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NMIT Working Papers present preliminary formulations of new data and thinking from ongoing social science research on the economic, cultural, policy and social implications of new media, communication and information technologies in the contemporary Middle East.

Views expressed are those of the authors, who welcome feedback and comment from users.

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Technology, Media, and the Next Generation in the Middle East

Jon W. Anderson, Catholic University of America (1)
Paper delivered at a the Middle East Institute, Columbia University, Sept. 28, 1999.

SUMMARY: New media and rising levels of education are resetting the parameters of citizenship across the Arab countries of the Middle East. These developments are uneven: regulation of and access to information vary considerably and in the short run are contradictory. But their overall context is an expanding public sphere with unprecedented opportunities for participation, a widening, more diverse public with widening transnational ties, and spaces for new interpretations and new interpreters. For some, these opportunities are associated with globalization, particularly in finance and labor markets. For others, they evoke the contradictory pulls of localization, particularly in culture and politics. Media and migration link the two; and in the longer run, the development of new media and rising levels of education intersect with regime transitions also already underway that regionally may be represented as from "Ottoman" to modern, even "postmodern" styles in government and society, as those are locally understood, and increasingly figure in questioning "Who is Arab/Arabian now?" At the center of these developments, shifting media regimes constitute a key arena for redefining the public sphere, including what is public and what registers as public action and identity. This shift is already underway, and its parameters, if not their impacts, can be identified where they occur first, in the meeting of "down-market" technologies of new media and "up-market" people with education and inclination to make use of them to advance claims - and thereby to define - the public sphere.


NEW MEDIA are intersecting changes in what it means to be Arab and an emerging public sphere in Arab countries. Impacts of new media to date have been clearest in the surrounding countries of Arabia's own "near abroad" -- from the role of cassette sermons in Iran's revolution(2) to the dramatic emergence of Turkey as "one of the most media saturated Muslim countries in the world"(3) since its sudden deregulation of broadcasting in the 1990s. Both of these developments are increasingly evident in the Arab world. Each brings "distant others" and "hidden others" into the households, cafes, diwaniyya, and majles where people exchange information, news, entertainment, and talk. There is a dramatic rise in mediated communication that is passing to and through more hands with access to skills and technology to produce and consume it. The keys to this development, broadly, are

  • the wider circulation that new media technology from cassette recorders to multichannel television, pulp novels and pamphlets, mobile phones and even the Internet, afford to communications previously restricted if not to "private" then to face-to-face communication resulting in
  • migration of messages (a) between media and (b) from narrower or more restricted publics to wider ones, which are themselves characterized by
  • rising levels of mass, particularly mass higher, education throughout the region. New media figure in expanding forms of cultural expression that include
  • opportunities to imagine and experience additional, alternative selves in the context of
  • fragmentations of authority to adjudicate cultural authenticity and social ideals.

New media, and the down-market migration of technologies behind them are linked -- in some cases, intimately, in others coincidentally -- to the coming of age of the Arab world’s first television generation, reconnection with Arab communities overseas, "globalization" in finance, trade, media, and communications that influence all aspects of Arab life today in an information revolution in the Arab world that is well underway. Awash in a media explosion that feeds and feeds on wider participation, existing and emerging elites are eager to join the world information community and to connect with the emerging global post-industrial society denominated by trade in information services, which are increasingly cultural. And ever larger portions of the population are equipped to do so by the spread of mass education and of technologies of communication, particularly technologies for producing mediated communication. Here, I focus on the fateful conjuncture of increasingly "up-market" populations and "down-market" technologies that, particularly in the form of new media, are beginning to reverse the mass media revolution of the nation-building period of de-colonization.

An initial caveat: It is fatally easy to overinterpret new media by focusing speculatively on one or another of these dimensions and in terms of impacts that project from narrow experiences in the West. Technology does not have a life of its own, but accumulates new users and new uses that are always mediated through contexts which impart additional meanings and significances to it. Against the technological optimism that drives many global interpretations today should be set the actual historical experience of previous technological innovations -- from print to railroads to the telegraph and radio -- that more properly may be seen to have altered balances and acquired social forms and relations that were "new" primarily in relation to the technology. In the industrialization of the West, these altered balances included the rise of managerial classes, the relocation and separation of processing goods and processing services, realignments of boundaries between home and work, all of which were quite uneven in their "impacts" and developments.(4) Technology has a social life because it enters social life and alters the balances of values and practices built into technology in ways that at any one time are mixed, even paradoxical.

