WORLD ANTHROPOLOGICAL UNION

CONGRESS 2024​

SELECTED PANEL

( pn70 )

Beyond the Digital Divide: Ordinary Modes of Surveillance and Empowerment in the Gulf States

Organizers

    Marion Breteau

    France

    American University of Kuwait / CEFREPA Kuwait / TikTok Cultures Research Network

    Online - Presence

    Corina Lozovan

    Portugal

    Catholic University of Portugal

    Online - Presence

WCAA Affiliation: WCAA Making Anthropology Global Task Force

IUAES Affiliation: Digital Anthropology

Keywords:

Digital, Gulf states, Digital divide, Migration, Identity, Gender

Abstract:

This panel aims to provide an overview of the most recent digital practices in the Arabian Gulf region, with a specific emphasis on exploring daily and ordinary lives. Our inquiry is based on the premise that the Internet’s influence on everyday life has reached a point where it no longer allows a clear distinction between the virtual and the real. We contend that these phenomena can manifest in several directions: the realm of surveillance and empowerment, which we seek to explore through ordinary and subjective practices. By investigating how individuals incorporate behavior patterns that stem from their daily Internet usage, this panel seeks to contextualize an under-studied topic in the Gulf region. Due to the rise of consumerism as a cultural value in the Gulf, the adoption of the latest technologies has permeated various aspects of ordinary behavior, engendering almost spontaneous recourses to social media for a wide array of uses. Crucial to youth cultures, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have also transformed political organization and civic engagement, which has been witnessed during the Arab revolutions and later during the COVID-19 pandemic (Rahman & Al-Azm, 2023). However, less-proclaimed forms of empowerment take place daily. Resources such as the controversial ChatGPT chatbot prompt inquiries into the evolving attitudes of individuals toward their relation to education and creativity. ICTs also reshape perceptions of space and spheres of sociability. While technologies like GPS modify spatial perception, the rapid growth of dating apps can serve as a platform for fostering intimacy, blurring the line between the private and the public (Breteau, 2018). Accommodating both shared and opposing viewpoints, the Internet thus exerts an influence on the analog realm. By reshaping individuals’ symbolic and affective reference points, ICTs also produce new modes of recognition, which suggests considering the Internet as a source of potentialities likely to produce a new "politics of difference", if only at the level of its materiality. Indeed, web usage is conditional on access to a decent connection, and possession of the skills to navigate it, which makes it far from accessible (Jones, 2022). Given the predominance of a precarious migrant population in the region, the digital divide reinforces power dynamics at several levels. While they stimulate mobility (Abraham, 2022), ICTs can be used by governments and website moderators for surveillance purposes, inducing self-censorship and creative workarounds that make it crucial to recognize how the Internet can be transformative. The concepts of surveillance and empowerment, in this respect, can be extended to relations between nationals and non-nationals, but also to the dynamics of family, professional, generational, and gender relations, shedding light on how everyday forms of discrimination are being reinforced at an alarming rate. These questions necessitate recognizing the Internet as a practice anchored locally and reconsidering the classics of fieldwork methodology. Webnography constitutes an innovative approach that is gaining prominence, yet it requires researchers to pay attention to the technical aspects of the Internet for data access and matters of privacy online, further leading to addressing algorithms as culture (Seaver, 2017).