NMIT Working Papers

Working Papers on New Media & Information Technology in the Middle East

Globalization, Democracy, the Internet and Arabia

Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 15, 2008

Jon W. Anderson (Catholic University of America; CCAS Research Associate)
Revised from a talk given at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 15 April 2007.

Democracy is the occasional necessity of deferring to the opinions of other people.
-Winston Churchill

In the 1990s, the notion of globalization as the macroscopic conception of contemporary change arrived with a primarily economic emphasis popularized through books like The Twilight of Sovereignty by Walter Wriston,[1] retired CEO of Citicorp, and a penumbra of celebrations from the management world. Through think tanks, it became the doctrine de jour for theorizing the end of the Cold War that updated belief in superiority of markets over planned economies to a more contemporary justification for expansion of open markets beyond bond-trading, where Wriston found it. Globalization seemed to predict what neoliberalism preached; so it is not surprising that searches for globalization moved into additional realms that liberalism had long privileged as drivers of socio-political change in addition to the political-economic.

Among these ‘higher order’ domains are media; and by the mid-1990s much attention had come to focus on new media, particularly of the Internet, which seemed to portend extension of globalization from political economy to cultural economy. As a site for such a shift, the Internet had some advantages over postmodernists’ extension of globalization to phenomena which were nothing if not ‘soft’, ephemeral, fashionable. The advantages of the Internet were not only that it had a material representation, but that it was about information and freeing the flow of information, a promise that political thought had long associated with participation in politics and normatively made such participation central to politics in a modern idiom.

Media are intimately associated with the rise of modernity from newspapers to broadcasting. The historian Benedict Anderson famously linked ‘print capitalism’, the first form of mechanical mass production, to recasting political community in national terms.[2] And metaphysically ever since Kant defined Enlightenment as coming out from the tutelage of another – not as self-fashioning but as self-education – the politics of popular sovereignty conceived its ideal actor in the form of the informed citizen. By the twentieth century, political thinkers invested much hope in the informing power of media, but also no little skepticism that modern media were more circus than agora. Yellow journalism soured many on the press, until liberals such as Walter Lippman recast the trade as a sort of educator-conscience for the modern bourgeoisie.[3] Broadcasting, too, passed through a cycle from initial enthusiasm to increasing reservation, beginning from the left as Adorno et al, blanched at what the right did with mass media. The peak of this line of thinking, notwithstanding some famous movies of the 1950s and 60s from The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit to Network, came in propaganda studies during World War II that sought to grasp how the ‘big lie’ worked so as to counter it.

Conceptions of information are constantly being refreshed in the politics of the day. After the peak of propaganda studies, their gloss on information as emotional suasion (which migrated into marketing) was displaced by cybernetic notions of information that passed into a growing concern in political thinking by the 1960s with decision-making. The culminating text might be Karl Deutsch’s use of a cybernetic model to provide a fuller account political decision-making.[4]

Contemporary thinking about communication as passing information that makes a difference in decisions of all sorts including, notably, consumption, is the standard theory, from politics to marketing,[5] and down to the contemporary notion that ‘content is king’ on the Internet; but it is not hegemonic. Another school of communication studies rose in Canada not from studying propaganda or from thinking about ‘rational’ communication but from studies of the fur trade by the historian and geographer, Harold Innes, whose most famous student was Marshall McLuhan, whose most famous idea was that ‘the medium is the message’.[6] Somewhat cryptically, this aphorism asserted the priority of channels, which Innes had observed tend to be laid down in each new form of communication over older ones. To Innes, what changed was the means of communication,[7] with actors getting not just more of it but additional types. Humanists like McLuhan and others of the Canadian ‘school’ emphasized this differential engagement of different types of communication over their information passing functions and proceeded to focus on the sensory aspect of what humanists would call ‘genre’ that were largely missed in message-focused theories of communication. In almost all mid-century social science, this perspective was widely tried and quickly relegated to the margins by interests in how communication, meaning media, ‘informed’ decisions of social actors and, normatively or on a policy level, how more or better information made for better or at least more informed decisions.

