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“Monitoring the Middle East’s Information Revolution”

A Conversation with Michael Hudson and Jon Anderson
Co-Directors of the Arab Information Project, The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University

"Access to new information resources is shaping up as a major issue across the Arab Middle East," says Dr. Michael Hudson, Seif Ghobash Professor of Arab Studies and Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS). "How it is resolved will have important economic, social, and political consequences." Examining these consequences—through research and publications, seminars and workshops, and an information technology course—is the mission of CCAS's Arab Information Project, under the leadership of Hudson and Dr. Jon Anderson, professor of anthropology at Catholic University and CCAS adjunct faculty member.

The project was launched in 1995 with the symposium "The Information Revolution in the Arab World," a two-day event that looked at the region's changing mass media, the explosion of satellite channels in particular; the Middle East participation in the Internet; and social, economic, cultural, and political implications of changing media and technology. "We picked up on the kind of dreams and hopes and enthusiasm that we were hearing about in the Arab world about what new information technologies like satellite, Internet, and cellular telephony might be doing to societies," says Hudson. "With our disciplinary backgrounds we came at it from different perspectives; my own perspective as a political scientist is an interest in the possibilities and processes in political liberalization. We're interested in the new technologies as facilitators, as things that can build and enrich and diversify public opinion, can help stimulate the development of civil society and the NGO sector, and enrich the policy debates on important and complicated issues by providing new streams of information and opinion that might not otherwise be there."

While the project has dealt with various new media and technologies, the impact of the Internet is a particular concern. Anderson says that although only a small percentage of people in the region are Internet users--far fewer than use mobile phones or satellite television--the Internet has the potential for tremendous societal impact. "It's a cutting-edge technology in the sense that that's where the skills and practices that go into these other technologies finally come together as tools people can use. The Internet becomes interesting because it combines features of telephony—person-to-person, individual communication—and features of broadcasting in the sense that it's multimedia. But unlike broadcasting it's not one sender to many receivers, and unlike telephony it's not single messages. It's much more participatory. All the various skills that are developed in these other realms come together with the Internet and then get exaggerated."

The project draws not only on social science research but also the perspectives of the people on the ground, "from Arab private sector endeavors to build machine translation technology to people who market cellular phones to people who are monitoring the mass media," says Hudson. Part of AIP's aim is to develop a network of researchers, students, media practitioners, technology developers, and others with an interest in the Middle East's communications technologies.

The 1998-99 lineup of seminars and workshops included a talk by Dr. Marwan Muasher, Jordanian ambassador to the United States, on the Internet in Jordan; "Social Movements and Electronic Oppositions" by Jerrold Green; and a panel discussion on the impact of globalization on the Arab world. In March 1997 the AIP held a miniconference "The Coming of Age of the Internet in the Arab World." Related seminar topics have included Arabic language software development, telecommunications reform, and a case study of Egypt's Sakhr Software by the company's chief of software development Achraf Chalabi (see the AIP website for reports on these events).

The project that brought Anderson and Hudson to Egypt (where they visited TBS) and three other Arab countries last summer deals with listening to the stories of the region's Internet pioneers. "We're looking at the contours of the political struggle--and it is often a struggle--to bring these technologies into public use, to ascertain content-wise what the innovators want to do with the Internet, what they think it's good for in terms of public and private interests and principles," Hudson says. "We're interested in how these people connect with the political process. And we're interested in the sociology of Internet development, which is why we're interested in who these people are and how they got into this business."

"The problem," Anderson says, "is that there are lots of opinions out there but very little of what a social scientist would call data. So one thing we've been trying to do with our current project is to begin to put some empirical flesh on these speculative bones. If there are lots of ideological conceptions but no solid facts, let's collect stories from individual people. The stories, after a while, begin to show similarities and patterns: foreign education, pre-existing networks, and usually a highly placed sponsor or patron who decides this is important. The reason to study stories is that presidents and kings hear stories. They hear that IT is the future. They meet the people involved at a high level, bring back ideas, and become advocates themselves. It's happened in Egypt in a very big way, and in Jordan.

"Structurally there is a whole series of convergences in which these technologies become much more like each other: television is becoming more interactive through things like call-in. And the next generation in mobile telephony, WAP (wireless access protocol) means you can tap into the Internet on your mobile phone. All this convergence means that skills are transferable from one information practice to another. People are becoming more information-savvy; people are moving from information deficit to information surplus."

The most recent AIP seminar, held in April 2000, dealt with pan-Arab satellite television. Dr. Nabil Dajani, CCAS visiting scholar from the American University of Beirut, examined the popular and highly influential Lebanese satellite channels and argued that, rather than genuinely transforming public discourse, these channels are driven by light entertainment—and sectarian interests. Dr. Edmund Ghareeb, adjunct professor at Washington DC's American University, focused on Qatar's Al-Jazeera, which, he said, has played a major role in broadening pan-Arab interaction and increasing the scope of social and political debate.

"State media establishments are looking over their shoulders at what pan-Arab TV is doing," says Hudson. "Al-Jazeera of course is the famous case in point, and there are others, such as MBC and Dubai television. I expect to be able to go back to Yemen in a year or two and find that state television has a lot more interview shows, talk shows, more debate, and is a little more lively."

Also in April, CCAS jointly sponsored a conference on diffusion of information technology in the Middle East with the University of Arizona's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, presenting a panel that included Hudson and CCAS colleagues Dr. Walter Armbrust and Dr. Mamoun Fandy.

At the heart of the Arab Information Project is the course "Information Technology in the Arab World," taught by Anderson at Georgetown, which draws on anthropological, public policy, technological, and other perspectives in examining use of and policies on information technologies in the Middle East and among Middle Eastern communities around the world. The course, says Hudson, "has had the very salutary effect of drawing some of our best graduate students, who afterwards go into IT fields."

Hudson and Anderson hope as the project grows to be able to collaborate more and more, to mutual benefit, with universities, research institutes, and technology producers within the Middle East. "This is especially important," says Anderson, "in developing the kind of information that a lot of people want first: who are the users and what are they doing." Hudson says that "down the road we'd like to organize seminars or workshops in which people help us understand these larger implications from their own close experience. This is an academic project and of course we hope to be producing papers and monographs, but we want to make sure that whatever we do gets disseminated in the Arab world. We'd like the people and the institutions to benefit, hopefully, from what we've actually produced."

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