On a pre-Arab-Spring trip to Egypt, I came across a very interesting example of how people are using social technologies to undermine the stifling conventions of conservative cultural norms. I stayed for a few days with some colleagues in a large hotel in the centre of Cairo. Egypt allows the sale of alcohol, and in purely social terms at least, it has been one of the more liberal regimes that has not insisted either on the strict segregation of the sexes or the covering up of women. Politically, however, things are complex to say the least (as we are all too well aware today).
Hordes of men and women, mainly in their twenties and thirties, would descend on the hotel’s large main bar each evening to smoke shisha and to have a drink. However, for the most part, they tended to sit in small, single-sex groups. The only mixed-sex groups were those who I presumed to be married. Despite the country’s relatively ‘liberal’ regime in social terms, it seemed still conservative enough to maintain high barriers against overt and public consorting between single men and women.
After watching this for a couple of evenings, my Arabic-speaking colleague asked a local what was going on in the hotel bar: why did these young men and women come here every night for fun and yet sit apart in seeming indifference to each other’s presence?
His answer was both surprising and obvious: Bluetooth!
To say we had a ‘duh!’ moment would be an understatement.
We realised that a sizeable majority of those in the bar had mobile phones in their hands and seemed to be texting more or less constantly (not something we take much notice of these days, of course). Beneath the calm and ordered facade of a group of well-behaved young people enjoying a happy but respectful and decorous night out there was in fact a ferment of conversations bubbling away beneath the hookah smoke, using a variety of Bluetooth chat tools on their phones. A quick glance at my own phone confirmed a large number of Bluetooth-enabled devices in the room, with a few intriguing and amusing names designed to catch attention sprinkled amongst them.
We were also told that, because there was a constant stream of monied tourists in the hotel from some of the more conservative Middle Eastern countries, a number of prostitutes were also plying their trade in the bar by the same means.
Just a few minutes of discreet observation armed with our new-found intelligence confirmed the truth of what we had heard. We now noticed the cautious glances from beneath lowered eyelids, the shy (or in some cases, overtly solicitous) smiles, the guarded laugh at something being read on the phone. All the clues were there: we just hadn’t been clued in enough to spot them before.
This phenomenon is interesting enough in purely social-anthropological terms, but it only takes a few moments of logical thought to realize there are potentially deeper and wider cultural and political implications of the use of simple social technologies in conservative cultures.
The idea is hardly an original one, of course, but seeing it happening in front of me focused my mind on what those implications might be. Just as the Victorian patriarch in Britain 170 years ago saw the dire consequences of the Penny Post — ladies could, for the first time, correspond directly, and privately, with a beau, cheaply and with minimum or no subterfuge — so the social technology sub-culture must already be causing ripples of anxiety in many authoritarian regimes and conservative cultures across the world, and by no means only in the Middle East.
We could speculate on the short term consequences, but I am more interested in the long term political and social effects of a young generation in these countries who are fast discovering a freedom of movement that their parents’ and grandparents’ generations never had. As they grow older, and as they begin to take the reins of social and commercial leadership over the next decade or two (the political reins are likely to be denied them for some time to come), will these young people gradually revert to a way of thinking that will lead them, once again, to seek to restrict the freedoms of their own children, the freedom to communicate and socialize relatively openly, the freedom to make unrestricted personal and social connections? Or, will they grasp the potentials of these social technologies in the 21st century and allow their children to enjoy and extend the freedoms they themselves are experiencing right now? And, most interestingly for me, will they start to push their new-found freedoms outwards into the political domain and the cultural domain, demanding the political rights that so many of them are currently denied, questioning, perhaps, the religious expectations of behaviour they have grown up with? Is there a chance that the simple personal connections being made by people now in these countries can lead to broader social, cultural and political change in the years ahead?
Much, of course, will depend on the extent to which such countries try to suppress the use of social technologies in the future: the recent moves by some countries to ban the use of the Blackberry because its SMS traffic cannot be monitored is an indication of what can happen.
And of course, this general phenomenon is by no means restricted to the more obviously conservative regimes of the Middle East and elsewhere. Cultural and religious conservative sub-groups in the West must surely already be facing the same processes, the same forces working themselves out within their traditional comfort zones. Today’s youth and young adults across the world are tasting forbidden fruit, and the knowledge they pluck is unlikely to have them yearning in the years ahead for a return to the smothering inhibitions and taboos of their antecedents.
At least, I hope not.