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THE CELL PHONE YIELDS CULTURE: THE UAE AS MICROCOSM

Barwind Jack A. (Dubai, United Arab Emirates),
Walters Timothy (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)

In the past 30 years the United Arab Emirates has been transformed from a small less- developed country to a profoundly modern state dominated by two cities whose population accounts for 2,500,000 people. These cities are ultra modern and the principle residents enjoy a very high standard of living. The work force is comprised of 80 % to 90% expatriates. The expatriate population tends to develop smaller communities which are "ethnically, culturally" similar. Likewise UAE Nationals do not, for the most part, mix or integrate with the expatriate population on a social level to any high degree. The Cell Phone can be seen as a major factor that keeps these communities functioning and together, but as separate and discrete entities.

In this essay we use the UAE as an exemplar of development as a "globalized" world implies an increasing predominance in the use of technology. We see the Cell phone as the cornerstone of new technology and new media. We argue that the Cell Phone functions in the UAE as a systems binder "within" cultural groups while paradoxically isolating individuals from the greater society of which they are a part. Our hypothesis is: the cell phone, even within homogenous groups, leads to a deterioration of personal obligation, thus while binding people together separates some and individualizes others.

The importance of the cell phone in the UAE cannot be overemphasized. That importance is illustrated by the following story: A friend (an Arab from Jordan who had been working in the UAE for many years) was asked about meeting UAE Nationals in the Media field. He mentioned that when we make contact, the Nationals would judge us by three things - 1) the quality of our suits, 2) the quality of our cars, and 3) the quality of our cell phones.

In an article in an English speaking daily (The Gulf News, 10/8/2002 p. 27)) the sole telephone company in the UAE (Etisalat) reported that cell phone use had a 65% saturation of the market. This number is astounding when one considers that a sizable portion of the population includes expatriate, semi-skilled workers. The article claimed: "As of now there are 2.3 million mobile users which is about a 65% penetration rate, and almost one million Internet users which is over 30% penetration -- the UAE is among the top-most wired countries globally." The cell phone is ever present. One cannot walk in the large, Western-type malls (common to the area) without seeing shoppers parading by or sitting in cafes talking on their cell phone. This is an interesting observation in light of the "private" nature of Emeriti culture, particularly in relation to expatriates. In addition, the cell phone appears to be "standard equipment" in cars as one cannot drive 5 miles without seeing a half dozen drivers talking on their phones. (Using the hand held cell phone while driving is against the law, but highly practiced.) So prevalent is cell phone use that when a merchant asks for a phone number, they assume one will give them the number of their mobile. In quantitative studies of our students, we have determined that the average Zayed University students spends between 3 and 4 hours daily on their cell phones with each call lasting about 20 minutes on average.

It is obvious from observing Nationals use of the cell phone that the phone advances the social relationships of its users. It is equally obvious that much of this public behavior is private in nature. Private behavior being acted out in the public arena illustrates Goffman's (1959) backstage behavior brought to the front stage. Nearly "all" of the incidences involve what we would call . The person on the street would simply call it selfish.

What we wish to pursue is an understanding of the "nature" of this form of selfishness from the perspective of communication. We do this from the point of view of the function of communities to serve people-kind, the function of human communication for the individual, and the function of evolutionary forces in allowing individuals to adapt to changing environments. We view communication from a biological perspective; we use evolution as both real and metaphorical to advance our argument.

We conclude our argument with the following predictions for the future: As the cell phone with its asymmetry is a central player in the future of media; it is the cornerstone of convergence. Also, it is much more than an information media - it, in the UAE, is a social player and a form of entertainment as well. It personifies a move toward individualism. There are certain consequence to our mediated future, not the least of which is this move toward individualism.

As the new communities and cultures E-merge they are certain to look different than the culture and community that preceded. The difference won't be in buildings and artifacts; the difference will be in the people. What is the impact of the cell phone in the UAE? Radical! It changes culture.

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