Sunday, May 06, 2007

Our Media or the Other's?

Effects of the Information Revolution on Egypt.

‘Each of us is the destiny of the other, and no doubt the secret destiny of each of us is to destroy (or seduce) the other- not by virtue of a curse or some kind of death drive, but by virtue of our own vital destination’ - 
J. Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil.

What is The Media? Who is 'the Other'? What is the Information Revolution? And, what are the effects? These will be some of the questions I will be raising in light to shed some explanation to the social changes imported from the Western World via the media, that are taking place in Egyptian social networks and that are intertwining to becoming a part of its everyday fabric.

Let's just start off with a quote from Morgan, 'Media may not tell us what to think, but they are strikingly successful at telling us what to think about'.

Also, a concept used by Hegel contends that 'human consciousness is incapable of perceiving itself without recognition by others'. With the Phenomenological and Existentialist view in cue, the Other is the factor that helps the individual to build up an image of oneself. In fact the Other 'is the person or group that confers meaning upon the subject by either helping it or forcing it to adopt a particular world view and to define its position therein'.

Now, looking back into history, we see that there's an unstoppable habit of a regular occurrence, usually known as a case of 'history repeating'; especially for a slowly developing country such as Egypt the repercussions can be disastrous.

Historically, cultures have slowly evolved as they were sent down from one generation to the next. We've come a long way since the caveman; I'd definitely vouch for that. This century marks this advent of an 'Information Revolution', which is simply an extension to the industrial revolution; but with an excess of Televisions, radios, computers, mobile phones, wireless interaction, etc. For the first time in history ever, the people's cultures that they used to adhere to are being challenged by what is not just a mainstream culture, but a 'global' culture. So in an attempt to maybe replicate Mcluhen's idea of a 'global village', they've actually also created an economic village in the process. Today '[a] modern culture is what sells and not what is transmitted from the past'.

Morgan also adds that '[i]nformation is not, in itself, power, but it aids those who possess power'. He then goes on to point out how governments do rely on a 'high degree of up-to-date information', but also that on the other hand information should be readily available for an informed public to be able to 'evaluate what governments say to their citizens'. This is indeed the main basic foundation of a successful democracy.

Pretty simple, but what is the role of media in all this? According to Morgan, in the 1950's a 'structural-functionalist’ thinking became dominant, and gave forth reasons and explanations as to why the developing world needs to move towards a more 'modern' set of attitudes, leaving behind their 'traditional' set of attitudes and behaviours. The traditional cultures, apparently, were 'deficient' and 'made mobilization difficult'. And just to put the cherry on the icing, Noam Chomsky adds '…as a society has become more free and democratic, you lose that capacity. Therefore you have to turn to the techniques of propaganda. The logic is clear. Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state'.

Keep these words in mind: The Other, Information Revolution, Media, Propaganda and Culture.

The Age of the Information-Technology Revolution

It takes more than thirty years before today's communications and information technologies take their shape and their economic impacts declared. In this time in history, the price of the electric light bulb was falling as comparative as how today's computing power is now falling. As bulbs prices fell, night became day, bulbs evolved into a primary advertising medium, and also used for the promotion of public safety.

But that wasn't enough. Then, evolved the age of the information-communications revolution which was fuelled by the consumer’s need of demanding more, it wanted to
'revolutionize the way man approaches, analyses, and interprets reality'.

Nowadays the younger generations can directly see alternative lifestyles; lifestyles that have never even been experienced by the elder generations of the past. And since governments have no technologically feasible way to deny their citizens access to this global culture, they ultimately 'lose their ability to protect their national cultures'. Paradoxically, traditionally the definition of national states ‘revolved around their different cultures'. And the more satellite links with this global culture, with less national controls; national cultures are now competing at a global level against this ever penetrating ‘global’ culture. Undoubtedly, some cultures will obviously survive this global match, but others inevitably will not.

A Case of History Repeating: Enter Modernism and the New Culture
'In a capitalist society, economic representations are the matrix around which all other are organised. In particular, the class of an individual- his or her effective possession of or separation from the means of production- is the determinant fact of social life' - Timothy J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life. 

