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Is Informationalization Good for the Middle East?

Issue 18, Summer 2013

By Jon W. Anderson

Photo courtesy of PakistanHousing.pk at http://www.flickr.com/photos/30191468@N05/

Photo courtesy of PakistanHousing.pk at http://www.flickr.com/photos/30191468@N05/


Nearly all studies and most opinion about new media and information technologies in the Middle East have held that they are a boon in an environment of information-averse regimes, state-controlled media, and limited communications. New media, in this reckoning, open communications to new voices, foster an expanded public sphere,[1] break the molds of old patterns not only of communication but also of thought,[2] or modify media ecologies[3]—all of which erode state monopolies and shift balances from state-cultivated models of citizenship to citizens’ taking charge.[4] Skeptical voices have been few, redundantly focused on multiple means of censorship to offset the benefits of new media, or cautioning against jumping to conclusions about new media impacts.[5] Early pessimistic assessments of the prospects for informational freedom in the digital age have been largely assimilated, such as Kalathil and Boas’ demonstration that the malleability of the Internet is also available to authoritarian states,[6] while more recent, more global, and more famous critiques have yet to influence research priorities in the Middle East.[7] None of these has strayed far from global views of epochal, structural transformation in open networks beyond noting lingering Middle East exceptions, especially lagging numbers of participants by comparison to other regions and to the rest of the world. Regionally as well as globally, open communications, network flows, and other notions of informationalization generally seem to be embraced as an unalloyed good by most analysts, if not by all actors.

“Informationalization” is a concept formulated by the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells as a key characteristic of the “information age,”[8] in which the balance of production that shifted from agriculture to manufacture with industrialization and then from manufacturing to service industries, shifts in post-industrial society toward information services and information technologies as dominant forces in economic, political, social and cultural change—or as Castells put it, “the new social morphology of our societies.”[9]  Notions of informationalization penetrate extensively into thinking about business, economic development and politics independently of Castells’ prolific treatments that linked it particularly to networked society. A turn-of-the-century favorite was the concept of “knowledge work” as a new denominator for development in post-industrial economies that the first Arab Human Development Report recommended for Arab countries to turn their “human resources” into human capital by embracing information and communications technology (ICTs).[10] We don’t hear much about knowledge workers any more, as attention to ICT-driven change has shifted to social media-enabled youth and from prosperity, which seems more elusive than ever, to freedom, which again seems just around the corner, so long as the tools and their users can stay a step ahead of its adversaries.

By the mid-2000s, Arab rulers had embraced informationalization, whether prompted by the AHDRs, by Castells’ vision of networked society and others like it circulating through consultants’ reports, or by brushing shoulders with industry representatives and celebrity experts at venues such as the World Economic Forum. Governments from the Gulf to Egypt rushed to build media and tech “cities”—now in the UAE, Jordan, Egypt—that combine features of industrial parks with free-trade zones devoted to media and ICT development. Cynics might suggest that this enables governments to keep tabs on potentially socially disruptive technology, and cynics might be right; but these Internet and media cities embody policy goals to capture the values, and especially the value added, of an informationalized economy by promoting Internet use and computer skills through training, particularly in computer skills, and public access, particularly to the Internet. Implementing policies have ranged from making Internet access virtually free in Egypt and unregulated in Jordan and Egypt (albeit with lapses, from Egypt’s shutting off Internet connections during the Tahrir Square demonstrations to Jordan’s new licensing law) to limiting Internet access to business purposes, reminiscent of the Chinese model of an Internet behind proxy servers, to industrial policies to leverage Internet service to promote ICT-based businesses. Much of this was in place by the early to mid-2000s and it facilitated the burst of social media that figured in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that more restrictive government policies on who could use the Internet and what they could access, such as in Syria, impeded.[11] But we cannot say that determined regimes can match tech-savvy individuals.[12]

The drama, and thus media attention, shifted from knowledge work to informationalization in politics with a new generation that seemed to make their own work and to remake politics as a kind of information work on open-network models afforded by networked communications. They took advantage of margins of informational freedom through more open communications that were more accessible to alternative voices through Internet technologies and techniques, which Howard has finally shown through rigorous comparison, may not create civil society but are definitely among its means, such that civil society does not emerge in authoritarian states without them.[13] So stated, this seems common sense: freedom of information and its free flow into the public sphere should spread agency and enhance it. That informed citizens are essential to democratic regimes of government is a base premise of modern political science’s foundational commitment to popular sovereignty, to understanding it, and to promoting it or at least to identifying threats to that sovereignty.