This revolution is, indeed, paradoxical. It features broad convergences of different types of data in to a single (ultimately digital) type, of messages into a single stream, of work and leisure into a communication activities that also foster increasing divergence and diversity of interests depending on information that is made or allowed to flow.(5) Facilitating the flow of financial information, transactions, and tracking that add up to "electronic commerce" also facilitates the flow of cultural (including political) content around barriers previously erected. Media are "enculturated" both by new uses and by censoring external and monopolizing, or at least restricting, internal communication. Throughout the region, senses of a new opportunity, even of a second chance, to ameliorate regional eclipse of the Middle East in the industrial period encounter reservations less about a "digital divide" than about cultural confrontations, which some see as opportunities and others as threats to prevailing hegemonies in culture, identity, rights to interpret and to represent in public. In terms of media, some of these conundra resolve as a major shift of communications regimes in the region from mass to post-mass media, from cultural and social forms favored by single-sender communication regimes to cultural and social forms facilitated by multiple senders and choosy receivers. The technological-media shift is between models of communication and the sorts of communications those models favor.

The regime of mass media.

The communications ecology of the Middle East for the past 40 years has been shaped by a mass media regime that has a strong structural "fit" with authoritarian, centralized regimes. Liberal hopes that mass communication would broaden horizons and bring an overall decrease in isolation, articulated in Daniel Lerner's The Passing of Traditional Society (New York: The Free Press, 1958), met the realities that mass media’s one-to-many model of communications fits particularly well to authoritarian states and centralized control of the means of communication. This model favored ritual communication of the theater state and protocol news: public life was dominated by representations of state power, authority, and symbolic legitimacy, which register the solemnities of exchanges between authorities, from which not only the masses but also whole classes (such as the bourgeoisie in Syria under the Baath and professionals nearly everywhere) are excluded or relegated to spectator roles. Like early-modern states, such states make theatrical use of media to stage symbolic exchanges of virtue, and their ideal observer is their own mirror image: a homogeneous citizenry culturally reflecting a politically unified state. While mass media have been instrumental in defining a mass citizenry, the actual content of those definitions has been, on the whole, pre-modern in post-colonial states that were at best mixes of modern and pre-modern means and meanings.

Citizens do not necessarily cooperate with this program. Far from being molded in its images, they also experience social distance from them, a disconnect between the rituals of state and everyday life. The typical response is to develop practical senses of distance, irony, deconstructionist skills, cynicism, and conspiracy theories of politics as "hidden". Citizens do not see themselves in media, or they see flattened, partial versions of more complex realities distorted by focusing on too few variables. They develop habits of media consumption that reintroduce interaction into one-way reception by drawing on understandings and practices of everyday life, and exaggerating them, particularly their emphasis on agency. One example is the elaboration in tandem with mass media of conspiracy theories that, far from the psychopathology often attributed to them by observers, are rationalizing responses that reduce social distance by emphasizing the sort of agency that characterizes everyday interaction.(6) Each new medium -- from print that introduced newspapers in turn-of-the-century Middle Eastern countries to broadcasting in the post-colonial period -- that was hailed as a tool for development, education, enlightenment by elites has made popular conspiracy theorizing both more widespread and ever more ironic. A novel parodying conspiracy theories in the 1970s became the basis of a popular television series in Iran, for example.

More structural responses include the widespread habit throughout the region of group listening or watching broadcasts. Coffee-houses, diwaniyya, and salons in private homes are social settings in which intimates consume, and domesticate, messages from authorities and "complete" them through interpretive practices that betoken trust not in the messages, and certainly not in distant senders, but in circles of intimates to decode messages socially. A linked practice is listening to and comparing news from several sources, deconstructing them against templates of interests the sources are supposed to represent. A typical evening's activities in guest houses across the region includes discussing and comparing the "news" from various sources, creating a local composite out of what was said and what the listeners could bring to interpreting it.

Thus the broadcast regime of protocol news and one-to-many communications that emphasized reception of acceptable, authoritative messages was less complete than the ideal type might suggest. The problematic qualities of this media regime fostered a re-socialization of its messages by listeners who became interpretive adepts and, to that extent, rebalanced its still fundamentally asymmetrical structure. This resocialization of reception into something more like, but not quite, interaction lays the basis for rapid up-take of post-mass media. Habits that complement reception with creative responses, and created demands for access to the tools of communication that began with cassette recorders now extend to multichannel broadcasting from satellites, to the Internet, and ever cheaper and more abundant telephones.(7)

The changing audience.

