How to chop down a Christmas tree in Europe’s most digitally progressive state

Here comes the digital state.
Here comes the digital state.
Image: AP/Oleg Nikishin
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Estonians love the forest. The Baltic nation and former Soviet republic is, according to a somewhat contested legend, also home to the first Christmas tree. So when the holidays roll around, it makes sense that many Estonians decamp to the nation’s plentiful forest to cut down their tree.

This might sound like the most primal of activities, but in Estonia, it’s important to bring a smartphone, as well as an ax or saw. An Estonian seeking DIY holiday greenery must download an application on their phone to tell the state forestry department about the desired tree: where it is located and how tall it is. The government then issues a price. The festive citizen pays digitally, and then chops the tree down. (I like to think they bring along some glögg in a thermos, too.)

This is all because in addition to being a nation covered by pine, birch, and spruce trees, Estonia is also perhaps the most digitally advanced in nation in the world when it comes to the relationship between citizens and government. From voting and contracts to healthcare and entrepreneurship, 99% of government services are provided through an online portal, which Estonians access via a mandatory ID card that’s enabled with two-factor chip-and-pin authentication.

While analog services still exist, digital services are generally cheaper and certainly more efficient. To make sure everyone has access, digital and computer literacy—for everyone from the very young to the very old—has been a priority of the Estonian education system since the nation gained independence in 1991.

The goal is to provide citizens with a “seamless state” characterized by “proactive governance.” In other words, as Indrek Õnnik—project manager of Enterprise Estonia, a showroom devoted to Estonia’s unique form of governance—put it, “the government doesn’t want to reach the citizens but rather the citizens need to be able to reach the government.”

If the idea of the government being digitally involved in every aspect of your life gives you a Big Brother vibe, Estonia’s digital culture is built on the opposite premise. As Nathan Heller described in the New Yorker (paywall) in 2017:

“A tenet of the Estonian system is that an individual owns all information recorded about him or her. Every time a doctor (or a border guard, a police officer, a banker, or a minister) glances at any of [a citizen’s] secure data online, that look is recorded and reported. Peeping at another person’s secure data for no reason is a criminal offense. ‘In Estonia, we don’t have Big Brother; we have Little Brother,’ a local told me. ‘You can tell him what to do and maybe also beat him up.'”

So it makes sense that when it comes to the festive act of cutting down a Christmas tree, naturally, the government is involved in that, too. ”We live in the forest,” Õnnik said. “For us it is natural that we can consume government services at 4am on a Saturday morning in the middle of the forest on a mobile phone. We like the forest, but we still like the tech.”