The view of communication drawn from information theory and focused messages and on message-passing that made a difference in recipients also was written into major research efforts to study, in order then to mobilize, communication as a force for change, and particularly a liberal force. One of these was Lerner’s Passing of Traditional Society in the Middle East.[8] This much-cited study set out to determine if the spread of mass communications in 1950s Egypt, which was part of the Nasserite state’s attempt to create a new citizenry for a new state, actually produced results anticipated. Lerner’s disappointing finding was that that mass communications, particularly broadcasting, did not spread openness, rationality and other liberal habits, not to say values. ‘Too passive’ was the judgement passed on mass communications to mass audiences.

So why did this interest that passed away into a critical cloud of disappointment over mass communications come back seemingly fresh with the Internet? Three things seem to come together. On the side of political analysis, Ithiel da Sola Pool, a member of one of the projects that spawned studies such as Lerner’s of mass communications in developing countries, developed an argument that found liberation not in mass but in networked communications. The difference was that networked communications, built on an any-to-any model of communications, increased the agency of recipients of messages. In fact, networked communications required it, because their structure was more interactive, even participatory.

Second, this was the principal idea that developers of network technology, and particularly of the Internet, emphasized when trying to conceptualise their invention and to secure support for its deployment and development. The Internet, which was conceived and built by engineers for their own work, and so incorporated their work habits, was cast as a technology for seeking information over merely receiving it; it was represented as ‘built’ by its users, a notion they extended to new users, if somewhat problematically. Working in the public sector, they sought support for that work by casting computer-based networking, originally an economic way to use cheap communications for access to expensive computers, as an inherently democratic information order and so of general benefit. With this gloss, the engineers’ tool that passed to the National Science Foundation for the benefit of all scientists then passed to the private sector for the benefit of all, particularly consumers but in principle all citizens.

This could probably have been enough, and in venues where corporate chieftains, politicians, and scientists come together from Aspen and Davos to Washington thinktanks, it may well have been enough to excite interest in the Internet. Political analysts took up the rhetoric of engineers and recontextualised it, popularized it, and hailed the Internet. The banner years were 1993-1995, with Lawrence Grossman’s Electronic Republic, Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, all on the heels of Harold Rheingold’s The Virtual Community,[9] with think-tank symposia taking up the task of further translation to policy. A third element in this conjunction is the growth in the humanities of reader-response theories that had come to stress how, beyond the author, a reader ‘completes’ the text, such that the only meaningful sense of ‘meaning’ emerges through an extended process in which the reader is not a passive recipient but instead an active participant, if not a sort of ‘author’ herself. While the influence of humanities by comparison to that of techno-science and pop socio-political analysis is problematic, the Geist of the Zeit was open to new critical studies’ extension of criticism to the agency of readers that brought together Derridian deconstruction of texts, Foucaultian archaeologies of knowledge, and the old Frankfort School’s critical sociology of mass society and its mass communication. Only a few still spoke for authority and located it in authors.[10]

The result was that at material, social-political, and cultural levels a consensus formed and paradigm coalesced around the Internet as a new medium, democratic because more interactive than mass communication and actively participatory in a way that, the consensus had come to be, passive reception of mass media was not. Initially, reservations came only from the cultural right, defending authors and editors and other gatekeepers, although minority voices emerged on the left, echoing the old Marxist Frankfort School, that what was on the Internet was trash, too – in this case, ‘data trash’.[11]

It was into this maelstrom of optimism about the Internet as an additional engine of liberalization on the media side complementing that on the market side, where globalization had originally been identified, that Dr. Hudson and I stepped with a project to investigate whether, how, and to what extent the Internet might have a democratizing impact in the Arab world. In the background was the sneaking realization that economics had not done it, that other parts of the developing world were running with economic globalization, notably East and South Asia and, at the time, perhaps, South America, but the Middle East was at least as resistant as Africa. Yet, the Middle East appeared to be coming online and reflexively to register the Internet as a new medium that might bust open what stalled halting economic liberalization was not. The point of entrée we chose was Internet pioneers, or advocates and early adopters.