Mass media are a little over a century old in the Arab Middle East. Within a generation of the first newspapers in Arabic in Egypt in the 1880s, there were vernacular presses from Morocco to Afghanistan. While largely addressing an elite, these included new elites beyond the world of the manuscript and for whom the mediated word was a central feature of their identities. Prominent examples include the first generation of Islamic reformers, from Mohammed Abduh to Mowlana Maududi, who were not the traditional spokespersons of madrassa but almost uniformly journalists, a role created and fostered by mass media. They spoke from and to an elite itself fostered by the spread of literacy and its vehicle education. After World War II and with decolonization, this narrow intelligencia and its context expand dramatically in two ways. One is the expansion of mass media to mass audiences through broadcasting. First radio and then television became ubiquitous in the last fifty to twenty-five years, and everywhere a state monopoly, also everywhere devoted to nation-building and the creation of national citizenries. Linked (by policies of nation- and citizen-building) to the emergence of truly mass media is the rise of mass education, and particularly of mass higher education throughout the region. The result is a generation-long rise in access to and levels of education.

The significance of this rise, Eickelman has argued,(8) is a broad "empowerment." Eickelman emphasizes that the spread of mass, and particularly of mass higher, education "empowered" in the Arab context by breaking practical monopolies that were previously the privilege of elites schooled in esoteric techniques and media of sacred texts, commentaries, and handbooks. Education gives access to texts, bypassing authorities vested in their media, and, more importantly, to "intellectual technology" to interpret and use them. Beyond these first-order balances are more structural ones: modern education promoted by the state and alternative to madrasa forms gives access to techniques ultimately based in science and empirical analysis that challenge traditional practices, undermine their legitimacies, and expand the public space marked by mediated communication.(9) Instead of the text-exegetical methods passed on in madrassa to interpretive elites, for instance, mass education passes on skills and habits that bypass those of traditional authorities, that feature direct access and direct interpretation, often in social settings that are mediated differently from those of traditional learning. It broadens the range of skills that represent "education" over "classical education" (much as public schools did to Latin schools of 19th century America), as well as the social range and actual numbers of educated persons, their opportunities, confidence, and agency. It rebalances forms of migration in which migrants take their "capital" with them, and broadens the range of and access to mediated communication, which depends on and privileges education as its "background".(10)

This is not a simple or by any means well-understood relationship, and its understanding in our own society is fraught ideologically. But empowerment is not the only outcome of spreading education, nor only of education, and neither is disempowerment of mass media. Instead, the two interact in some unplanned ways that foster skills, particularly of agency and particularly suited to expanding the public sphere and identities available in and through it. More productively, it might be put that education broadens the contexts in which mediated communications figure and translate technique into identity, method into message.

This background may be indicated in a few simple charts of some of the features of the next generation. First, literacy rates of those 15 and older (Fig. 1) may serve as a proxy for participation in mass education, which is variable throughout the region.

Figure 1. Literacy Rates in Middle Eastern countries
(Source: US Census Bureau International Database)

Second, the median age of populations in Arab countries is about 20, roughly in line with LDCs overall and just over half the median age of populations in MDCs (whose populations are "ageing"), as represented by the United States.

Figure 2. Median Ages in Select Middle East Countries
(Source: US Census Bureau International Database)


And Arab countries’ rates of population growth are among the highest in the world, higher even LDCs overall and, although trending in the same direction (downwards), are twice the rates of MDCs..

Figure 3. Projected rates of increase.
(Source: U.S. Census Bureau International Database)


So their populations are getting younger, and more educated. The next generation is not only quite large, but larger than the ruling generations across the board...

Figure 4. Mid-size countries with low (Jordan) middle (Syria, Tunisia) and high (Saudi Arabia) fertility (Source: U.S. Census Bureau International Database)


... particularly in the larger countries of the region: Iran, Turkey, Egypt...

Figure 5. Population by age group
(Source: U.S. Census Bureau International Database)

... and also more educated. Jordan provides an extreme example, with the highest overall reported literacy rates of Arab countries, and demonstrates the cumulative effect of rising mass education as younger, more educated cohorts pass through the population.

Figure 6. Increasing literacy in younger age groups
(Source: U.S. Census Bureau International Database)


Demographically, the context into which the information revolution will work its "effects" includes coming generations that are larger and more educated than the first television generation in the region that is now coming to power. The expectations and capabilities of the next generation are both the most significant underlying feature that can now be known (unlike, say, potential changes in political economy or regime successions) and (b) directly shaped by media and experiences with media that increasingly shift from receptor models to more interactive ones.


Post-mass media: the information technology revolution.

