Friday, April 04, 2008

Technology and the Modern Middle East

Recently, I finally got around to reading Marc Lynch's Voices of the New Arab Public. Early on, it prompted me to think about the influence of technology in history. One point Lynch made early on is that people involved with al-Jazeera had used satellite TV technology in ways that led to the creation of an Arab public sphere. There's one paragraph that said this very clearly and precisely, but the book is a hot commodity here in Jerusalem, and after waiting a couple of months to get it I had to quickly return it because of a recall order.

In any case, this sounds pat, as its a truism that new technology creates possibilities, and not necessarily realities, though sometimes that technology is immediately seized upon by historical actors who were "ready" for it. However, I at least have often thoughtlessly commented that satellite TV is transforming Arab political culture. This clearly needs to be more precise, not only for that reason, but because it's no longer clear that satellite TV technology is that critical. In particular, it's not clear to me why, had Emir Hamad of Qatar come along in the 1960's, he wouldn't have simply started a radio station and gotten the same effect. You wouldn't have pictures, but I'm not sure if seeing suffering Iraqis really makes that much more difference than listening to them would have.

This led me to thinking about what technologies might be making a difference in regional history by creating new possibilities, and it occurred to me that it would probably be those which might be said to reduce the space between individuals rather than communities. Satellite TV networks do have call-in shows, but I have yet to be sitting in a cafe with al-Jazeera on and see someone whip out a phone and place a call. I think most people experience satellite TV news as linking together communities. If someone in Cairo feels a connection to someone in Rabat, it is primarily because Egypt is linked to Morocco in a common narrative, or perhaps because they share a common ideology or occupational class which is featured.

Two new technologies which work differently are the cell phone and the internet. Both are known in the blogosphere for their political uses, as several countries have active political blogospheres of their own, and text messaging has become an important tool for protest organization and the distribution of information. Stepping outside the Middle East for a minute, it was not for nothing that Pervez Musharraf shut down the cell phone networks when he declared his state of emergency.

Whether all of this will turn out to be historically significant remains to be seen. I think there's no question, however, that these technologies are having an impact on the region's economy and society. There was a science and technology panel at a "Change in the Middle East" conference I organized when I worked for Middle East Studies, and both were featured in that capacity. I unfortunately don't remember the details of this presentation, but it involved a great deal of interesting information on how cell phones are changing patterns of economic practice and lifestyles in Morocco. Another presentation focused on the ways in which young people in a conservative society are using the internet to circumvent social controls. You could also tie that into cell phones, as I have both read about and seen young people involving themselves with people of whom society would disapprove through text messaging and cell phones. Another condition of this development, if course, is the introduction of western values as a product of globalization mediated in part through satellite television.



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