"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
by TBS Managing Editor
"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 consequencesthrough
research and publications, seminars and workshops, and an information technology
courseis 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 telephonyperson-to-person,
individual communicationand 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 entertainmentand
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
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." TBS