The rapid spread of cell phones in the Middle East over the past decade has created a new space for young people in closed societies to interact and express themselves while providing activists with more efficient ways to organize massive political campaigns. In so doing, mobile technology is reshaping the region’s cultural landscape.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the grip cell phones have on the popular imagination better than the moment the region comes to a halt as millions of Middle Easterners from all age groups and all walks of life, both domestically and abroad, join together to vote on their mobile phones for their favorite artist on Star Academy, the region’s counterpart of American Idol.
Mobile technology has injected a new freedom into Middle Eastern societies. In conservative countries that segregate the genders and frown on unsupervised dating, cell phones have given young people new ways to connect.
“In countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain where...there’s no dating scene, people would go to restaurants and cafes and have their Bluetooth open,” says Hazim Alaeddine, CEO of Kulacom, a telecommunications company in Jordan. “And they would have all these conversations with Bluetooth. And that’s how they’d meet each other and exchange their numbers.”
But mobile phones also caused problems. Bluetooth exchanges sometimes went beyond building illicit relationships, leading to unsolicited pornographic transmissions. Coupled with the increasing popularity of camera phones, the technology wreaked havoc in some communities.
“I think that [in] countries as conservative as Saudi [Arabia] that have so much restriction on people’s movements and what they do, the camera freed that up,” says Kulacom’s Alaeddine. “And you saw a lot of videos and pictures that were probably not normal - and that is why it was a problem.”
When photographs captured stealthily began appearing on the Internet, camera phones were banned in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other places. But Mass Communications Professor Ibrahim Abu Argoub of the University of Jordan’s Sociology Department says the ban didn’t last.
“It’s open now because people began smuggling cell phones with cameras - and they created a problem in society,” says the University of Jordan’s Ibrahim Abu Argoub. “Then they [authorities] initiated a law to punish anybody using the video camera or the cell [phone] with the video camera in wedding parties, inside the university, in the street,” he added.
The cell phone is a “two-edged” device says the professor. On one hand, his mobile phone makes him feel closer to people by allowing him to communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world. And in places where mobiles are prohibited to curtail noise, text messages easily replace phone calls. In Libya, for example, where cell phone use is restricted in public spaces, teachers use text messaging to notify parents of school events.
On the other hand, cell phones are often misused, sometimes by cheating students.
“So in Jordan and in other Arab countries,” says Professor Abu Argoub, “we banned using cell phone[s] in classes because certain people began using them to cheat by making headphones and by sending and receiving messages in the exam.”
The freedom mobile technology affords users resonates more strongly in conservative countries, explains Scott Campbell, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan.
“In a restricted society, there might be some motivation to use the cell phone in ways that would lead to social change,” Campbell said.
In the past decade, Egyptian and Lebanese activists have used cell phones to organize pro-democracy protests. In 2005, Kuwaiti women, who had been denied the right to vote, used mass text messaging to organize a successful campaign to gain voting rights. Shi’ite activists in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain used text messaging to campaign for political participation. More recently, Iranian demonstrators used cell phones to upload photos of clashes with security forces to social media web sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“It is a very excellent device to mobilize the people, especially in making social gatherings, demonstrations,” says Ibrahim Abu Argoub of the University of Jordan. “In elections, they [candidates] use it very often in exchanging political messages in Jordan and all Arab countries,” says Abu Argoub.
In many ways, cell phones and cell phone technologies have opened up new vistas for young people in the Middle East. But the University of Michigan’s Scott Campbell is quick to temper assertions that cell phones and other technologies actually change social behaviors.
The cell phone, says Campbell, is an evolving communication tool that is part of a larger technological picture. It conforms to users’ old behaviors and values, consequently shaping new ones.
Paradoxically, a device that epitomizes mobility and freedom of choice may be encouraging people to live in a sort of social cocoon.
“One of the primary questions that I’m investigating right now,” explains Campbell, “is whether cell phones are part of a cultural shift toward social privatism, where people are turning inward a little bit into their own personal lives, in the affairs of their close friends and their close family members,” says Campbell.
That is not to say that people have isolated themselves, but that they are looking inward because they are perpetually in contact with their acquaintances via their cell phones. Whether these devices actually alter behavior may depend on the ongoing transformation of cell phones from communication tools into comprehensive computer platforms.
“And so,” says Scott Campbell, “the distinction between a computer and the Internet and the cell phone is going to become very blurry in the near term, and in some places it already is,” says Campbell. “And I think that we are going to be having a different conversation at that point in time. And we may need a new word beside “cell phone” to call this technology.”