The media scene into which these generations are maturing is changing. If the signature communicative relationship of the mass media revolution in the Middle East was reception, under a regime of one-to-many senders to receivers or mass audiences for state monopoly broadcasters, the counterpart of post-mass media is more interactive communication in which the senders multiply and social distance between senders and receivers diminishes by a confluence of an increasingly up-market populace with down-market technologies. New media -- including the cassette recorder but also widening availability of telephones, multichannel television but also pulp fiction, comic books, pamphleteering, and, on the horizon, the Internet -- share a general characteristic. They level the communication playing field between sender/producer and recipient/consumer of messages. The dramatic example, not recognized at the time, of sermons of Ayatollah Khomeni and other banned religious figures circulating via cassette in pre-revolutionary Iran, has been joined by not only the popular circulation of sermons today, but also folk music, pirated commercial recordings, and in periods of revolution "night letters" (shab-name) as the originally written versions were called. These technologies are linked, as the delivery of Khomeni’s sermons via telephone from France demonstrated a generation ago, or the mix of amateur and pirated commercial material in any cassette-shop today. Convergence is happening on the street and in homes. Moreover, messages cross boundaries between media and thereby find new audiences, new circulation to additional social networks. The sharing of cassettes signals trust and complicity, not so much in the content of the messages, which are incomplete in themselves, but in circulating them even before individual consumption of their contents.

Technology for producing and sending messages becomes as available to consumers as technology for receiving at the same time that capacities to produce are rising with education. That is, technology enables participation, and technologies that reduce the social and cognitive distance between sending and receiving -- as do telephones, cassette recorders, the Internet -- increase the number of senders, producers, selecters, and brokers of cultural "content". The pattern already set in motion in the practices and habits developed to level the asymmetrical relations of mass media and make consuming them more reciprocal is extended with the advent of multichannel satellite TV, which came first to Turkey and Lebanon and has spread to all countries of the region.On the receiving end, there is now choice where there was little before, a change that foregrounds choice itself as part of media consumption. On the sending end, there are pressures and opportunities to create or to broker others’ creation of content and to open the field both to international standard broadcasting -- represented, for instance, in game shows and in al-Jazeera TV’s migration of debate-and-discussion formats from salons to the air -- and to local forms, as in 'Iqra's religious family broadcasting from Dubai. Syria has recently spawned a significant soap opera industry, (11) which finds markets across the region in the extra broadcast capacity now available. So while choice among 30+ channels (as in Egypt today) is a very limited form of interaction, it is nevertheless a higher level of engagement (with more to come) than with two government channels. Moreover, some of the locally most compelling material that comes across is, like Al-Jazeera, itself about participation, which is further invited in the form of viewer call-in and actively sought out through informal market research.

The participation in interpretation that previously occurred in coffee houses and reception rooms now extends to what is broadcast, directly in the form of call-in shows that can interact with viewers and, perhaps more importantly (because it is part of the draw) indirectly in loosening of formats to include live, on-air discussion and debate in which something other than the solemnities of state and religion can be witnessed. In other words, media that used to feature ritual representations of authority now feature both practices and representations of interaction that are familiar, that have been honed through a generation of television and radio consumption in more ordinary social settings, that actively feature participation, and that represent (show) it. This is news and TV drama as "edu-tainment."(12) Numbers of participants are small, to be sure, and confined to elites that both feel entitled to participate and have the wherewithal; but demographics show those elites to be growing with populations that are becoming younger and more educated. One of Jordan's former Ministers of Information, who presided over introduction of the Internet and ran an innovative chat-line called "Ask the Government," recently put it that the "real elite [in the information age] are the youth."(13)


The Internet Model.

This is TV on the Internet model, which features seeking over reception, levels senders and receivers, circumvents authority or is self-authorizing, and interactive in practice. The structural significance of choice and participation introduced by Al-Jazeera TV and before it MBC, or conveyed through the broadening entertainment choices offered by Orbit and ART, is the practical convergence with the Internet model that choice and participation bring. On the level of underlying technology, convergence between electronic media - telephone, broadcasting, cable, data - is already well underway worldwide and actively pursued by companies in these separate businesses expanding into others. In the Middle East, for instance, Zak-Sat based in Kuwait offers not only television but also Internet service (the downlink portion only, for the moment); telephone companies in the Gulf are getting into the cable business, and there are similar convergences of mobile phone companies with satellite broadcasting and Internet services in Saudi Arabia. Beyond technological convergence in the carriers is a more sociological, convergence of senders and receivers into an interactive community, and with that of communicative models toward the Internet standard that is interactive, decentralized, and puts up very little more barrier to send than to receive.

