Why technology meant to bring humanity closer is driving it apart

In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with a President Trump's picture shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (AFP/File Photo)
In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with a President Trump's picture shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 17 April 2021

Why technology meant to bring humanity closer is driving it apart

In this photo illustration, a Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with a President Trump's picture shown in the background on May 27, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Modern Arab writers ponder why digital tools are not making societies more tolerant, cosmopolitan and sociable
  • The same technology that accelerated globalization seems to have left many feeling more isolated and intolerant of others

DUBAI: If asked, most people would likely admit that they would have struggled to survive the mental toll of isolation brought about by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic without access to social media, online shopping, and video conferencing to make up for the loss of human contact.

And yet, these very same technologies, which have accelerated globalization and brought distant cultures together for the first time at the tap of a keypad, have in fact left many feeling more lonely, alienated, and inward-looking than ever before.

Far from making societies more tolerant, cosmopolitan, and sociable, the addiction to mobile devices, “likes” as a form of validation, and the instant gratification of streaming and home delivery has left many people aggressively intolerant, proudly parochial, and unhealthily introverted.




Activists of United Hindu Front (UHF) hold placards and a picture of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg during a demonstration in New Delhi on February 4, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

“Globalization has brought us all together in one world forum, where we are all assembled,” said Amin Maalouf, one of the world’s foremost modern Arab writers and author of Adrift: How Our World Lost its Way among other books.

“But being assembled didn’t make us closer to each other. It made us look for what differentiates us from the person next to us.”

Participating in this year’s Dubai-hosted Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Paris-based Lebanese-born French author described the situation as “the great paradox” of our time.




Paris-based Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf, one of the world’s foremost modern Arab writers. (AFP/File Photo)

“We are more and more like each other, we have the same vision of the world, and the same instruments in our hands, and we know the same things. We have the same aspirations. Yet, at the same time, we want to think that we are very different,” he said.

Anyone who has ever shared an unpopular opinion on social media will tell you how tribal and dogmatic internet users can be from the safety of online anonymity. Political disagreements can take the form of personal, vitriolic attacks, while facts are often brushed aside in place of tropes and conspiracies.

These disagreements may not be such a big problem if they remained online. But as was demonstrated by the US Capitol riots on Jan. 6, unsubstantiated claims about election fraud were enough to incite real-world mob violence.

With so many sources of biased information and agenda-driven news on the world wide web, all of them competing for hits, clicks, and shares to shape the mainstream narrative, it is hard to know who or what to trust.

As a result, members of the public often fall back on familiar narratives and imagined communities in place of rigorous fact-checking and openness to differing viewpoints.




South Korea, after boasting for years advanced technology from high-speed Internet to Samsung smartphones, is now taking pains to try to pull its tech-crazed youth away from digital addiction. (AFP/File Photo)

“I think it is very normal, because we have been brought together very quickly by the acceleration of science and technology and we have not yet assimilated,” Maalouf added.

“But one can be confident in the long run. The main trend is a trend toward unifying the world, unifying humankind, which will eventually, one day, become a nation of very different people, but having a sense of common destiny.

“But, in the short run, the affirmation of specific identities is more and more aggressive, and it will take time to accept the reality created by new technology.”

The Middle East and North Africa are among the world’s top regions for internet penetration. According to Internet World Stats, which tracks global internet usage, social media engagement, and online market research, almost 67 percent of the region was plugged in by 2019 compared to the world average of 58.8 percent.

Saudi Arabia, similar to other Gulf states, scored especially high by this metric. The Kingdom’s internet penetration among its 35.3 million-strong population stood at more than 90 percent, exposing Arabs to a world of ideas and identities, but also its divisions.

The paradox explored by Maalouf was widely acknowledged by the literary community that participated in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.




Virtual platforms like Netflix and Zoom have emerged as lifelines for a pandemic-hit world forced indoors, but in sanctioned Syria where both websites are blocked, people feel increasingly disconnected. (AFP/File Photo)

Saudi novelist Badriah Al-Bishr, the first woman to win the Arab Press Award for best newspaper column in 2011, told Arab News that although the adoption of new technologies was a major achievement for humankind, it had led to an information overload.