This is an extensive and at the time amorphous universe, if not a very populous one. Tiny percentages of Middle Easterners were counted ‘on-line’ in various global measures of uncertain provenance. But, we knew some. I had moved from studying Islamic websites to others with more regional, nationalist bents and actually visited the offices of the first pan-Arab web portal, Arabia On-Line, and some early Internet service providers; Dr. Hudson knew enough Arab intellectuals who were thinking about this to organize CCAS’ 1995 annual symposium on the ‘information revolution’ in the region, which revealed that views were forming, but in advance of much actual experience. The Internet was reflexively registered far more than engaged praxis. So we settled on ‘pioneers’ who were very much at the implementation end of things, advocates and early adopters’ trying to introduce the Internet; and we hypothecized that they would be introducing an extended package, or at least large parts of it, which included features that had registered as ‘democratic’ such as user direction, decentralized structure, an open information regime and, not least, the work habits and values of engineers, entrepreneurs, and media people that largely run counter to information-controlling habits of authorities.

Such a way was pointed in an argument of Anne-Marie Slaughter, at Princeton’s Wilson School of International Studies, that the “real new world order,” as she put it, would be composed not at the top nor at the bottom but in the middle through professionals and their border-crossing cultures.[12] Also, there was the classic demonstration by the political sociologist, David Knoke, of how decision-making agencies in government is enmeshed with clients and patrons outside the public sector, in corporate, professional, academic, and various quasi-public realms, whose influence is channeled more effectively through networks than through the electoral process.[13] Analysis, as it were, was going horizontal, or following empirical evidence. What evidence could we find for such influence, and would it accommodate liberalizing ones? These could occur on two levels, an ideological or normative one, in the passage of values, and at a practical one, in the extension with the Internet of governance and administrative practices that engineers had built into it, that corporate chieftains now celebrated as natural, and that new cultural theory affirmed as part of the process.

We chose Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for a comparative study of Internet implantation, and in these different political economies we found that existing Internet culture was reflexively registered and promoted as new values. We found multiple efforts to design and install Internet structures, to extend service and to develop uses with local content as well as international reach. We also found the then-famous obstacles of limited infrastructure, narrow regulation, problematic investment, and the conundrum of low numbers as the market waited for users and users waited for content. We also found each government experimenting with the Internet on many levels, from telecoms to national websites, as well as many similar efforts by individuals. We also found strong support for the idea of the Internet as development tool and as development sector at the highest political levels – in fact, a common pattern of lodging that support institutionally one step away from the highest national authority in each country. Each had an institution, close to power and under high-level patronage, that housed Internet advocacy and became the point of contact for interested parties much as Knoke theorized, and, crucially, conducted its own ‘foreign policy’ much as Slaughter hypothecised. We found these also to be relatively open, or at least unformed, and to become sites of considerable politicking, alliance-seeking and coalition-forming around the new information technology. These are necessary but not sufficient for democratization, and are hardly regimes of democratic governmentality; but before coming to that, let me briefly sketch what we found.

The first were scientists and engineers, based in university engineering faculties, who were trained abroad in new Internet technologies and sought connections for their own work. By 1993, they had created a fledgling Egyptian Universities Network with a low bandwidth dialup connection to EARN,[14] the European counterpart of NSFNET, itself created in 1985 to take over development efforts that had outgrown the Internet’s laboratory origins. By that year, a similar connection was established at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, engineers at the University of Jordan had registered a top-level domain for that country,[15] and engineers in Syria had formed a professional association that pressed for installing the software core of the Internet, known as the TCP/IP protocol, for a national data network. Each encountered resistance from national telephone monopolies, which claimed exclusive control over international telecommunications and represented a different engineering culture, different protocols, notions of service, and investment in a physical base. Against this was argued that the Internet was a different engineering that would leverage more talents; but these efforts were quickly superseded.

