Arab Information Project Specialist Workshops, 1996

September 7, 2008 at 7:04 pm 1 comment

In the year following the Center’s symposium on “The Information Revolution in the Arab World,” CCAS has held a series of follow-on workshops with a grant from GU’s School of Foreign Service that enabled us to bring together Middle East and information specialists from Georgetown and the Washington area. Topics have included

The Internet in the Arab World
Radio and television in Arab countries
Telephone deregulation
Interactivity via the Internet
Assessing audiences for media in the Middle East
Technological convergence
Connecting Morocco to the Internet

The first workshop, in March, 1996, featured Jon Anderson of Catholic University speaking on the expansion of the Internet in the Middle East and Evelyn Early, an anthropologist with the US Information Agency, talking about the role of radio and television in Arab society. Anderson pointed out that the Internet grew up in research labs and universities in North America, Australia and Europe, where it attracted members of the Middle East’s overseas populations, who brought a range of political, cultural and religious interests from the home countries on-line. It is arriving in the Middle East in a more commercial guise: the free-for-all development that marks the Internet seems to skip to the point that the Internet is, so to speak, graduating and going to work. The characteristic Internet site in the Middle East is not the research university or engineering polytechnic but a public-private partnership targeting the commercial sector. More specifically, it focuses on the provision of commerce-enabling information, from business stories to news of international affairs to advertising for Islamic banks (and in one case a Mercedes dealership in Riyad) to provision of the cyber-age’s version of the business contact, homepages for companies in public relations and export-import businesses. It is not too much of a strech to imagine that Middle East governments will provide for commerce the infrastructure services and development subsidies that, for cultural and political reasons, they may hesitate to provide for the educational sector. This also creates a potential for a different kind of convergence with the Middle East’s “overseas” of emigrants. 

Evelyn Early addressed this more domestic side of earlier communications technologies in Arab lands. Radio and television are, until recently, everywhere in the Middle East centralized services under state control, sponsorship and supervision. They, too, produce a convergence, and one equally subtle for being similarly “soft” to measurement. Television, and especially radio, are sources of information which will continue to be important for a long time to come. It is the existing realm of choices. For example, many Middle Easterners rely on Radio Monte Carlo for information during political crises. Radio also has a role in conveying social trends and conditions. As a conveyer of ceremony, television is especially powerful, although it carries cultural baggage which radio does not. Television, through news coverage of international diplomacy, can help convey legitimacy on governments. Radio and television are also major sources of entertainment. In spite of the growing popularity of television and satellite TV, radio remains the most important medium of communication in the Arab World.

In the second workshop, Alex Shalaby of ATT compared the telephone situation in the US to that in Arab countries. From the ATT breakup in 1984 to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the real revolution in the US is permitting former monopolies to participate in each others’ markets. By contrast, telcoms in the Middle East as in most of the rest of the world are still state or para-state operations with little room for input from consumers through the market. While the number of lines per 100 population is over 86 in the US and as high as 180 in Washington, ITU figures show less than 1/100 in African countries, single digits in most Middle Eastern countries, from about 15/100 in Saudi Arabia and 30/100 in Kuwait and the UAE to less than 6/100 in Egypt. Cost has been a factor. The pace of development increases in the Middle East, but governments there are not addressing the contributory issues, and forums do not exist in the region for deciding these issues. Where are the debates over costs, access? Despite efforts to implement advanced technology, a lack of imagination on the social impacts of expanding telecommunications keeps PTT worrying about their business, or more in commercial terms than in policy terms. PTTs raise revenues and often set rates so high that clearances are always in their favor. The industry, led by US corporations, has come to a view that favors competition and open markets as opposed to protected monopolies and would prefer to see the PTTs turned into regulators but not providers of services. The problems at the moment are absence of real markets and of independent regulation.