These barriers can still be formidible in a region where all countries censor public media, even if not all countries extend this censorship to the Internet itself. In Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco, the Internet enjoys privileged exemption from censorship applied to print and broadcast media, and from the Arab Postal Union's rules against mailing of video and audio cassettes. Elsewhere, notably in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, models for structuring and providing access to the broadcast media are applied (inconsistently in the smaller countries of the Gulf, rigorously in Saudi Arabia) to the Internet.

Much initial concern over the Internet in the region has focused, from those in authority positions of all sorts from head of state to religious spokesmen to head of family, on "culturally inappropriate" content. Such concerns are real enough and correspond to reactions in 17th century Europe when the novel was invented, spread by means of cheap printing, and for that decried as not only vulgar but corrupting. Likewise, communication on the Internet model is unstructured by existing canons and enforcers of authority; it puts an unaccustomed measure of agency (not to mention of self-authorization) in the hands of a browser, a channel-surfer, a mobile-phone user, a desktop publisher. On the receiving end, the freedom to look implies a corresponding freedom to sample alternative role models, alternative legitimations and models of authority, not just to the state but in competition with religious authorities and also the family. It is not the consumption of forbidden images that is at issue in the final instance but, more fundamentally, the opportunity to study them in some sense "objectively" (as objects), to identify with them (as independent subjects), and then to produce them. This is a sort of experimentation usually limited to artists, who in many countries of the region are domesticated to existing structures through state organizations for employing them.

This loosening of boundaries is important for exposing variety within "Arab" culture and creating the opportunity to see alternative selves as well as diverse others. One of the first meta-messages that comes with multichannel television or with the Internet model toward which it tends is not of Arab uniformity or the transnational extent of Arab culture. Certainly, that is present in a linguistic sense, as it is for Spanish-speakers or in the Chinese linguistic world; but following a generation of uniformitarian messages by nation-building states, the first lesson enhanced communication brings home is the extent of Arab diversity and want of uniformity. It begins with language and extends to visible manners and dress that can be seen on television. The current highly transnational register of multichannel Arab television (much of which is based overseas) is even more patent in the Internet, whose Arab content originated in and to a large extent is still dominated by the Arab diaspora. Both transnational television and Internet expose differences among Arab countries, regimes, local cultures, customs (such as of dress, female comportment, public life), education, vocabulary, diction, speech habits and expressions. Arabs are not unaware of such differences in the abstract, but practically they are thrown up and practically interacted with as never before through the current information revolution.

No single dimension, such as of westernization, can accommodate this variety as experience with it deepens and becomes ubiquitous.  What once was an elite experience, such as of the rich sampling the west in still-Arab environments of pre-war Beirut or in contemporary Cairo, in effect moves down-market also. It becomes more accessible to more people, if in reduced forms then nevertheless in more of those forms, through post-mass media; and it becomes accessible in an interactive fashion that begins with choices and extends to ever greater degrees of participation, even if only or initially in simulacra.

The importance of post-mass media in this respect is, first, to provide creative outlets and, second, to provide opportunities to see alternative selves. This underlies a real break with tradition that did not come with mass media; mass media reduced rather than enhanced occasions and possibilities of communication. Traditional society provides not -- or not only -- few alternatives but alternatives that are relatively well structured and complementary. They are, on the whole, marginally alternative as tracks of careers or of lives, even if their distinctions are permeable, and few are permanent. The social-structural significance of censorship, or of anxieties over "cultural pollution," is to cast boundaries and rights to adjudicate them as disctinctions of self and other, as "Arab" and "non-Arab." Against such measures, the down-market trend in communications technologies to become more accessible and the up-market trend in the spread of mass education to a rising population intersect in the growth of creative outlets and expanding opportunities to see, and vicariously to try, alternative selves within an "Arab" frame. The realistic possibility of imagining alternatives to the relatively few tracks and fateful choices that mark traditional societies breaks down in fostering possibilities to imagine alternative futures that include alternatives not just at home but also alternatives to home.

This is not to suggest, for instance, that Arab society shrinks in an era of globalization. The example of diasporas suggests how Arab or any other Middle Eastern society can expand overseas in limited, selective ways. Modern communications of all sorts -- jet travel, satellite television, international telephoning -- widen the range of selection and of alternative selves from the settler migrants characteristic of the industrial period to the less conclusive labor migration and looser possibilities of the still-emerging post-industrial world dominated by service economies and information services in which jobs are mobile, too. This suggests that a leading edge or vanguard is likely to be intensely creative, exploratory, prone to hybridization, cosmopolitan in a fashion but still regionally rooted -- in other words, much like the migrants who today commute back-and-forth between Cairo and the Gulf as well as between Cairo and North America and unlike the one-way stream from Lebanon and Syria in the late nineteenth century.