“Information is not knowledge. We formulate knowledge from data, the same way we bake bread from flour. Technology is a positive for humanity — the issue is how it is used,” she said.

To sift through this ocean of data, tech firms have created sophisticated algorithms based on interactions to target users with relevant content. However, the algorithms used by social media giants, such as Facebook, can “lock” users into a narrow, blinkered worldview of “what it thinks they want to see. This is the danger of algorithms,” Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, told Arab News.

In August, five months before the US Capitol riots, data scientists working for Facebook warned the company’s top executives that the platform was playing host to a worrying number of groups promoting hate speech.




Facebook usage has held steady in the US despite a string of controversies about the leading social network, even as younger users tap into rival platforms such as TikTok, a survey showed on April 7, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

Internal documents seen by The Wall Street Journal in January said, “70 percent of the top 100 most active US civic groups are considered non-recommendable for issues such as hate, misinformation, bullying, and harassment.”

Executives were told one of the groups with the highest level of engagement “aggregates the most inflammatory news stories of the day and feeds them to a vile crowd that immediately and repeatedly calls for violence.”

The researchers added: “We need to do something to stop these conversations from happening and growing as quickly as they do.”

Facebook has since pledged to overhaul its algorithms.

Al-Bishr noted that the pace of change was also causing a generational rift.




A Twitter logo is displayed on a mobile phone with President Trump's Twitter page shown in the background, the account of whom was suspended following a string of unsubstantiated claims on the platform. (AFP/File Photo)

“The millennium generation, which was born during this period of technological advancement, believes this is what life is — they don’t know what they are missing. But we, the older generation, can see the gaps,” she added.

Naouel Chaoui, an Algerian-Italian who runs a popular book club that was forced online during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointed out that technology, despite its practicality, was no substitute for human contact.

“Because of technology, we are losing the need for contact, real contact, human contact; a tap on the shoulder, a hug. Body language is a huge part of our communication, which, when missing, loses its authentic expression,” she told Arab News.

“I feel that the new generations are missing this crucial part of getting together. They meet through games, over screens, or through their phones.”

Perhaps one solution, once the pandemic has passed, would be for people to unplug a little more often, challenge their preconceptions, and expand their horizons.




Elif Shafak, a prominent British-Turkish author, speaking during her session. (Supplied)

Elif Shafak, a prominent British-Turkish author, whose work has been translated into 54 languages, said experiencing a diversity of viewpoints was vital to the learning process.

“We humans don’t learn through repetition. We don’t learn as much from sameness as we learn from differences,” Shafak, the author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The Forty Rules of Love, told the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

“When people from different backgrounds with different stories come together, they challenge each other, and they help each other’s cognitive flexibility, shifting perspectives.

“I am a big believer in the importance of cosmopolitan encounters, in the importance of bringing people with different stories together and letting them talk to each other.”

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi


TBWA\RAAD wins regional creative mandate for UAE’s largest tertiary hospital

TBWA\RAAD wins regional creative mandate for UAE’s largest tertiary hospital
Updated 07 May 2021

TBWA\RAAD wins regional creative mandate for UAE’s largest tertiary hospital

TBWA\RAAD wins regional creative mandate for UAE’s largest tertiary hospital
  • The agency will lead the regional advertising and marketing activities of Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City

DUBAI: The UAE’s largest tertiary hospital has appointed TBWA\RAAD as its creative agency of record.

The agency will lead the regional advertising and marketing activities of Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City (SSMC), a joint-venture partnership between Abu Dhabi Health Services Co. (SEHA) and Mayo Clinic.

Ramez Youssef, marketing and public affairs director at SSMC, said: “We were thoroughly impressed by TBWA\RAAD’s strategic approach, which was particularly aligned with our brand’s ambition to provide excellence and innovation in healthcare services.”

The new partnership will come into effect this month and will see TBWA\RAAD and SSMC collaborate on developing the brand’s communication, messaging, and content strategy across multiple platforms.

Reda Raad, group chief executive officer at TBWA\RAAD, said: “We are looking forward to disrupting healthcare with SSMC and developing creative ideas that will help reinforce the brand’s position on a global scale as the leading hub for medical excellence and as a pioneer in innovation, driving the future of healthcare in Abu Dhabi and in the region.”