In each of Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia a center of Internet advocacy emerged, abetted by the incapacity of existing institutions to contain it and in time supplemented by another for the new technology. These sites were protected, isolated from day-to-day responsibilities of line ministries and functional agencies, and more or less devoted to something close to cutting edge techno-science. These were sites in which techno-science as such was not or could not be locally reproduced, much less produced, staffed by engineers trained in the1960s and 1970s computer engineering the new computer science that provided a theoretical basis for software. With better ties with international counterparts than within their own countries, each was secured by high-level patronage, typically lodged just below the highest political authority. It is common for regimes in the region to keep tabs on things with potential but not of immediate concern this way. In them would be collected some of the best and brightest, and surely some of the most highly trained who, through schooling abroad and professional ties had developed networks with international counterparts and brought ideas, practices, sciences and techniques into a protected space that was also relatively quarantined:

· the Royal Scientific Society in Jordan, under the patronage of then Crown Prince Hassan, himself something of an international intellectual figure

· the Syrian Computer Society in Syria, under the patronage successively of the sons of Syrian President Hafez Al-Asad, Basel and after his death Bashar, a physician who later succeeded his father

· the IDSC in Egypt, a think tank of econometricians, management and computing experts providing policy analysis in the Egyptian Cabinet office

· the King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Center (KFSHRC) in Riyadh, which was the nation’s center for cardiac treatment and research founded by the royal family

Each had a crucial function that depended on techno-scientific expertise and then traded on it.

A example and good typesite for comparison would be the IDSC, established in the Egyptian cabinet office to provide independent analysis and policy-formulation. Staffed by PhD economists, scientists and management experts, the IDSC proved itself by devising a restructuring of Egypt’s public sector foreign debt, proving the ability of its tools to identify and gather information and then to manage it, so that for the first time the total foreign debt of public sector agencies was known and in a controllable way. From that, it gained additional tasks, including institutionalizing its tools, which included networked computing, and was able to take over efforts in the Egyptian university system to assume a leading role in design and implementation of the Internet. In other words, in a position to bypass the state teleco, they also disposed resources to develop alternative technology.

In a similar fashion, the RSS in Jordan assembled a group of computer engineers to automate and then to ‘reengineer’ public sector administration, a sort of project for upgrading soft infrastructure comparable to modernization of hard infrastructure through development projects. Their first success was automation of the social security system. Such projects envisioned a combination of internal process improvements through electronic automation and extending those to government service provision by trading not just on the prestige but on the proven abilities of IT specialists.

In Saudi Arabia, engineers ad hoc connections were wrapped into an Internet precursor, Bitnet, which was installed for telemedicine by the nation’s leading cardiac hospital, while university engineering faculties kept in the game by providing much of the technical expertise and by continuing to train personnel in the technologies of networked computing. In Syria, a professional society of computing engineers took on the task of studying and proseltysing for networked computing as a tool for Syria’s continued modernization of both information services and administration.

In each case, something between partnerships and patronage networks joined not only authorities and technical experts, but were also forged horizontally across sectors through professional and ‘old school’ ties, such as between university faculty and friends or former students employed in telecos, or met in national and international conferences. Through such common cultures and social networks, modernization of processes, including access to information and improving its communication through what amounts to automation extended in time to restructuring those processes. For that, the Internet was advanced as a general purpose tool, primarily for information retrieval in Saudi Arabia, for administrative modernization in Jordan, for decision control in Egypt, and for extending the application of computing in Syria. In each, also, technical success was used to press for extending the tool variously into public services and to the public that in time recast the Internet from a development tool to projecting it as a development sector as the overall paradigm of development shifted from modernization (which had meant catching up with industrial countries) to globalization (which meant joining the emerging political economy of freer trade) that gained popularity, even a sense of urgency, with the close of the Cold War.