In the third workshopMartin Irvine, director of Georgetown’s new graduate program in Communications, Culture and Technology, spoke about the liberalizing potential of the Internet, as a “democratic, global, user-centered, interactive” tool. With its decentralized structure from the beginnings of the Internet as a medium for e-mail, file-sharing and remote access, the history of the Internet has been one of increasing interactivity as opposed to more delivery-oriented or one-to-many media. He demonstrated the technological developments of hypertext with multiple links that effectively create boundless documents through use and of multimedia that, migrated to the Internet, have resulted in the World Wide Web at the point where the Internet has dramatically gone public. The CCT program, he emphasized, focuses on these developments for media and communications studies, and he demonstrated implementations, such as the Labyrinth for medieval studies, which he created with Deborah Everhart, that invite contributions to the research uses of the Internet. 

Fred Huxley, an anthropologist at the US Information Agency, discussed “Audiences and Impacts of New Communications Media in the Middle East.” USIA conducts listener, watcher and readership surveys in Middle East countries through local contractors, whom it helps develop. By comparison to extensive and commercial use of such methods in the US, this sort of market information is only being developed in Middle East countries. For VOA, surveys are a response to the charge to reach opinion-makers and to practice a public diplomacy by generating data on impact. Results of surveys indicate profiles of media consumption, if not of impact, and affirm a pattern of reliance on multiple sources. VOA and BBC services are among these, as are commercial as well as national broadcasters, plus print and other media including audio and video cassettes. People throughout the region are already multiple media, if not multimedia, consumers; communications media are fitted into cultural patterns of information-seeking that draw together communications from different media. Withal, this sparked a lively discussion of convergences and divergences with multimedia as conceived from the deliverer’s end. 

The fourth workshop in May 1996 was hosted by and held at the AT&T; Technology Center in Washington, where Woody Kirkeslager demonstrated the national and global information infrastructures the company is developing. Essentially, these implement an industry vision of convergences on tools that work together and delivering a unified pileline for any kind of information. The trend is exemplified in the fax machine, which joins telephone and printing, while the need is exemplified in function-specific technologies such as pagers, phones, printing and video with their own separate channels. Technology, he urged, is converging on a business model of high-capacity, multifunctional channels, for which the Internet, as a “network of networks” is only a proximate realization. Technological development drives and is driven by this user-oriented model more than by single process models of the past, as the “common carrier” model evolves into one of a more universal carrier. 

The fifth workshop in November 1996, featured Douglas Davis from Haverford College and a recent Fulbright Fellow in Morocco. His talk, “Bringing the Networked Future to Morocco,”related his experiences with the Internet and compared those with Moroccan receptions of a range of communications technologies. These range from hooking Moroccan educational and public institutions to the Internet to the impact of satellite TV on Moroccan adolescent identity (Davis is a social psychologist) to the direct marketing of hand-loomed rugs and other textiles via the Internet by women in a village where he and his wife, anthropologist Susan Schaeffer Davis, have worked off and on for years. Decentralization was his theme, too, from bypassing the middlemen of the rug trade to the ready, if in official circles wary, reception accorded to new channels of information. Cost is, and will remain, a big factor in such reception, but the other side of costs are ability to capture value. Convergence also emerges in the form of conducting work from a vacation home, or selling rugs from the Atlas directly to the Main Line, in giving Moroccan adolescents additional windows on the world, and in helping bring a new university up to speed through on-line access to information that has taken years to accumulate through the medium of physical libraries.

Entry filed under: Internet, IT Development, Satellite TV. Tags: , , .

THE INFORMATION REVOLUTION IN THE ARAB WORLD (April 20-21, 1995) Arabizing the Internet (1997-98 seminars & workshops)

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Md. Abdur Razzak  |  July 7, 2009 at 10:31 am

    This project can organize a seminar on ” Iran crisis-Role of Global Media” among the Muslim countries. Especially for the brainstorming of Information Specialists to find out the peaceful solution of the crisis.

    Thanks to give me opportunity to post my comments.


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