Saudi journalist experiences empowerment of women as observer and participant

Saudi journalist experiences empowerment of women as observer and participant
Updated 07 May 2021

Saudi journalist experiences empowerment of women as observer and participant

Saudi journalist experiences empowerment of women as observer and participant
  • There is a general trend of inclusion of women in all sectors of employment in Saudi Arabia

Not only does she report on the growing empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia, journalist Deema Al-Khudair said that every day she gets to experience the advances and greater freedoms women in the Kingdom now enjoy as a result of the ongoing reforms under her nation’s Vision 2030 development plan.

During an interview on “The Ray Hanania Show” on the US Arab Radio Network on Wednesday, Al-Khudair, a reporter with Arab News, talked about her experiences and some of the stories she has worked on that reveal the changing role of women in Saudi society.

Recently, for example, she wrote a story about women who work as security guards in the women’s prayer section at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. It was exciting, she said, to see them proudly working on an equal footing with male security guards.

There is a general trend of inclusion of women in all sectors of employment in Saudi Arabia, said Al-Khudair, including the military.

“Women have been enrolling in the military for about three years now,” she said. “But for them to be noticed (working) in the Two Holy Mosques is still relatively new.

“The female security guards in Makkah (started working there around the time of the) last Hajj season. Most of these women I interviewed at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah told me they have been working there for six months.”

Previously, the women’s prayer section was monitored by women who received only the most basic training and support. Thanks to the reforms, all that has changed.

“They receive firearms training, self-defense (instruction), learned about fitness, and they took courses in Islamic studies, computer education and English to (help them) speak with foreigners visiting the mosque,” said Al-Khudair “Anything men went through, they received the same training.”

The female guards are very proud of their new roles and the advances they have made.

“All of the women feel very empowered,” she said. “One of the women I interviewed told me her whole family has a military background — all of her brothers are in the military — and this job made her feel included. She felt right at home.”

Al-Khudair said she began her journalism career in 2017, soon after Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman unveiled his Vision 2030 project. The success of the initiative, an ambitious program of development and diversification in preparation for the post-oil age, depends in part on the expansion of the rights and freedoms of Saudi women.

In June 2018, for example, women in the Kingdom were granted the right to drive. Their child-custody rights were also reformed, and they were given the right to attend sporting events, among many other new freedoms.

Al-Khudair, who works on the local-news desk at Arab News, covering Saudi issues, said the past few years have been an exciting time for Saudi women.

“Honestly, I am so proud of them, myself, as a Saudi woman,” she said. “Throughout my job as a journalist I have witnessed all the changes the Kingdom went through.”

For example, she added, she has interviewed female athletes, successful businesswomen and other high-ranking Saudi women.”

Al-Khudair has written stories on many topics but said she has a special fondness for stories about children.

“Some of my favorite stories are children’s stories,” she said. For example, she interviewed a 7-year-old gymnast who said her ambition is to represent Saudi Arabia at the Olympics.

The nation’s youngsters can even make her smile when writing about serious issues such as the coronavirus crisis.

“During the pandemic last year, we were all upset about the lockdown and I wanted to find a way to make the situation lighter. So, I interviewed children,” Al-Khudair said.

“I wanted to find out what they knew about the coronavirus. I laughed through the whole article — they thought it was some green monster that was going to turn people into zombies. I loved that article.”

* The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast live every Wednesday on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 radio, and in Washington DC on WDMV AM 700 Radio. The show is streamed live on Facebook.com/ArabNews and the podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and many other podcasting providers. For more information on this and other interviews, visit ArabNews.com/RayRadioShow.


Turkey ranks highest in world for attacks and threats against female journalists

Turkey ranks highest in world for attacks and threats against female journalists
Updated 07 May 2021

Turkey ranks highest in world for attacks and threats against female journalists

Turkey ranks highest in world for attacks and threats against female journalists

ANKARA: A new report from the Coalition for Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) states that Turkey is “the leading country for attacks and threats against women journalists” this year.

Between January and April, 114 female journalists were attacked or threatened in Turkey the New York-based media organization revealed — more than in any other country in the world.

