Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

New Media, Globalization and Kuwaiti National Identity

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

New Media, Globalization and Kuwaiti National Identity

Article excerpt

The growth and spread of new information media is often seen as part of the globalization of culture, but in fact local cultural traditions are often adapted to the new media. Field research on the new media in Kuwait demonstrates that despite the availability of numerous sources of information, including widespread access to international media, Kuwaiti national identity remains strong. At the same time, Kuwaitis have in some ways adapted the new media to the expression of their own cultural traditions and vice versa.

Communicaton is the cement of identity. It is through communication that cultures define themselves.1 In modern societies, much of this sense of shared identity is communicated through media technologies. These technologies help to transmit shared symbolic forms, a sense of group culture, and ultimately, to foster what Alexis de Toqueville calls "fellow feeling." Some observers claim that modern societies are defined by the degree to which the transmission of fellow feeling through symbolic forms is no longer restricted to contexts of face to face interaction. Instead, in modern societies, culture is "extensively and increasingly mediated by the institutions and mechanisms of mass communication."2 By implication, the more developed a society's communication industries are, the more "modern" that society appears; at the same time, the more complicated the mediation of culture becomes.

With the introduction of many-to-many communications capabilities like the Internet, modern societies like Kuwait are increasingly reminded of the complex global networks that participate in the mediation of culture. Yet analysts of the nexus between technology, culture, and politics are often perplexed by the persistence of local cultural tropes in spite of the globalization of discourse. In the Kuwaiti case, this perplexity stems from the coexistence of two forces. First, there is the growth and entrenchment of new media technologies, sustaining an ever present flow of foreign discourses within Kuwaiti media space. And second, there is the persistence of a strong sense of Kuwaiti national identity. If media technologies and texts aid "in the development of national sentiments," then what explains the adoption and impact of some tools and texts, and not others?3 The Kuwaiti case enables us to observe how a country's pre-existing identity structures, like the meaning of oil, and the impact of the Iraqi occupation, help to secure a sense of Kuwaiti fellow feeling that is not shaken by global media alternatives.

IDENTITY, TECHNOLOGY, AND PUBLIC CULTURE

The Kuwaiti state has used its massive oil wealth to build a highly networked and dependable communications infrastructure. The guiding philosophy of the state is that it attempts "to provide for the Kuwaiti people's needs and to encourage their ambitions and aspirations" and to "develop, renew and exploit all available facilities to promote the well-being of the people."4 In the service of this cause, the government "invests in all available means of information to serve society, consolidate its policy and support its causes at the local, Arab, Islamic and international levels."5 These activities are based upon the belief that media texts "contribute socially and culturally to the country's development and reflect Kuwaiti culture and civilization."6 The government's openness to using information technology (IT) in the service of development results in the fact that access to IT in Kuwait mirrors that in many European countries more than it does the developing world in general, and this is a source of national pride (See Figure 1-1). In many ways, pagers and mobile phones, email addresses and fax numbers, satellite TV dishes and web pages symbolize a facet of what it means to be Kuwaiti-modern, technologically savvy, globally linked, and wealthy.

When Kuwait became an oil exporting country, the financial resources with which to purchase a high tech identity also emerged. …

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