Another highly visible site are the transnational media that embrace new forms, formats, and possibilities for communication and become its chief advocates. Alternam has recently noted that among the first beneficiaries and strongest advocates of the Internet in the Middle East are journalists, particularly in the transnational press, who are thereby enabled to see (and "interact" with?) each others' work in something more like "real time" than the longer cycles of earlier print journalism.(14) Like the print journalists who become a part of the institutions on which they report, those with access to transnational broadcasting and to the Internet participate in their "virtual" communities by enacting and embodying their peculiar reciprocities that turn on exchanging and sharing information. What they produce is a hybrid, or what with specific reference to Arab culture mixed with the Internet I have called "creolization."(15) that links the communicative practices of different communities.

The conceit of the information age that convergence will be toward some international or homogenized standard that is already glimpsed where the process is most advanced is most surely false. The history of technology and of media, not just here but in the environments in which they originated, is just the opposite. New users do adopt practices and representations of media and technology; but new users do not abandon their cultures in going on-line. They bring new uses, new practices, new priorities to the on-line world. Some augment it, others have to be negotiated. Like multichannel broadcasting, the Internet, far from sweeping all before it, has changed with each new user group, from the engineers who invented it for remote communication with machines to their colleagues who added e-mail for communication with each other, to those brought on-line by bulletin boards, e-mail lists, and chat groups, to the explosion of commercial content that quickly surpassed educational content with advent of the World Wide Web.

If, viewed from a perspective centered on media, journalists and their activities (of information-seeking and interpretation-brokering) are modeling new media's new people, the picture changes in changing perspective to the underlying technologies. Today's typical user in the Middle East, according to a publisher of regional computing magazines, is young, male, technical, and has access to the Internet at work. In other words, he is in the business, and business is a starting point for much Internet development in the region.(16) This rofile spreads with the Internet but only partly spreads it. The profile is an early stage phenomenon, which experience in North America and Europe shows to be overtaken as other user groups come on-line, but nevertheless exerts a lingering influence, serving as something of a magnet that attracts others to the style, values, imperatives it represents. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Internet is a bourgeois phenomenon and spreads those values through the skills it requires now and highlights for the future.

The significance of the Internet, and of the Internet as a model for New Media, is to bring new people into a public sphere ("on-line" ) into which are built values and experiences of those who build this space. This is a space of new identities -- some made newly public through the medium, some newly empowered through the skills that construct and use it, some experimented with outside traditional confines. In this context, Internet "chat" is said to be extremely popular, with its opportunities for role-playing as well as for communication that is otherwise restricted, such as by gender differences, in "real life." More consequentially, a range of potential political successors is emerging with savvy in and commitment to new media models, such as for industrial development.


Current Realities, Future Promises.

If the Internet is the model for New Media, it is not yet the on-ground-reality that other new media, from cassette recorders to multichannel television, are presently. The process of public users coming on-line has barely begun in the Middle East. Barriers to access are high in practical terms. Predominance of English on the Internet and costs of telecommunications, as well as political censorship or exclusion of the Internet, make it expensive, elitist, and underlie some of the lowest rates of Internet use in the world (Figure 7).

Figure 7. The on-line world in Sept 1998
(Data: World Bank Indicators)

With Less than one percent of the world that is on-line in the Middle East (exclusive of Israel), elitism is part of its significance in three ways. First, Internet use in Arab countries is currently concentrated in Gulf countries, nominally the most censorious. The crucial variable is not cultural policy but infrastructural investment in telecommunications, in which Gulf countries are regionally in the van, which is reflected in Figure 8 (with Israel for comparison). These numbers include domestic users only (thus excluding, for instance, Saudi subscribers to ISPs in Bahrain).

Figure 8. Percent of adult populations with ISP subscriptions
(Data: World Bank Indicators, Dabbagh Information Technology)

Second, the numbers are growing rapidly, suggesting a "submerged" elite coming to light as Internet users. Projections from limited data currently available show the same divergence in rates of growth as in overall numbers, and the dependence on a mix of the physical and social availability of access to the Internet.

