Letter from Prague

Are you, how do they say, computer literate? There are a few levels to this 'computer literacy' question. I suppose the first one would be being able to actually switch a computer on and opening a Microsoft Word document. I guess that the second phase of the so-called computer literacy would be actually working on other applications, such as using the Microsoft Internet Explorer or listening to Real Player, or watching a little postage stamp video in the top corner of the screen.

The final level would probably be not using Microsoft at all, except for basic programming language in MS DOS. In fact, this final level means that you become an anti-Microsoft bore [!!!] who is programmed to constantly complain about "What an awful operating system Windows is." I'm sure they are right, I really wouldn't have a clue because I've only reached level two. [He's really pushing his luck now. -Internet Ed. note.]

I don't operate my own Website either, but I'm sure if I did I would become just as cynical as the Radio Prague Internet department about Microsoft. Were Bill Gates to drop into the Internet office here, I really doubt whether he would receive a cordial welcome.

They use some other system in there. Apparently it's faster and more flexible and perfect for Website operators. That's what they tell me anyhow. It's also quite specialized, meaning that it helps to be one of the Czech Republic's new generation of ultra-talented computer whiz-kids to work it, although it's not essential.

As events over the past days have illustrated, those chaps we would have rather unkindly labled as computer nerds look all set to have the last laugh. Marian Koenig, a 25-year-old IT graduate of Brno University, will begin his new job working for a German company in the North Rhine region. So why is this so notable? Well, for the simple reason working in Germany--or indeed in any EU country--is at the moment still an improbability for many Czech people, at least to work there legally is. Marian, on the other hand, had his green card application rushed through the German employment office for the simple reason that he has what the German government claim the country so badly need: IT specialists.

The Germans are worried. And not just Germany, Austria have hinted that they will be looking to recruit IT talent from outside the EU, Britain are also considering it. Marian's green card is one of 20,000 that the German government will be granting to foreigners capable enough in the field of IT. I'm sure that when it comes to the choice between earning 10,000 Kc a month and 10,000 DM a month, for anybody in their right mind, there will be no choice.

That's fine, I suppose. Free movement of labour is one of the backbone principles of the European Union. But where does this leave the Czech Republic and other former Eastern Bloc countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, both of which have also been targeted as hives of IT expertise?

Down the creek without a paddle, I expect. Or should that be surfing without a mouse? The brain drain is a fact of the life and such is human nature that those who pay will always triumph over those who don't. Countries such as Germany, Austria and Britain claim that they need foreign brains to maintain their economic expansion. But what about back here? IT is one of the few areas where countries such as the Czech Republic have been able to compete on a level playing field.

However, it is for me to have sympathy for the Czechs in this situation. My friend Alan, a computer genius, first emigrated to the States back in 1993. After a year or so, he had a great job, a wonderful salary, a nice car and a big flat. He then rather naively decided it would be right and proper for him to return to Prague to complete his national civil service. After six months of performing useless and childlike tasks in a hospital, he quit and returned to the States. He now has an even better job, a superb salary, an even nicer car and a bigger flat. And the Californian sunshine as well.