Can informationalization be one of those threats? While professionals and practitioners working at the intersection of media studies and political science in the Middle East seem to think not, there is substantial critical opinion that sees informationalization as degradation, or as false promise.[14] Most of these critiques are rooted in cultural studies’ attunements to technology more as trope in a tradition that goes back to Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein’s Data Trash,[15] which took a gimlet-eyed view of the emerging information age as an economic formation that drains value from the system in meaningless activity. The values that they do assign to technology are, for the most part, cultural, social, and political, which raises the question: would this even matter where so little economic activity is transacted in informational goods and services by comparison to other regions and political economies?

Informationalization in Middle Eastern Economies

Emma Murphy reminds us that political economy in the Arab Middle East is more political than economic.[16] That is, while politics in fully capitalist states of the West are driven by economics, from voter preferences to fundamental structures of power, politics typically dominate Arab state economies, in which regulation, licensing, national champions, and extra-legal or informal direction guide investment and even operations. Murphy’s analysis focuses on telecommunications, describing a structure of limited cross-border investments in new telecos in neighboring countries that respond to requirements for divestment of state PTT monopolies and for opening markets in telecommunications in order to qualify for accession to the World Trade Organization on trade and tariffs.[17]  This is particularly apparent in the proliferation of companies that provide mobile telephony, which incumbents mobilize to limit while seeking to expand in neighboring national markets.[18]

It is not just that Arab states and their allies have sought to protect their informational domains, to filter and manage access, and to direct its benefits to social and economic elites, or that the short-term result has been relative under-development of regional infrastructure that places the Internet within telecom infrastructure that Murphy points out. It also means that the first value extracted from the Internet is extracted by the telephone companies. With the partial exception of Egypt, to which I will return, telephone companies not only capture the monetary value of Internet service but capture it more reliably than retail Internet Service Providers (ISPs), for whom telecos are the points of connection to the international grid, as well as frequently to customers.[19] Internet service, from a telephone company’s point of view, is telecom reselling, and many early business plans to provide it in the Middle East amounted to little more. This is why we have seen fitful campaigns against Skype and other VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services, which ISPs in some Arab countries have been technologically prevented from offering.

Channeling value in Internet service goes further.  After half a decade or more of experimentation with limited Internet roll-out, Arab countries, by the early 2000s, settled on regimes that made the Internet available to the wider public, and much of the ensuing interest in starting ISPs was driven by prospects of capturing a new source of rent. In Saudi Arabia, for example, more than a hundred proposals and applications for licenses came forward, about thirty were granted out of those that were qualified and, of those, barely a dozen actually started businesses. The reason was that Saudi policy settled by 1999 sought to foreclose rent-seeking by fixing both wholesale costs and retail prices and by requiring that ISPs be linked to ICT businesses to support their development. Egypt’s more aggressive policy of licensing numerous ISPs that would provide connection for the cost of a telephone call,[20] with a portion remitted to the ISP (as a sort of customer bounty), had a similar effect but in an opposite direction, i.e. to direct investment toward “backbone” services connecting ISPs to the grid outside the telephone lines. At least one of these services was spun off a government project as a private company, while others were sponsored by companies rolling out alternative mobile phone services and television channels.[21]

All of these flows might not matter apart for maintaining the state in positions also to control and monitor content. These structures might be an early-stage phenomenon, justified as necessary for getting a physical infrastructure in place, where the story before 2000 had been lack of such infrastructure that prompted opening the sector to alternative, private, and to some extent to international investment. In Jordan, for instance, France Telecom bought a share of the divested PTT, abandoning an initial partnership with Sprint and Deutsche Telekom to create a separate company but taking on its commitment to enhance Internet availability. In the Gulf, most investment came from partially corporatized but still or largely state-owned telecos’ establishing branches in neighboring countries. The pattern of restricting competition seems relatively entrenched, thanks to friendly regulation and to the example set by international champions’ pleading its efficiencies, such as Verizon in the US, which famously reassembled half the old Bell system broken up in 1996 (with ATT taking the other half).  Critics dispute claims of efficiency and point instead to “regulatory capture,”[22] which outside the US takes the form of policies to soften the impact of globalization through national direction (known as “social market” policies in Europe). In other words, the subordination of economics to politics that Murphy pointed to as a characteristic of peripheral capitalism could mean that it is a feature of the margins and not the core departure of informationalization.