We know that those who are illiterate think, they remember, they reason, and they argue, but in very different ways than those who are literate. If all truth be told, then the power of the 'image' is definitely more persuasive. According to Thurow these 'new telecommunication technologies are highly visual, and in this sense a return to the world of the illiterate'. 

According to Morgan, in 1966, Barrington Moore noted that, 'by extension, portrayed media as the witting, or unwitting, tools of elites who sought ''modernity'' only on their own terms'. Because privately-owned media, were dependent on advertising it 'made them vulnerable to pressure and intimidation'. In Egypt, this is true of local advertising, but even more so 'of the advertising of consumer products originating outside the state, the control of which lay in the developed world, usually in the United States'.

The Middle East region has an overwhelming set of examples of different regimes and media situations. In Egypt, 'there are varying degrees of tight party/military control of media'. Indeed, no 'Middle East state is free from official concerns over the management of information and opinion, and the general problem of cultural defence'.

Giddens adds that in 'high modernity', the influence of things happening in far away places 'on proximate events and on intimacies of the self' almost become the normal thing. And then he says, '[t]he media, printed and electronic, obviously play a central role in this respect'. Adding to that, advertising has revolutionized the word 'lifestyle'. Nowadays it has been taken up to promote commoditized consumption, where the poor are more or less 'completely excluded from the possibility of making lifestyle choices'.

According to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) which measures social well-being by gathering data to provide a composite measure of three dimensions of human development: life expectancy; adult literacy and having a decent standard of living; Egypt was ranked at 111 out of 177. That's far less than the living standards of the Western nations, guaranteed! 

Culture and its Services 

Paying compliments to Berger's 'Ways of Seeing: The Language of Advertising' documentary which talks about the power of advertising in the Western world, let's just take a quick glance at the word ‘Glamour’.

According to the Online Encarta English Dictionary, glamour is defined as 'an irresistible alluring quality that somebody or something possesses by virtue of seeming much more exciting, romantic, or fashionable than ordinary people or things' and also 'striking physical good looks or sexual impact, especially when it is enhanced with highly fashionable clothes or make-up'. So we can conclude that the magic words here are that glamorous people or glamorous things are considered to be much more exciting than ordinary people or ordinary things, and the enhancement of seemingly ordinary things or ordinary people with fashionable clothes or make-up seem to do the trick in the transformation to becoming instantaneously glamorous. Also, adding excitement, romance and fashion to one’s lifestyle seemingly creates glamour, yet also dries the pocket: as they all entail the provision, and constant funding, of money.

(Source: Adbusters Magazine, Vol 12, No. 5, Mar/Apr 2006)

But it is only through the spending of money towards the purchase of the publicized image that we get to be part of a glamorous dream. This in turn, brings us to the all destructive force of the all mighty capitalism: the power to acquire through spending hard earned money. Capitalism pretty much, states that the sum of everything is money, and on that note Berger contends that, the anxiety on which publicity plays is the fear that having nothing you will be nothing. Money is life, in the sense that money is the token of, and the key to, every human capacity: The power to spend money is the power to live.

Cultural Imperialism and Orientalism

According to Cavallaro, imperialism 'is a state's forceful extension of its powers through the conquest and exploitation of other territories'. These extensions of power usually take on a guise of agents of civilisation gifted with racial and cultural superiority. Adding to that 'imperialism results from monopoly capitalist's determination to maximise their profits by exploiting foreign regions: using their raw materials, strengthening existing markets through the introduction of new goods made from such materials, and augmenting their investment opportunities'. Hence, economy plays a big role in imperialistic motives.

Edward Said contends that Orientalism is defined as the phenomenon where the East has been reconstructed by the West since the Renaissance (Great Britain actually colonised Egypt for just under a century). And that, Orientalism's objective is to 'validate Western values, political and economic systems and structures of domination, by posting as Other anyone or anything apparently at odds with Western institutions'.

Nationalism, which is the promotion of a nation’s territorial ideological supremacy, and Orientalism have both contributed significantly to the creation of national and territorial identities, and the advancement of ideologies through both imperial and colonial power. In order to establish one superior nation's ideology over another, there has to be an Other that is marginalised as inferior. This sense of contrast between inferiority and superiority cannot be established until the self and Other are too, established. Racial differences have been the greatest scapegoats in this ploy: the more remote and primitive a colonised population appears to be, the more justifiable the oppression and exploitation.

