The title of this post comes from a question asked by a Greek comrade on our bus back to the hotel tonight after dinner. Dinner was excellent, lots of appetizers (mezze) and then mixed grill. The bus smelled of gasoline, had velvet curtains blocking the windows, and red lights with mini glass beads around them. Someone joked that the curtains were for security. Apparently the hotel is the site of a bombing that killed the director of the movie, "Halloween." It was also one of the first high rise hotels in Amman, renown for its prostitutes.
No one knew the words to the Internationale in Arabic, although an Italian said that he heard it a lot in Cairo in the first Eygyptian revolution. To be sure, he said, some of the singers were Stalinists. Someone said a lot of older Algerians knew it--after all, Che Guevara came to Algeria--but not so many anymore. The younger folks aren't so interested; they've lost contact with this part of their radical history, are interested in something new.
It could be that this is the wrong crowd for that song. The key sponsers are Global Voices Advocacy, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Hivos, EFF, Tactical Technology Collective, Soros (Open Society Foundations), and a few others. My sense the first day (which may well change) is that this is a human rights, civil society, NGO, democracy, advocacy and awareness sort of crowd. The topics for the breakout groups: security, story-telling, internet governance and policy, and information visualization. I think most people went to story-telling today. There was some very smart and important work being done to help people know what sort of details and verification was necessary for reports to be able to have evidentiary value in different legal environments.
The morning began in a style that I can't quite place: is it NGO-activist or US Silicon Valley corporate? I've seen the same in university settings, and it seems to me that activist students like it. It's the stand up, move your body, introduce yourself in 3 sentences, answer a funny question, do crazy motions sort of thing. I don't particularly like it. I was interested, though,in the exercise that had people step to the center room if they answered yes to a particular question, for example, had kids, were bloggers, were new to the meeting. It worked well in that it made people pretty cheerful and relaxed.
The day was structured very loosely. After sleeping some this afternoon (I expect I will regret this tonight), I showed up about fifteen minutes before my session. We were told it was running late, people weren't sure if anyone would show up, they would have to cut it short, maybe we should do it tomorrow, structurelessness's small cuts and redirections. After all that, we started less than half an hour late and had terrific attendance. The organizers kept us on point and on time. People seemed interested and engaged. We had heard that some had been very, very skeptical about having academics here--reluctant to be research subjects, not interested in being lectured to. From my standpoint, the vibe seemed good, an actual conversation.
I talked about communicative capitalism and the way it can open us up to thinking about social media and US imperialism. A brief quote from the notorious Jared Cohen helps establish the point quickly. Arguing that the internet and mobile phones can help reach the "disaffected youth of the Arab world" (and keep them from becoming terrorists which seems to be what he takes to be their default mode), Cohen writes:
Because the digital and technological world offers young people opportunities to generate their own media and entertainment, they are learning critical thinking through self-exploration, and they are practicing digital democracy on a daily basis, even if they claim to despise the very concept of democracy. Without their keyboards, remotes, and telephones, they assume a real-life political, religious, ethnic, or nationalist identity. Behind the technology, many of these “digital natives” are beginning to identify with a transnational youth identity.
Global consumer or terrorist. Those are their options. With that as a way to approach communicative capitalism, I went through a few of the features of the idea. My initial sense was that people thought the concept was relevant to the MENA, although in need of some alteration to make it fit with the neoliberal autocracy of a place like Syria. One of the Palestinian bloggers spoke powerfully of the affects of individualism on Palestinian bloggers, providing as well examples of some of the ways they try to work around that feature of the format. An Egyptian blogger expressed a sense of capacity to steer the mainstream media conversation.
At dinner I learned that there was not much of a discussion of climate or environmental issues in the Middle East. One question, issue, problem overdetermines all the rest.