The experts on which these efforts drew were among their nations’ best and brightest, who not only applied these tools, they also depended on them for international connections, whose advantages for their own work they projected to be advantages for their nations. These projections began to bear fruit by the mid-1990s as they were able to demonstrate Internet capabilities – a notable example was the 1995 MENA economic summit – and authorities began to take note, reflexively registering these as solutions at least to problems of management and possibly much more. A pair of well-connected business service companies offered the service to the public, and breathless Business Week article that year recounted the Internet coming to Jordan with on-line chats with the Minister of Information (himself a computer engineer and subsequently ambassador to the US, foreign minister and deputy prime minister).

Breakthroughs occurred with the rise of a post-independence generation that included technocrats who, even if trained in older technologies, spoke the language of engineering and applied science, and kept up through professional networks from conferences to journals. At the top, it included a new generation of rulers, coming of age when overriding national security concerns of the independence generation were shifting to national welfare. Externally, development paradigms had shifted from modernization focused on infrastructure development to globalization focused on trade, and notions of capital accumulation were giving way to newer theories of flexible accumulation such as operationalised in out-sourcing. In the post-industrial shift from manufacturing to services, the most fashionable were cast as information or ‘knowledge’ services, thinking about which rulers or those close to them were exposed to from UN conferences to the World Economic Forum at Davos. In other words, experts did not have to convince powers-that-be on their own or even just through demonstrations; at their own level, high authorities were exposed to the urgency that their counterparts and interlocutors in other fora gave them.

One result was additional actors being brought that, combined with the arrival of new leaders and new emphases, prompted a new round of institution-creating to assemble those actors and focus activities under new conditions. They started from realizations that old institutions could not contain the new technologies pressed by development agencies, by technologists, and in the global political economy emerging around flexible accumulation. In Jordan, this led to the creation of INT@J, nominally an IT business association whose foundation was funded by USAID, and a series of annual conferences focused on IT as a development sector. In Egypt, the IDSC spun off variants of its program targeting both the region as a whole and Egypt’s provincial governerates, plus a series of companies that took over successful projects from database management to building an Internet backbone. Also, these countries replaced ministries of communications with new Ministries for Communication and Information Technologies. The first minister in Egypt was former head of the IDSC and subsequently became Prime Minister, while another IDSC alum succeeded him at the MC&IT. Jordan’s was headed first by the country’s senior scientist, formerly a dean of engineering and subsequently minister of higher education, and then by a prominent IT businessman. Universities were prodded to establish new faculties for ‘information sciences’ that combined computer science from arts faculties, computer engineering from engineering faculties, and management from business faculties to train a new cadre of professionals. The region has also seen a proliferation of private colleges that teach programming and management.

Things moved more slowly in Syria and Saudi Arabia. The Syrian Computer Society developed a series of proposals for a national data network using Internet technology (TCP/IP). Their proposals were whittled down progressively from installing and operating the network within the state telecom structure to operating a network that the STE would install to operating as an Internet Service Provider for its members, essentially for the scientific and technical establishment in universities, government service and a few private businesses. The countervailing state plan was for Internet service to be supplied and administered by the STE for government agencies and for those to extend service to their suppliers, and so on eventually to the whole public. Here, the limiting factor was renegotiating the space of the state telecoms company and with other government agencies such as the ministries of information and interior. Likewise, an extended period of behind-the-scenes advocacy and negotiation ensued in Saudi Arabia as technical universities brought forward proposals and experiments for converting Bitnet to Internet protocols to expand the original telemedicine operation into an Internet initially connecting Saudi universities. Businesses pressed for connection and lobbied for eventual ISP licenses, while ministries deadlocked over control of the new technology; in the end authority over the Internet was lodged in KACST, Saudi Arabia’s national authority for scientific research and development. Physical connectivity was kept by the Saudi telco, while KACST supplied Internet connectivity to public sector agencies, including universities, and to private sector ISPs that met certain qualifications. Those were essentially that applicants had to be in the IT business, the policy goal being that ISPs should not become a new source of rent but should be leveraged to develop a wider IT business sector. In both cases policy favored the Internet as a development tool, while the development sector with its wider range of actors.