Although decolonisation (the process whereby a once dependent nation has achieved state sovereignty) has more or less been achieved in Egypt, newer modifications have become apparent through direct, or indirect, control via economies, and foreign trade agreements, for example. These new and improved recipes for colonisation have now evolved, some even changed their names and can be known as: neo-colonisation and neo-imperialisation.

Modern Times: The Spectacular Society

This now brings us to the concept of the 'spectacular' society, the effects and implications of capitalist societies. Clark firstly explains what the spectacular culture's symptoms are: consumerism or the society of leisure, the rise of mass media, the expansion of advertising and the hypertrophy of official diversions (e.g.: the Olympic Games). Indeed '[t]he spectacle is capital accumulated until it becomes an image'.

With the emergence of this spectacular society since the mid-1960's, Western influenced societies such as Egypt have slowly started to follow Western cues with their shifts from community, family and religious institutions to commercialised or privately improvised forms such as the streets, the cafés and resorts. Leading to an estrangement from older ties, Egyptians who lacked the economic means to accept and obtain these norms of freedom can be 'spiritually torn by a sense of helpless isolation in an anonymous indifferent mass'.

Egypt: An Example of Late Modernity

In an attempt to look at the psychological ramifications of late modernity in the West, Giddens quotes that '[p]ersonal meaningless- the feeling that life has nothing worthwhile to offer- becomes a fundamental psychic problem in circumstances of late modernity'. The more tradition loses its hold, and the more daily life is evolved to become the transmutation of the local and the global, the more individuals will be forced to negotiate lifestyle choices. But there are 'standardizing influences too- most notably, in the form of commoditization, since capitalist production and distribution form core components of modernity's institutions'.

Berger, on the other hand, in a literary criticism of Kant's 'Critique of Judgement, 1790', sums up that 'lower and more numerous classes' are slaves to the immediate satisfaction of their basic drives. Not only that, but that also the 'enlightenment of reason' hasn't really done much 'to teach the civilized classes' to behave morally. He argues that civilization's development has destroyed unity of the senses and of reason: 'we see not merely individual persons but whole classes of human beings developing only one part of their capacities, while the rest of them, like a stunted plant, show only a feeble vestige of their nature'. Bringing social science into the situation, we get the division of labor bringing with it class society as its 'unavoidable consequence'. We cannot forget that Giddens implored that modernity 'produces exclusion and marginalization'. A hope of emancipation is held out, but at the same time modern institutions are creating mechanisms of suppression: Lifestyle falls under 'severe material constraint, and the more or less deliberate rejection of more widely diffused forms of behavior and consumption'.

This is extremely significant because with the proliferation of Western ideologies transferred to Egypt via global communication, we can see that with faster and less controlled technologies, a history of the West is unraveling and slowly shaping the future of Egypt.

The Communications Revolution: Public Relations, Media and Propaganda

According to the Online Encarta English thesaurus Public Relations can be synonymous with 'image management', 'spin doctoring', 'media manipulation', 'public image' and 'impact'.

Now Chomsky tells us that, the people in the Public Relations industry aren't in it for the fun of it. No sir, they're trying to instil the 'right' values, apparently. They see a system where the 'specialized' class are trained to work for the service of the masters, the people who own the society. And the rest of the population should be 'sitting alone in front of the TV and having drilled into their heads the message, which says, the only value in life is to have more commodities, or live like that rich middle class family you're watching and to have nice values like harmony and Americanism'.

But instead of making it easier for social outsiders to participate in the governmental process, Thurow adds that 'as many have predicted, information technologies have made it much more expensive'.

Thurow also tells us that in an election cycle of 1996, American political spending was up with more than US$2bn spent on political advertisements or event appearances. Although candidates spending the most money didn't always win 'they won most of the time'. Anyone can make a soft drink, or cigarette, but fewer and fewer can sell them simply because advertising and promotion must have billions of pounds spent on them if they are to succeed.