The CFWIJ’s First Quarterly Report for 2021 coincidentally coincided with Izzet Ulvi Yonter, deputy leader of the Turkish government’s coalition partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), targeting female anchor Ebru Baki for her coverage of the MHP’s draft constitution proposal.

Yonter referred to the broadcaster as a “so-called journalist who distorts the facts and shows her intolerance against the MHP,” and said her attempts to “discredit” their draft proposal were “offensive and crude.”

Yonter’s criticism was followed on May 5 by the resignation of Bulent Aydemir, Haberturk TV’s chief editor and Baki’s co-anchor on the morning program.

The program was taken off air on Thursday, triggering a nationwide social media campaign using “I don’t watch Haberturk TV” as hashtag.

CFWIJ’s report said that, in Turkey, “Almost 50 women journalists appeared before the court to fight baseless charges; 20 suffered heavy workplace bullying at the newsrooms; 15 female journalists were subjected to police violence while covering the news, 14 were detained; three women journalists were sentenced to prison, and three were expelled. While one journalist was threatened with intimidation, another became the target of racist rhetoric” during the period covered.

Scott Griffen, deputy director at the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of journalists and editors defending media freedom, told Arab News: “Women journalists face a double threat: They are attacked for their work and they are attacked for their gender — a reflection of … sexism in society. IPI’s own research has shown that online attacks on female journalists tend to be more vicious and the insults and threats are often of a sexual nature.”

According to Griffen, attacks on women journalists are part of a broader trend, which is an effort by those in power to smear and undermine critical journalism and diverse voices.

Referring to Yonter’s attack on Baki, he said: “This incident shows that a political party, in this case the MHP, is unable to accept criticism and simply does not — or does not want to — understand the role of journalism in society. Politicians are required to accept criticism, even harsh criticism. Ebru Baki was doing her job, and the attacks on her are unacceptable.”

Griffen thinks that one consequence of these attacks is the risk of a rise in self-censorship.

“Journalists who are faced with such vicious attacks may decide to reconsider their reporting to avoid such abuse in the future, or they may even decide to leave the profession. And this is a huge loss for the public,” he said. “It means that stories are not being told, and diverse voices are not being heard. And, of course, that is what the attackers want. They wish to push critical voices out of the public sphere.”

Male journalists in Turkey have also been the targets of verbal and physical attacks. Recently, dissident journalist Levent Gultekin was beaten by a mob in the middle of a street in Istanbul, shortly after he criticized the MHP and its former leader. Gultekin was verbally attacked by the MHP deputy leader just before the assault.

“The crackdown against critical and independent media in Turkey is worsening every single day with new attacks from political figures. And female journalists who are reporting on critical issues that are sensitive to the government or its political allies are not immune from the attacks,” Renan Akyavas, Turkey program coordinator of IPI, told Arab News.

IPI’s own recent research also confirms that female journalists are more likely targets of online harassment for their critical reporting and views, she added.

The trend of public figures targeting journalists to silence dissident voices has been on the rise, Akyavas said. “We especially see an increasing trend of attacks by the ultra-nationalist MHP’s leaders and representatives to intimidate journalists, even in response to mild criticism.

“The targeting of Ebru Baki and Haberturk TV is only the latest example of this attitude, which is simply unacceptable coming from a governing alliance party. The MHP leadership must … protect fundamental rights and the safety of journalists, instead of threatening them,” she continued.

Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention — and the protection it provided against domestic violence — in March triggered further threats and violence against women reporters, the CFWIJ report underlined.

Akyavas agrees. “The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention had been a huge disappointment for women in Turkey fighting for their rights and gender equality. Impunity for crimes and violence against women has become a new norm for the country,” she said, adding that this trend will cease only if Turkish authorities show a genuine will to protect and implement women’s rights.

“Women journalists in Turkey must continue their courageous reporting, as their fundamental rights and freedom of expression were guaranteed and fully protected by the Turkish constitution. At IPI, we will continue our solidarity with them and our support for critical and independent journalism to provide the public with factual, objective news,” Akyavas continued.

The Turkish Journalists’ Association, TGC, released a statement on Thursday criticizing the way women journalists have been targeted by the MHP just because they smiled on air. “Such an attitude targets our colleagues’ safety and security. We call on the government and its partners to respect the law,” it noted.


