. “You cannot bribe a computer,” as one engineer put it. Second, the modern state would be manned not by bureaucrats, but by engineers, characterized by agility, a commitment to iterative, rather than large-scale projects, and a collaborative, rather than antagonistic view of society. These principles had far-reaching effects on the shape of digital public services built in the 1990s and early 2000s, on privacy and surveillance, on ethnic relations, and defined the shape of “digital democracy” in Estonia for decades to come.
Recommended textsVelmet, Aro. “The Blank Slate E-State: Estonian Information Society and the Politics of Novelty in the 1990s.” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 6 (2020): 162–184 DOI:10.17351/ests2020.284