Figure 9. ISP Customer growth in thousands
(Data: Dabbagh Information Technology)

Third, as already indicated, Internet use is concentrated within the provider community, and among those most like it socially and educationally. Put differently, it is a medium that puts their values and views into action, the values and views of a professional bourgeoisie with transnational capabilities and local roots, commitments to both, and capable of moving between them.

If the Internet is the leading edge, then elevision, which has more than a generation head-start, is the lagging one. It is by far the most ubiquitous medium here, as elsewhere, and continues its role as a training ground for the skills of mediated communication. As television evolves through multi-channel formats with more diverse local and regional content mixed with international content toward the even more participatory and interactive model of the Internet, the significance of television and of other media is likely to be as a pre-adaptation for post-mass media technologies generally. Current technology ties the Internet more closely to telecommunications and to print and to new technologies than to broadcasting (Fig 10). As the technologies are converging -- already in the business plans implied in buyouts of Internet startups and service providers in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf -- the larger social significance of these technologies and media is to have created a context and fostered habits that transfer quickly to post-mass media. The Internet may be something new, and a public sphere of new people, but it is drawn into pre-understandings already developed through experience with other media and in other social relations of media consumption. Saudi authorities for instance, have announced an Internet policy along the same lines, and with the same structure, as plans for providing satellite television in the Kingdom from government gateways to commercial distributors. The convergence, in other words, is social, and social (in imagined uses) before it is technological (implementing those uses). In this sense, television and newspapers create the context and telecommunications provides the channel for the model technology toward which convergence is bringing them.

Figure 10. Communications Media per 1000 households
(Data: World Bank Indicators)

Contrary media trends and cultural affects reflecting newer roles for and conceptions of citizens and the public sphere surfaced in December 1998 and demonstrate this broader convergence. After the Arab States Broadcasting Union rejected the application of al-Jazeera TV, the new Qatar-based news and discussion channel distributed by satellite throughout the Arab world, and gave it six months "to conform with the Arab media code of honor" which "promotes brotherhood between Arab nations," the brief wire service report of this story was posted on Arabia.On.Line (AROL), a three-year-old Jordanian World Wide Web site. Technology and its adepts thus undermine an information regime of privileged arbiters of public discourse, and did so with cultural skill as well: no further comment was necessary for Arab readers to grasp the significance of this attempt or its tropes.

Conclusion: a fateful conjuncture.

The media future that can be adduced begins with more channels and alternative channels for messages, more variety and wider participation, more interactive as opposed to receptive formats, more exposure of and to differences within the region, more opportunities to envision and vicariously to experience alternative selves. Their point of departure is a broad transfer of interpretive habits and practices forged on mass media into constructive practices of new, post-mass media. The television revolution has arguably preadapted a population, made up-market through a generation-long rise in mass education, with sets of skills and dispositions to rebalance the asymmetries of the mass media regime through down-market technologies of new media.

The first results are a startling increase in agency for those positioned in this frame. They include journalists, particularly in the transnational media, purveyors of the technology, diaspora professionals, and particularly the creative in each of these sectors and in government. Citizenship, in the sense of acting in the public sphere, becomes more active in these contexts of expanding and expanding access to mediated communication that rebalance sender-receiver relationships into something more like the reciprocities of everyday communication. A particularly notable feature of this emerging public space is the posing within it, explicitly and implicitly through exploration and experimentation, of the question "man 'arabiyya" -- "Who is Arabian?" -- as old boundaries loosen and messages migrate over the heads of previous cultural arbitors, including those tied to previously "new" media.

A base, there is a fateful convergence that is technological, as different types of data (still and moving pictures, music, voice, numbers) converge into a single (digital) type independent of channel and designed to find its own paths. It is also social, as activities particularly of identity-mongering are absorbed into communication. The trend in decentralized communication and "distributed" (as opposed to centralized) responsibility intersects a two-generation rise in mass education that is breaking traditional monopolies on access to information and, more importantly, on rights to interpret. And it includes reconnection with the Arab disaspora populations and a new burst of transnational media that, unlike literary pan-Arabism, involves a much broader audience. The significance of these convergences is not "globalization," if that means access to non-local alternatives to Arab culture, but instead to highlight, even to enable, alternatives within Arab culture to express and experience alternative identities.

Enabling these cultural changes are structural changes in communications regimes that follow from the communication and information technology moving down-market at the same time that regional populations are moving up-market. This conjunction frames the passage of more and more indigenous forms of regional culture into mediated communication. This, in turn, opens up possibilities for exploring alternative selves that, in some ways, is already a trend of the times. That is, the larger problems of culture in this equation is to shift from replication of uniformities to organization of diversity. This may be the major challenge of the next generation. A.R. Norton has provocatively updated earlier suggestions that Middle East populations may well be interested in liberalization without being in the least interested in democratization, (17) a process and cultural choice to which the contemporary post-mass media already contribute.