TikTok joins coalition to protect children from online abuse

TikTok reiterated its commitment to minors’ safety on the platform, and emphasized its zero tolerance for any content that perpetuates the abuse, harm, endangerment or exploitation of children. (Reuters/File Photo)
TikTok reiterated its commitment to minors’ safety on the platform, and emphasized its zero tolerance for any content that perpetuates the abuse, harm, endangerment or exploitation of children. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 06 May 2021

TikTok joins coalition to protect children from online abuse

TikTok reiterated its commitment to minors’ safety on the platform, and emphasized its zero tolerance for any content that perpetuates the abuse, harm, endangerment or exploitation of children. (Reuters/File Photo)

LONDON: Networking platform TikTok announced on Wednesday that it has joined the Technology Coalition, an organization that works to protect children from online sexual exploitation and abuse. 

Through this membership, TikTok aims to advance protections for children online and offline. 

TikTok reiterated its commitment to minors’ safety on the platform, and emphasized its zero tolerance for any content that perpetuates the abuse, harm, endangerment or exploitation of children, as outlined in the Community Guidelines. 

The announcement also features TikTok’s endorsement of the International Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, in an effort to ensure a consistent and strong response to exploitation across services.


AudioSwim on song to help achieve fair pay for UAE artists

Label services and music distribution company, AudioSwim, is looking to bring the hype to the UAE and help artists jump on the NFT bandwagon. (Supplied)
Label services and music distribution company, AudioSwim, is looking to bring the hype to the UAE and help artists jump on the NFT bandwagon. (Supplied)
Updated 06 May 2021

AudioSwim on song to help achieve fair pay for UAE artists

Label services and music distribution company, AudioSwim, is looking to bring the hype to the UAE and help artists jump on the NFT bandwagon. (Supplied)
  • Company aims to revolutionize music industry in next 5 years using latest digital technology

DUBAI: Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – a type of digital asset created to track ownership of a virtual item – have become all the rage with their market capitalization shooting up by 1,785 percent this year alone.

Although much of the conversation has been around art, NFTs are now gaining popularity in the music industry too. In March, the American rock band Kings of Leon released their first NFT album, “When You See Yourself,” generating more than $2 million in NFT sales.

Now, label services and music distribution company, AudioSwim, is looking to bring the hype to the UAE and help artists jump on the NFT bandwagon.

The company is headed by Albert Carter, a label owner, manager, and distributor who has worked in the music industry for the last 15 years.

He told Arab News: “You, as an individual, are non-fungible. Let’s pretend you are an NFT and, yes, you are one of 7 billion people, but there is only one of you. So, if you are a token, the rest of the 7 billion people are the other people on the blockchain (a digital record of transactions made with cryptocurrencies).

“You, as an individual, cannot be replaced in this world. If you place yourself on the blockchain, people will have to purchase you. They won’t be able to purchase another person even if that person has the same name, body type, and more; that person has to be you.”

Applying this rationale to music, Carter said artists could release their songs and give ownership to their fans.

AudioSwim’s role in the equation was to sell a portion of the royalties based on how much of their music artists decided to sell. The company’s distribution platform will allow artists to buy, sell, or trade music royalties with fans on a blockchain-secured platform.

“This allows them (artists) to earn crypto, which can be converted to cash, directly from the royalties paid on the songs from the artist catalog,” Carter added.

NFTs offer several benefits for musicians, including more transparency and a better relationship with fans.

“NFTs also provide a proof of authenticity and copyright protection since all information is verified on the blockchain. The original artists always get paid from any appreciating value on their music,” he said.

The transition to a digital world would not be entirely plain sailing and the mix of cultures in the UAE made it harder for outsiders to understand the local music scene, but Carter noted that the country was already leading the way in blockchain technology.

“With Dubai holding the Future Blockchain Summit, and expected growth of up to $20 billion, it’s an exciting time for any artist looking to take control of their music,” he added.

AudioSwim currently operates in the US, the UK, Nigeria, South Africa, and the UAE, and has plans for further expansion.

“We are looking to take the full-scale label service model global. However, we see the Middle East and North Africa region as our primary focus to empower regional artists first,” Carter said.