Structurally, Saudi and Syrian policies amounted to more halting steps than Jordan’s and Egypt’s embraces of IT as a development sector and subsuming Internet installation and expansion (particularly to the private sector and to private users) in that. Physical structure of the Internet reflected these policies. Instead of multiple gateways and a spider-web network of multiple routes, Saudi and Syrian Internet installations paralleled the national phone systems, while Jordan and Egypt proceeded to structures of multiple routes for Internet traffic, both within their countries and to the international Internet. Here, the ‘drag’ is only partly infrastructural; it includes policy compromises to retain a hierarchy of physical connection and service provision with marginal openings in each that would exclude use of the Internet for call-termination services (VoIP). In practice, Jordan and Egypt were slightly more liberal although substantially more open to alternative providers because, unlike Syria and Saudi Arabia, they accepted policy commitments to de-nationalize state telecos in order to qualify for admission to the World Trade Organization.

In each case, the outcome is neither merely domesticating Internet service to preexisting models nor according to new models for communication. The new technologies did not fit old institutions, because the Internet is not one technology; it is a composite, each with its own expertise and networks of experts, supporters, and history of relations with others. The outcome is instead continuous negotiation, advocacy for technologies and uses, claims for new expertises, horizontal alliance-seeking through professional and other networks (particularly through educational networks and alumni relations), recruitment of additional allies from financiers to regulators, trading on international connections and appeals to values associated with those, and abilities convincingly to conceptualise broad systemic pressures in the international system in appropriate national terms. For example, the same telephone establishments that resisted Internet engineering contained engineers who cooperated with Internet counterparts from providing protocol specifications and operating manuals the latter would need to adapt to actual physical connections for experiments. They met both through old-boy networks and through conferences, as at another level did policy-makers and implementers, both nationally and internationally, and so forth on up the line.

In each case, engineers and others had to build coalitions by articulating common, or at least complementary, interests and finding ways to work together, or at least to leverage the pressures of others for their own projects. Those projects had to be broken down in structural terms into bits to which different actors could attach and advance their interests; and no two assembled quite the same. New institutions in each country – the IDSC in Egypt, Jordan’s RSS and then INT@J, KACST in Saudi Arabia, SCS in Syria – represent in part coalescences of multiple constituencies into broader coalitions than occasional alliances, although not the end of competitions among different parts to dominate those. What we see here is not simply domestication of the Internet to national models, nor Internet models surviving intact in actual installations, but how networks work, form, grow, and are managed through continuous negotiation.

In each, additional players clamored for admission, to bring and to be part of constituencies with interests in the Internet. Over time, some dropped out, some actors moved on, notably some of the earlier players from the first phase. Among the latter were various financiers, engineers and technocrats whose roles in the first phase (of modernization) would not carry into the second (of globalization). Some dropped aside, particularly among financeers and investors who had absorbed the lessons of venture capitalism. Others moved in, such as to new regulatory positions where technical expertise mattered as much as their connections. Others moved on. IDSC computer scientists became ministers and heads of new companies that spun off successful projects. Core members of the Syrian Computer Society became ambassadors, governors, agency heads and managerial staff after their nominal president succeeded his father as President of Syria – a new technocratic elite replacing parts of the older one, itself largely trained in older forms of engineering. The founding president of INT@J became Jordan’s ambassador to the US, others moved into ministries, or out of them to found IT businesses. Movement was not only at the top: new Internet developers formed a regional labor pool in constant circulation, constant search for training, employment, investment. All of this mobility reflexively registered as new opportunities to convert expertise at an individual level through multiple networks at an institutional level such as Knoke had found around technical agencies and Slaughter hypothecised as the value (‘social capital’ in another terminology) in professional expertise.