Some Links to Related Material

Transnational Media and Regionalism, by Jon Alterman.  Transnational Broadcasting Studies, 1, Fall 1998.

Is the Internet Islam's 'Third Wave' or the 'End of Civilization'? by Jon W. Anderson, USIP Conference on Virtual Diplomacy, Washington, DC, 1-2 April 1997.

The mosque and the satellite: Media and adolescence in a Moroccan town, by Susan S. Davis & Douglas A. Davis.

Iranians on the Internet, by Haleh Nazeri, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, December 1996.

Notes & References

(1) Jon Anderson is Chair of Anthropology at the Catholic University of America and co-director, with Michael Hudson, of the Arab Information Project at Georgetown University. He is co-editor, with Dale F. Eickelman, of New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999) and author of Arabizing the Internet (Occasional Paper # 30, Abu Dhabi: Emirates Center for Strategic Studies & Research, 1998).

(2) Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi & Ali Mohammadi. Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture and the Iranian Revolution (Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1994). A more extended, "cultural" significance of cassette technology for circulating popular culture is described in Peter Manuel's Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

(3) M. Hakan Yavuz, "Media identities for Alevis and Kurds." In Eickelman & Anderson, New Media. 1999.

(4) Today's most prominent technological optimist might be Nicholas Negroponte, whose Being Digital (New York: Knopf, 1995) summarizes that vision with respect to the Internet; against it might be set the social history of the telephone in Claude Fischer's America Calling (Berkeley: Univeristy of California Press, 1992) or the popular account of how American television is re-made by European viewers in Richard Pells' Not Like Us (New York: Basic, 1997). The most grounded attempt to think through the contemporary information revolution is Manual Castells' three-volume The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (New York: Blackwells, 1996-98), which is based, as are almost all such works, on Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (New York: Basic, 1973).

(5) These features were identified over a decade ago by Ithiel da Sola Pool, whose last work on the convergence of computing and communication was Technologies Without Boundaries (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). An updated, more journalistic version of some of his key ideas, focused on telecommunications developments, is Frances Cairncross' The Death of Distance (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1997).

(6) This point is developed in "Conspiracy theories, premature entextualization in popular political analysis," Arab Studies Journal IV(1), 1996. On-line at

(7) See case studies of censorship, government pr, the Internet, pulp novels, new law journals, Islamic educational publications, the telephone, and television in New Media in the Muslim World, edited by Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

(8) "Mass higher education and the religious imagination in contemporary Arab societies," American Ethnologist (November 1992).

(9) The connection of the modern public sphere with mediated -- as opposed to only face-to-face -- communication, on the one hand, and with public ritual, on the other hand, was made in Juergen Habermas' The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, translated by Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991; orig., 1962); the notion is applied in my "The Internet and Islam's new interpreters," in New Media in the Muslim World (1999) and for diaspora communities specifically "Globalizing politics & religion in the Muslim world," Journal of Electronic Publishing 3(1), September 1997 (available on-line at

(10) The connection of what Benedict Anderson called "print capitalism" with literacy, and with public education, is underplayed in his now-classic study, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1984), but given more balance in Elizabeth Eisenstadt's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

(11) Hani Yarid, "Masters of Arabic TV drama," Arabia.On.Line (January 21, 1999), on-line at\_drama.shtmlHani Yarid . Also, John Lancaster, "Syria, The Hollywood of the Mideast," The Washington Post (February 2, 1998), p. A14 (on-line at

(12) The term has been explicitly adopted and used by Internet and satellite services in the region to characterize their broad range of offerings.

(13) Dr. Marwan Muasher, "Introducing the Internet in Jordan." Seminar at Georgetown University, 23 March 1999. (on-line at

(14) Jon Alterman, New Media New Politics: From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World. Policy Paper #48 (Washington: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998).

(15) "Cybarites, knowledge workers and new Creoles of the Information Superhighway," Anthropology Today (August 1995).

(16) Survey data on-line from Dabbagh Information Technology at On the commercial context, see Jon W. Anderson. "The Internet and the Middle East: Commerce Brings Region On-Line," Middle East Executive Reports 20,12 (December 1997).

(17) A.R. Norton, "The new media, civic pluralism, and the slowly retreating state." In New Media in the Muslim World, edited by Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).


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