So pretty simply, the more money there is to spend on advertising and promotion, the more chance the message will be received by a wider audience that is more than likely to act in lieu with it. In Egypt there is an approximate forty percent illiteracy rate, hence the main medium for this population of society would most conveniently be the TV or radio which is jam packed with Western product advertising. Also, with more and more governmental assistance to stimulate foreign investment in Egypt, it is no surprise that more and more people are being accommodated to McDonald’s or KFC and even wearing Levi’s and Nike. Something they knew nothing about merely half a century ago.

Modern 'Propagandist' Media

Chomsky tells us about Walter Lippmann’s theory: A Progressive Theory of Democratic Thought. Lippmann argues that in a properly functioning democracy there are classes of citizens. There's the class that has to take some active role in general affairs; the specialized class, they execute, analyse, take decisions, and run things in the ideological, political and economical field. This is the small group who always talk about the ‘others’. The ‘others’ are the majority of the population. They are also termed by Lippmann as the 'bewildered herd', and their function in a democracy is to simply spectate, while the specialised class protects itself from 'the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd'.

The Other: Fear What We Do Not Understand

It is advocated that when a culture, society or community marginalises certain individuals as Other, what is being done is actually an attempt to 'exclude or repress a part of itself which it finds difficult to understand, let alone accept'. No culture is ever unified, and hence an individual's identity consciously and unconsciously competing within its fabric, divulging, creates a sense of vulnerability. To combat this ensued insecurity, society henceforth reacts by creating divisions between the parts of themselves that it wishes to retain, and those which they abhor to as the Other. Thus, when one discriminates, or abuses another what is actually being rejected is a part of the individual's own self: 'a society's treatment of strangers mirrors the individual's attitude to his/her unconscious fears and desires'.

As they say we are usually afraid of that which we don't understand. Advocating this point, Levinas quotes that 'Western philosophy has insistently repressed the other by striving to give it a definite place'. Concurrently though because the Other rises above any structure, any attempt to domesticating or categorizing it, in effect actually ends up colonising it instead. Which gives us a great departing point to move on to ‘Other’ side of the world: the Middle East region.

The MENA Region

So we all know that democracies believe in the consumer culture because of the promotion of a privatised/capitalistic economy. So how is the MENA region affected?

Mustafa impedes that constraints by politics translate that 'private media ventures focus on business'. He also adds that the media business in the MENA region, especially in free media zones such as Egypt, pretty much thrives on entertainment.

There has always been this awesome thing about the internet since its introduction into the market: the ultimate global solution they said. But with the reality of the matter in hand, all Arab countries need assistance in building an Information-Communications Technology infrastructure. For some countries it would be unsustainable because it would be too expensive or difficult for local people to maintain. Another hindrance to usage of the internet is that 'most content is still in English'; the mother tongue of Arabs is Arabic.

Adding to the already increasing inequality gap between the West and East, Mustafa emphasises that this rapid pace of change in technology 'is expected to accelerate over the next fifteen years', re-iterating 'the digital divide between the world's richest countries, and those that even today cannot keep pace with change'.

According to Anton et al., the scope and pace in the adoption of technology will be affected by '[c]ultural adaptation, economic necessity, social demands, and resource availabilities'. And that will be the case in every industry and society over the next fifteen years, which adding to that with the pace and scope in mind, such change could have powerful effects on the economy, society and politics of a lot of countries from the MENA region, including Egypt.

Looking at a source (see Appendix 1) for Political Rights, Civil Liberties and overall Freedom Ratings in a representation of 'Freedom and the Information Revolution' in the MENA region. Egypt is 'Not free' when it comes to the Freedom Rating, and in terms of how info-revolutionary, it's 'Trying'.

Tibi though assures us that democracy and civil society are both related to cultural modernity, so maybe there could be a light at the end of the tunnel. But ever since the early nineteenth century, there have been continuing Arab efforts to introduce democracy into its nations. However, the outcome has been 'extremely poor'. Two centuries later, the United Nations Development Programme report on the Arab World in 2002 pinpointed that the main problems hindering modernity and underlying the state of backwardness in the MENA region, are part and parcel of the lack of democracy and human rights. And it can be said that '[d]emocracy is a political culture'.