This translates not into ‘democratization’ of an electoral sort; but it does translate into new mobilities, new measures of self-determination, and of shared decision-making that condenses in alliance-seeking and coalition-formation. And it translates into a corresponding gathering of new constituencies by rulers that goes beyond rewarding favorites. It is precisely to break the latter mold that administrative and regulatory authority over the Internet in Saudi Arabia arguably was lodged in the research establishment organized and staffed by technical specialists, scientists, and engineers, or that telecoms divestment was pressed in Egypt and Jordan. Even if at the same time rulers’ favorites were granted new concessions, all of these were partial and came with charges to extend the business. Arguably, rulers were gathering new constituencies not only internally but also to face new external conditions to which those constituencies also respond. Finally, at an individual level, there was greater occupational mobility of IT specialists on to others in new media. Minimally, we see an expanded scope of choices, if less so of decision-making, that comports with flexible accumulation’s steady displacement of Rostovian capital accumulation in the global political economy and, arguably also, comports with remix at the cultural level.

So, between democratization and more exceptionalism, a more complex middle course seems evident in looking for practices over institutional change or change in consciousness. This will probably require another turn in political thinking about communications. As thinking shifted with the end of World War II to building post-war peace and prosperity, a new and efficient idea of information was brought forward that is showing its age under the emerging regime of globalization. By comparison to modernity’s type sites of mass society, mass economy, mass culture, and the central problem of their structural-functional integration, globalization’s type sites are flexible accumulation in political economy and creolization or ‘remix’ in cultural economy. Less developed is the sociology, which has been cast as networks with, in one influential formulation, the Internet as the material base of their social morphology.[16] But the Internet does not sweep all before it; it is carried along with the rest of flexible accumulation, at one end, and flexible culture, at the other. The dynamics of net-working are exemplified in alliances and coalitions that surround institutions as nodal points more of collection than of integration conceived in structural-functional terms. The proper sociology for this is not the structural-functional sociology of mass society/culture/communications that linked behavior and belief in a teleology that has communications as their link. Interests that articulate as a network around points of agency also each articulate their own additional points, which precludes representation and stable constituencies on which representation depends normatively as an institutional feature of democracy. Something else is needed.

Our findings on Internet implantation and implementation are in line with those of studies at the user end that approach structure through content – what appears on the screen, how it gets there, who sees it and how they find it – and that suggest that the Internet is neither democratic nor anti-democratic in any comprehensive sense. Such views have been based on partial and often on programmatic perspectives that the Internet, and more generally networked communication, has outrun. Theoretical ability to reach everyone does not translate into reaching everyone in fact: in political terms, the ideal of the electronic town-meeting is chimerical. Neither does malleability of Internet translate into successful cooptation by existing institutions because this capacity is also distributed. Partly, this is because virtual communities are communities in a limited sense; at the individual level, participants come and go but may be intensely dedicated while they stay. The real question is how. Part of the answer is that assemblages of information are also unstable, and these instabilities are reflected in increasingly sophisticated technologies of selection (such as exemplified in Google searches and, often, abilities to search on web sites that have replaced earlier ‘portal’ models). The users’ Internet has persistently pushed beyond mass media models based on aggregation and integration of information; so has the structural Internet.

A better way to think about this sociologically than as enhancing choice, or as degradation into consumerism and solipsism, is to recognize that the networked communications are in some fundamental senses post-democratic. The Internet, and networked communications generally, are mediated by experts and not just engineers but at all levels from engineers who implement technologies to ISPs that deliver them to webdesigners, information contributors and end users. Entry conditions are not confined to physical access but also to knowing how, which extends through all levels (to use, to produce, to install, to implement, to design). That also translates into claims to participate (typically based on claims to expertise and universal values other than those of citizenship), and so into assiduous management of reputations for knowing how and showing up. Taken together, these conditions vitiate democratic notions of representation, much less of stable constituencies that someone might represent, as evidenced at the user end by ‘flame wars’ and by the shifting actor sets at the implementation end on which I have focused here. These features in turn assure multiple reflexivities instead of the monoculture projected in early engineers’ generalizations from their own experiences and refined by political entextualization. There is no stable balance between first movers and new comers in establishing a middle-ground reflexivity.