Informationalization as Business Model 

This latter argument has tended to come from the software industry and its Silicon Valley exegetes, whose vision of freedom of expression argues the free exchange of goods via the Internet as its contribution to informationalization. In a sense, their information age started and grew, and some maintain now grows naturally, through information provided free to users.[23] Certainly, this was true for the early Internet of engineers and scientists who discounted the costs of producing the information they provided freely to each other. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, noting the effects of piracy (notably in music) and new social media business models (in which advertising allows use to be free) formulated the now widely accepted argument that the Internet is over-determined not just to deliver free goods but to stimulate their production; by providing endless choice, the Internet creates unlimited demand.[24] This is the business plan for social media that was given formal expression by the marketing firm and publishing house that first defined social media as “user-contributed content.”[25]

Returning to the Middle Eastern context, one might ask what could be wrong with a system of free, user-contributed content? Haven’t social media empowered a new generation, a new array of voices, and at least added to the pressure for social change? Haven’t social media provided arenas for the cultivation and refinement of civil society by providing opportunities for skills development and networking, including with the international press and civil society-promoting NGOs such as Global Voices Online, Creative Commons, or the Heinrich Boell Stiftung that sponsored a series of blogger conferences to consolidate and focus development in that sector? Concerns about social media providers’ snooping on users’ communications might seem precious or secondary when compared to manifestly deeper interests of the security sectors in authoritarian states. In any event, social media companies are less interested in their users’ information than in information about it, in the traffic, which in those companies’ terms are “meta-data” and what they want to capitalize. Whether it is Google’s drive to scoop up “all the world’s information,”[26] or more limited “walled gardens” (e.g., Apple’s well-tended constellation of iTunes, iCloud, seamlessly integrated with iPods and iPads) or clever social engineering (such as Facebook), their goals are to mine meta-data less about users than about user behavior and to identify probabilities and correlations that can be used to refine their own services and to sell to advertisers.

Again, one would think that free social media would be a boon in a region that still has low percentages of people on-line and where e-commerce is less developed in the estimations of would-be developers because of underdeveloped, underused and, most important, under-trusted payment and delivery systems. These last have been a persistent complaint by developers and key rationalization for why e-commerce has not “taken off” in the Middle East, notwithstanding growing middle classes with their presumed demands for bargains and demonstrated demands for cosmopolitan goods.[27] That also could be a negative from the point of view of fostering development, which on the Internet means software development, and so remaining, as Murphy put it, “on the periphery of the informational capitalist system” because “the Arab region is not generating the core technologies.”[28]

Here, the “so what” question is decisively answered by all countries of the region making it explicit policy to foster local software development as an export sector. This goal overtook and sought to build on a generation of public sector technocrats’ efforts to implement Internet-based schemes for e-government and e-education by the end of the 1990s. As the Internet took off globally in that decade, and Arab governments advanced plans for public access in order to leverage informationalization as a “leapfrog” technology that could reverse the region’s relative decline in the industrial period, additional plans came forward for fostering local software development that would tap a generation-long spread of higher education to create an economy based on “knowledge workers.” The most sublime expression of this vision was in the first Arab Human Development Report (2002), authored by members of the region’s technocrat generation. More mundane operationalizations came in the form of plans for Internet-, tech-, and media-cities and for participation in the growing out-sourcing trade already brought by globalization. The argument was that countries that lacked primary capital (i.e., mineral wealth) had instead human capital in abundance, thanks to decades of investment in education, and were thus uniquely positioned to localize software to Arabic and to distinctive Arab-country accounting and business standards. Also, the reasoning went, Arab countries could become suppliers to international corporations that would be more reliable customers than those in the local retail market, which was rife with unlicensed software and, as Arab software developers put it to me, “Even the most popular software only sells a few copies here. The rest are copied. But [international corporations] pay for Arabization and for other out-sourced modules for their programs that we can produce cheaper than elsewhere or to a better standard, and actually get paid for it.”

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[1] Marc Lynch, "Blogging the New Arab Public" http://www.arabmediasociety.com/topics/index.php?t_article=32 (accessed 1 July 2012).Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[2] Charles Hirschkind, "From the Blogosphere to the Street: The Role of Social Media in the Egyptian Uprising" http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/599/from-the-blogosphere-to-the-street_the-role-of-soc (accessed 23 December 2011).

[3] Barrie Axford, "Talk About a Revolution: Social Media and the Mena Uprisings," Globalizations 8, no. 5 (2011); Mark Allen Peterson, "Egypt's Media Ecology in a Time of Revolution" http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=770 (accessed 14 May 2013); Ramsey Tesdell, "Reach out and Touch Somebody: The Ecology of New Media and New Social Movements in Jordan" http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=729 (accessed 16 May 2013).

[4] Donatella Della Ratta, “Dramas of the Authoritarian State: The Politics of Syrian Tv Serials in the Pan Arab Market” (University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Humanities, 2013).pp. 146 ff.

