Producers and Middle East Internet Technology: Getting beyond "Impacts"

Article excerpt

The spread of the Internet in the Middle East involves networks of technology actors. Because of the social character of the Internet, developers are particularly important: theirs are among the first values built into Internet technology, and because additional actors become developers, too. Case material shows how financiers, sponsors, regulators, administrators, as well as end users merge with and become Internet technology producers. Here, rather than in the slow growth of end users, is where the Internet action in the region is to be found to date.

The spread of the Internet and related information technologies in the Middle East has drawn attention largely to their impacts on knowledge, attitudes, and practices. These impacts may be detected both in overt behavior and in intensified discussion; new institutions, such as Internet cafes have sprung up in major cities of the Middle East, and ideas about the Internet are widely shaped even before there is much local experience of it.

Focusing on the immediate experience of end users and end uses tends to conceptualize the diffusion of technology in overly passive terms, and the region primarily as a receiver or consumer of technology, as if consumption were the only point at which technologies have a social life, manifest meaning, or involve choices. Technology has a social life even before it becomes active as a "force" with an "impact". A more robust conception of technology and its agency in society needs to include developers, their organization of works, institutions of sponsorship and regulation, building intentions and values into machines and into systems, and factors of both continuity and constant change in networks of humans and technology.

A longer chain and wider range of relations embedded in technology has so far gone, if not unnoticed, then at least under-appreciated and un-credited at the producer end. That is, Internet Technology (InT) includes structures, processes, and agents that shape it in the Middle East, too; and particularly in its initial stages, this production, rather than the consumption, is what shapes environments, use, economics, politics, and the cultural register of the Internet there. Grasping this process may provide a better sense of how the Internet spreads and why its diffusion seems, at least initially, so slow in the region.

Analysts have focused on the impact of Internet Technology in the Middle East, because it is through impacts on practices and consciousness that we as users experience the Internet. For users in the research and academic communities, it has changed the way they work, and Jon Alterman observes that the first impact of the Internet in the Middle East has been on the work experience and habits of journalists and researchers, who are among their principal local interlocutors.1 But generalizing from our experience of a "force" that "impacts," technology is treated as an independent and exogenous variable. By comparison with the dense regional knowledge possessed by area specialists, technology tends to appear in analyses as a "black box" or windowless monad that pushes and shoves, forces, impacts. This is our experience as technology users, who consume what we do not produce.

The Middle East is a region with one of the lower and slower rates of Internet growth in the world. The most aggressive estimates with any systematic empirical foundation are of perhaps 1 million users of 338,200 Internet subscription accounts, reported by regional Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in April 1999.2 More recent claims in the trade press (December 1999) of 2 million users still amount to less than one percent of the population of Arab League member countries, and growth is disproportionately affected by wealth.

Low double-digit growth rates (lower than North America and Europe, the Far East, and Latin America) may be an early-stage phenomenon. An earlier survey from the same source found users to be younger, more often male, more highly and technically educated, and more often in the business than contemporary North American profiles. …