Collaborative Futures

Free Culture in Cultures that are Not Free

…it may not be the people with the most extensive access or highest profile online who will champion deep social and political change, if such is to come about. Instead, it is the groups with limited access, just enough to see what they are missing out on, who may have the most to gain from pioneering new modes of social relations, meaning, and engagement. Nor is it straightforward to suppose that such innovations will revolve around the Internet itself or other global structures. The innovations may well take contrasting forms, even as they take full advantage of the new capabilities and possibilities that the Internet introduces.

Ironically, then, it may be the Internet's capacity to heighten the experience of exclusion, to promote awareness of a population's marginal and disenfranchised status, that represents its greatest potential for change.  

—Catherine Frost, Internet Galaxy Meets Postnational Constellation: Prospects for Political Solidarity After the Internet

The effect of the Internet on the Arab world is complex. While the Arab dictatorships are exercising extreme censorship and tight monitoring of online communication, the economic benefits of networking technology have had a relatively low impact on these countries. The Arab world has been a low priority for Western media corporations who were not interested in bridging the cultural divide. This divide is indeed complex, with the so-called “War on Terror” tainting foreign interests and with the culture of software piracy making this market even less economically attractive. 

The Arabic language itself is posing a specially complex gap on its own. While localization of software has been relatively easy within most Latin languages, localization into Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Hebrew requires bi-directional treatment of the text to account for the right-to-left directionality. This complicated mirroring problem together with the complex dynamics of the language amount for very high software localization costs.

“What the Web Can Be”

In 2003 a joint Israeli/Palestinian team attempted to pressure the Macromedia corporation to fully support right-to-left languages in its Flash plug-in. They released a petition under the banner “The Right to Flash” and contested Macromedia’s motto “What the web can be” requiring to be included in the company's vision. The thousands of signatures and many blog posts published on the topic did nothing to budge the corporate priorities. But at the same time the signatures, often coupled with a link provided a rare peak into a vibrant creative scene spanning the Middle East and North Africa. It was a very rare moment when Israelis and Arabs were united by their shared history, and by their exclusion from “the future”.

Language is the number one concern of the Arab Techies <>, a geek network spread all over the Arab world. To a western eye their online presence seem very foreign, with the text on their site being mostly in Arabic with just a bit of English and French and with some pictures portraying mostly young people some wearing Hijab. When translated though, the actual content of the site echoes the exact ideological line of the Free Culture movement. Inspiration from Lawrence Lessig’s calls for a more nuanced Creative Commons licensing regime, an overarching excitement from Free Software and a religious commitment to sing its praises, and a general optimism for how information networks can change the world. The Arab Techies are concerned about Arabic localization, they develop Open Source code libraries to address the bi-direction and translation issues. They are concerned with Arabic typography and how the highly calligraphic letters render to the screen and they share best practices for right-to-left minded design.

No one can deny the scale of Internet and mobile phone penetration in the Arab World. People in the region are becoming increasingly aware of the potentials offered by technology for social and political change. Artists, social workers and young intellectuals are resorting to information and communication venues in order to disseminate their work, gain wider reception and create more interaction. Despite the emergence of such highly connected communities of citizen journalists, cyber artists and digital activists, the techies who provide support and infrastructure to these communities, are still working in isolation, not really benefiting from this regional networking.  

While their social role is not always recognized by their communities and sometimes even by the techies themselves, they play a pivotal role, they are builders of communities, facilitators of communication between communities, they offer support, hand holding and transfer of skills and knowledge and they are transforming into gatekeepers to an increasing diversity of voices and information.

The Arab Techies Gathering <>

Software localization is not the only agenda of the Arab Techies. Under governments that suppress free speech, freedom of assembly and rights of self-determination the Free Culture ideology takes a very different tone. Since the censored mainstream media is not over-saturated with political debate self expression is rare and powerful. Bloggers in the Arab world have revived political debate, for that they have been arrested and tortured. Egyptians have successfully used Facebook for mass mobilization after for decades any sign decent was immediately crushed by the secret service. Knowing they are constantly followed activists use Twitter for voluntarily publishing their location making sure they cannot be “disappeared” by the government.

Arab Techies Women Gathering, Beirut May 2010

Free Culture as a Gateway Drug to Civic Engagement 

But the profiles of these political activists today is different. They are not necessarily the Communist ideologues or Islamic Brotherhood hardliners. The Arab Techies like many other socially minded geeks, are first geeks and only then socially minded. Networking technologies have led them into communication and organizing. In a very apolitical way technology declares: information wants to be free. Geeks recognize that as logical, much before they see it as political. They look at old and restrictive systems and realize they cannot sustain themselves. They are radicalized by Free Culture. While in the west this would manifest as a polite call for intellectual property reform, under dictatorship this sentiment is a political time-bomb.

Free Culture in cultures that are not free is dangerous, both for those fighting for it and for those fighting against it. The free sharing of non-rivalry information goods in the west means no actual sacrifice is involved in these acts, and hence their commitment and sincerity may be questioned. Can we really say the same about those risking their lives fighting under the exact same slogans?

Free Culture and its often algorithmic logic is serving as a gateway drug to civic engagement. While in the west a lot of this engagement has already been subsumed by economic and governmental institutions, these dynamics have been working differently in Arab world. Some geeks are using the economic context of information technologies as a way of protecting themselves against from prosecution. When Tunisian free speech activists discovered a huge data surveillance conducted by their government they could not argue against it as a danger to democracy. In a country with only one party and a dubious electoral system the word democracy does not hold much water. Instead they chose to raise the concerns of the French business community raising their concerns that the Tunisian government is compromising their confidentiality when doing business in Tunisia.

Are the Arab Techies a viable example for Frosts notion of networked solidarity? While Free Culture means something else in Arabic, can its algorithmic logic transcend into political power in vastly dis-empowered civic societies? How will the social inclusion agenda jive with the rigid meritocratic rules of Free Software? And finally, when will we see these vibrant communities go beyond the translation of western ideals and develop a new local lexicon for networked collaboration. When that happens it would be up for the west to do the translation.