[5] Jon B. Alterman, "The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," Washington Quarterly 34, no. 4 (2011).

[6] Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003).

[7] Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2011). And Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[8] Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Vol. 1, the Rise of the Network Society (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996).

[9] Castells 1996, p. 500.

[10] The Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (New York: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Regional Bureau for Arab states, 2002).

[11] Enrico De Angelis, "The State of Disarray of a Networked Revolution: The Syrian Uprising’s Informationenvironment," Sociologica 3, no. 1 (2011); Jim Giles and Paul Marks, "Syria's Total Cyber Control," New Scientist 213, no. 2853 (2012).

[12] Brendan and Nicole Gaouette Greeley, "Untangling Dictator's Webs" http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_19/b4227022810305.htm (accessed 12 May 2011); Mary Beth Sheridan, "Autocratic Regimes Fight Web-Savvy Opponents with Their Own Tools", The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/autocratic-regimes-fight-web-savvy-opponents-with-their-own-tools/2011/04/19/AFTfEN9G_story.html (accessed 23 May 2011).

[13] Philip N. Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, Oxford Studies in Digital Politics (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[14] Geert Lovink, Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008); Geert Lovink, Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, Cambridge (Polity, 2011). Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010).

[15] Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein, Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1994).

[16]Emma C. Murphy, "Agency and Space: The Political Impact of Information Technologies in the Gulf Arab States," Third World Quarterly 27, no. 6 (2006); Emma C. Murphy, "Theorizing Icts in the Arab World: Informational Capitalism and the Public Sphere," International Studies Quarterly, no. 4 (2009).

[17] Murphy 2009.

[18] Murphy 2006.

[19] Grey E. Burkhart and Susan Older, The Information Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2003).

[20] Tarek Kamel, "Internet Commercialization in Egypt: A Country Model. ," in The Seventh Annual Conference of the Internet Society (1997); Karen D. Loch, Detmar W. Straub, and Sherif Kamel, "Diffusing the Internet in the Arab World: The Role of Social Norms and Technological Culturation," IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management 50, no. 1 (2003). Telecom Egypt maintained an initial monopoly on the international gateway but an open door policy on ISPs, so by 2001 there were more than 60 in Egypt. (Internet on the Nile: A Case Study. ITU, 2001. p. 20 http://www.itu.int/osg/spu/wtpf/wtpf2001/casestudies/egypt1.pdf)

[21] Mark Allen Peterson, Connected in Cairo: Growing up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011). Earl Zmijewski, "Egypt's Net on Life Support", Renesys Blog http://www.renesys.com/blog/2011/01/egypts-net-on-life-support.shtml (accessed 7 May  2011).

[22] Milton L. Mueller, Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance, Information Revolution & Global Politics (Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 2010); Milton L. Mueller, Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002); Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2010).

[23] Chris Anderson, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (London: Random House Business, 2009).

[24] Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: How Endless Choice Is Creating Unlimited Demand, Random House Business Books (London: Random House Business, 2006).

[25] Tim O'Reilly, "What Is Web 2.0 - Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software" http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html (accessed 27 February 2013).

[26] Steven Levy, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011); "The New Politics of the Internet - Everything Is Connected", The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21569041-can-internet-activism-turn-real-political-movement-everything-connected?frsc=dg|a (accessed 10 January 2013).

[27] Peterson 2011.

[28] Murphy 2009, p. 1148

[29] Lanier, Jaron. Who Owns the Future? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013).

[30] This is not always the case. Seemingly out of the blue, I have received payments, very modest ones, from the Copyright Clearance Center, which I didn’t even know existed, for reprints of earlier articles, for which I am grateful to those who paid.

[31] Op cit.

[32] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.Trans. by Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge, 1992, orig. 1930) p. 123.

[33] Biao Xiang, Global "Body Shopping:" An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[34 Gina Neff, Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012).

[35] Jan A. English-Lueck, Cultures@Siliconvalley (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[36] Sarah Lacy, Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0 (New York: Gotham Books, 2008).

[37] Courtney C. Radsch, "Core to Commonplace: The Evolution of Egypt’s Blogosphere", Arab Media & Society http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=692 (accessed 6 June 2012).

[38] Samantha M. Shapiro, "Revolution Facebook Style", The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/magazine/25bloggers-t.html?_r=0 (accessed 6 June 2012).

[39] For similar turns to documentation projects of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, see Judy Barsalou, "Post-Mubarak Egypt: History, Collective Memory and Memorialization," Middle East Policy 19, no. 2 (2012).

 [40] I’m grateful to Emma Murphy for this provocative analogy, although it is not a direction I would take the present analysis.