Issawi's 1956 publication contends that '[w]hat is required is a great economic and social transformation which will strengthen society and make it capable of bearing the weight of the modern state. Such a development is [a] necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the establishment of genuine democracy in the region'. Arabs have bore witness to numerous governmental and political leader changes; nevertheless, the governing culture of political oppression and the lack of political freedom continue to exist until today. With Egypt, in particular, reserving the monopoly of all facilities, consequently, civil society not only means very little but is almost non-existent.

Conclusion: Social Control

In a Western attempt to rectify the problem of democracy in the Arab states, taking the concept of post-war Iraq into consideration; it is clear that the war waged against terrorism and anti-democratic values did not return with the desired results. On the contrary, Arab-Muslim-Western tensions have exacerbated, and the mere understanding of democracy has been tainted in the Arab world. Meanwhile, in America there are numerous and growing domestic, social and economic problems; but no body is doing anything about it. Accordingly Chomsky gives the media's solution to such circumstances by saying that 'you've got to divert the bewildered herd'. Apparently, '[y]ou have to whip them up in fear of enemies' too.

The moral principle or dilemma is that 'the mass of the public are just too stupid to be able to understand things'. They'd just cause trouble if they were to participate in managing their own affairs, and in turn, it would be improper and immoral to let them do this. Therefore, the bewildered herd must be tamed and not allow them 'to rage and trample and destroy things'.

With a pretty clearer vision of what’s really happening behind gatekeepers’ gates, a positive element of the global communications revolution (especially satellites) is that the monopoly of Western control over information has weakened to some extent. A speech given by Abd Al-Hafiz Al-Hargham, director general of the Union of Arab Broadcasters, acknowledged that foreign channels have begun to pervade the Arab market on a huge scale, but rightly said Arabs cannot simply retreat from globalization or allow others to dominate the process. The future, he states, lies in contributing to the process of globalization by Arabizing the sources of information and producing our own entertainment and public affairs programs, instead of simply importing them from the West.

This will as a result create a greater Arab cultural unity through cross-border discourse, and exposure to other Arab traditions, which will all combine to help create a common Arab agenda, and perhaps more importantly, hopefully plant the seeds for the growth of a more active and involved citizenry, which will be better informed and actively participative in the decision-making process.


Table 1: Freedom and the Information Revolution (Freedom House, 2000).



Baudrillard, J. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, New York, (1993)

Al-Suwaidi, Jamal, S. The Information Revolution and the Arab World: It’s Impact on State and Society, The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, (1998)

Morgan, David. Mass Media and the Policy Process, (1996), p.92, 93, 94, 96

Thurow, Lester. The Information-Communications Revolution and the Global Economy, (1997) p.10, 18, 19, 34

Cavallaro, Dani. Critical and Cultural Theory, The Athlone Press, London, (2006), p.120-121, 124, 125, 126, 129.

Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Seven Stories Press, New York, (1997), p.16, 17, 20, 26

Frascina, Francis. Harris, Jonathan. (eds.), Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, (1992), p.18, 19, 22, 42

Clark, Timothy J. The Painting of Modern Life, Thames and Hudson, (1985), p.3-22, p.271-272

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge Press, (1991), p.1-9

Berger, Peter. On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society, University of Minnesota Press, (1984), p.35-54, p.112-114

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing: The Language of Advertising BBC TV Series, (1972)

Burkhart, Grey E., Older, Susan. The Information Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa, Rand, (2003), p.28-29

Mustafa, Ahmed. Role of New Media in Economic Change in the Arab World, paper presented at the New Media and Change in the Arab World conference, Amman, Jordan, 1 March 2002a

Antón et al., 2000, Antón, Philip S., Richard Silberglitt, and James Schneider, The Global Technology Revolution: Bio/Nano/Materials Trends and Their Synergies with Information Technology by 2015, Santa Monica, (2000)http://www/

Emerson, Michael (ed.), Democratisation in the European Neighbourhood, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, (2005), p.18-19

Tibi, Bassam. Islam, Freedom and Democracy in the Arab World, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, (2005), p.96-99

Issawi, Charles. Economic and Social Foundations of Democracy in the Middle East, 1956, p.41

Speech given by Abd al-Hafiz al-Hargham, the director general of the Union of Arab Broadcasters, to the Emergency Session for Coordination Among Satellite Channels, Beirut 14-16 May (1999)