Social/Class Implications of Middle Eastern BlackBerry Bans

Phones Voyeurism.

When I first bought a BlackBerry, a 7130e in April of 2005, smartphones still had particular social status implications, especially in conservative North Dakota. Displaying one in a bar would certainly get one attention. Less so the type of attention that would get one laid, than a Protestant revulsion to gross materialism. Inevitably the questions: what are you, some type of hotshot? Just why do you need to be constantly connected anyway?

As time went on and technology normalized, the implications have shifted from something like ‘business executive’ to ‘poser’ to ‘young professional’ to ‘yuppy,’ settling on the current standard of ‘member of the Internet generation.’

What I think has been missing from the conversation on this cascading trend of banning BlackBerrys in the region has been a comparable perspective. Overall, Research in Motion’s numbers for the region are certainly impressive with 700,000 in Saudi Arabia (1 BlackBerry per 38 people) and 500,000 in the UAE (1:9) . Lebanon, also considering a ban, is less adept with only 60,000 users (1:72).

In spite of these surprisingly high numbers and taking into account the purported basis of ‘security concerns,’ I think one has to consider (1) the type of disparity in wealth that exists across these countries and leads to uneven patterns in technological adoption (2) the extent of legal protections of the public against the state. The lack of latter is extremely obvious in a country like the KSA, where activists can be jailed for the crime of being an ‘annoyance.’ The former is more interesting outside of the context of the West, where a CEO and the janitor that cleans his office are likely to have the same model phone. Technology remains, in most places, a high privilege.

Downplaying the prevalence of BlackBerrys in the region is not meant to dismiss the wealth or technological standard of these countries but to narrow the pool of reasons why the state would be so concerned about telecommunications. The desire is to cut out banal, mitigating circumstances, as it seems less likely that BlackBerry Messenger is being used in the commission of bankrobberies than instigating deeper societal issues (facile or not). By narrowing the pool and moving past well-deserved condemnations over censorship/privacy, asking ‘who is affected?’ and ‘how?’ becomes an enlightening experience. Parsing it out in a brief amount of time, it seems that there would be at least three groups that are the catalyst for the ban:

  1. Political adversaries,
  2. Domestic and foreign business elite,
  3. Privileged youth.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, we can see a state that is paranoid about losing control of society in the face of corruption by technology, modernization and liberalism. BlackBerrys, here, have manifested generational issues, a situation where Messenger is a popular means to escape the rigorous morality enforced by special police and hit on one’s prefered gender. Were we to find out it was in any part due to the other two, the implications would be profound being as in the area (1) the regime’s adversaries are Western adversaries (2) domestic and foreign business elite are generally Western allies and distrust augurs future issues.

This, of course, isn’t too terrible new or controversial, but it does evince a framework for looking into the societal conflict and internal political instability of country through technology policy. That is, if one choses to look deeply.

(An off-the-cuff remark in my previous post about this subject was linked to with the facade of authority, which was repugnant to the scientist in me. This is a subject that I intend to explore more deeply looking forward, however external attention demanded a more immediate exploration than the slow work I’ll be engaging in over the course of time.)