The Internet that opens choices does not correspondingly sustain representation, but makes it problematic. The Internet that enhances agency also privileges expertise of many sorts. The Internet that is open to all depends on who shows up. The Internet that transcends boundaries produces unstable aggregations of information, technologies, and actors. Whether in creating the Internet or in using it, analysis is faced with a sociality where access, participation and determination are based less on representation of constituencies and comprehensive ‘citizenship’ than on expertise, showing up, assiduous reputation management, multiple reflexivities, and constantly morphing ‘implementations’. These are features of network organization that correspond at the sociological level to flexible accumulation in political economy and to the ‘remix’ phenomena at the cultural level, or what I have called ‘creolization’,[17] and politically to a governmentality that is barely coming into view.[18]

While global measures register absences, what emerges in this study are activities of alliance-seeking and coalition formation around implantation and implementation of the Internet in four Arab countries. There has been a tendency to dwell on disappointing results that is close to slipping into a new exceptionalism, which, as much as initial enthusiasms, overinterprets equivocal results. From too much, and too specific, hope, mood swings to too much, and too general, despair (probably abetted by the global dot.com investment bust, but that is another story). What has instead happened includes a startling increase in several specific mobilities – of technical expertise and experts into and up through government, of tech workers around the region, of information flows and production, of investments of all sorts including constant search for training, of shared decision-making that entangles old sites in new constituencies, and additional constituencies that rulers have to take account of and secure support from. This is not electoral, or even institutional, democracy, but neither is it the opposite. It is the globalization that is manifest in political economy as flexible accumulation, in culture as ‘remix’ or creolization, and sociologically in networks that operationalize as alliances and coalitions forming around the techniques as well as technology of networked communications. IT implantation and implementation may be a key site to observe globalization in the Middle East, which otherwise seems a disappointing representative.

Notes & References


[1] Walter Wriston, The Twilight of Sovereignty. Scribners, 1992.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Verso, 1983.

[3] Walter Lippman, Public Opinion. Harcourt Brace & Co., 1922.

[4] Karl Deutsch, The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control. Free Press, 1966.

[5] See: Everett M. Rogers, A History of Communication Study. Free Press, 1994.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media. McGraw-Hill, 1964.

[7] Harold Innes, The Bias of Communication. University of Toronto Press, 1951

[8] Daniel Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society in the Middle East. Free Press, 1958.

[9] Howard Rheingold. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Harper Collins, 1993; Lawrence Grossman. The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age. Viking Penguin, 1995. Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. New Simon & Schuster, 1995.

[10]For example, Gertrude Himmelfarb, “A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 November 1996, A56); Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake-Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. Anchor, 1996.

[11] Arthur Koker & Michael Weinstein, Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class. Palgrave, 1994.

[12] “The Real New World Order,” Foreign Affairs 76(5): 183-97, September/October 1997.

[13] Edward O. Laumann & Kavid Knoke, The Organizational State. University of Wisconsin Press, 1987; David Knoke. Political Networks: The Structural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[14] Tarek Kamel. “Internet Commercialization in Egypt: A Country Study,” Proceedings of the Internet Society, June 1997; S. Mintz, The Internet as a tool for Egypt’s economic growth. An International Development Professionals Inc. Report. October, 1998.

[15] Khalid Al-Tawil, “The Internet in Saudi Arabia,” Telecommunications Policy 25.8/9: 625-633, September/October, 2001.

[16] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell, 1996. pp. 469 ff.

[17] “New Creoles on the Information Superhighway.” Anthropology Today 11(4): 13-15, August 1995.

[18] “The Post-Democratic Governmentality of Network Societies.” In Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society, edited by Jodi Dean, Jon W. Anderson and Geert Lovink.  New York: Routledge, 2006.  pp. xv-xxix.

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All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted in any format without permission of the Author.

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One Response to “Globalization, Democracy, the Internet and Arabia”

  1. peter scully…

    […]Globalization, Democracy, the Internet and Arabia « NMIT Working Papers[…]…

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