Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The World Has Moved On; We Have Not - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

The New York Times’ Foreign Affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman, has challenged the Obama administration to compete with China in the field of renewable energy, namely wind and solar power. This is something that would not only solve the problem of [high] energy costs for America and other industrialized nations, but also open up a new world of change and progress that is in the interests of mankind. The fundamental issue with regards to a society’s ability to change and develop can be found in the very social environment of the country in question, from the education its people receive to the level of freedom that they enjoy and how they deal with the obstacles that they encounter. When the Industrial Revolution began in England with the invention of the first steam engine, the issue was not the creation of a means to increase the speed of ships or the invention of the railway system, but rather the creation of a new way of thinking that led to hundreds of other changes and developments. The situation was no different with the eruption of the second Industrial Revolution [also known as the Technological Revolution] and the invention of the motorized engine which quickly industrialized the agricultural industry, transforming farmers into workers, and launching mankind into space, first into the upper atmosphere of the earth, and then later into outer space.

It is difficult to measure the political, economic or social impacts caused by such changes, but their influence is clear to see. For example, there was a time when Singapore was a mere island with a thriving trade in illegal drugs and slaves. However, thanks to its prowess in ship production, and its famous seaport, Singapore has become one of the world’s most competitive countries, being able to eventually put an end to poverty and corruption.

In reality, the story is almost always the same; new inventions were often strongly resisted by supporters of the status-quo. There was a time when workers destroyed their machinery, just as the Japanese Samurai refused to use gunpowder, as they considered it to be a method of killing without honour or courage. Yet, the Samurai eventually advocated the modernization of Japan, and new industries were maintained. In the second half of the 1980s, the Apple Board of Directors rejected a set of inventions and designs provided by the company’s co-founder Steve Jobs. They deemed his proposals to be too unrealistic, and preferred not to take the risk, especially as Apple was successfully competing – at the time – with giant corporations like IBM. However this resulted in Apple’s market share declining with the emergence of the more daring Microsoft firm who went on to take control of the new information market, under the leadership of another so-called golden boy, Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Steve Jobs eventually left Apple [in the mid-1980s before returning in 1998] as a billionaire in his thirties; however his ideas and [future] inventions would be worth a lot more than this.

Nowadays, the same applies to many companies and countries, and this can be seen in what China and India is doing with regards to researching into new fields and attempting to become market leaders. If Apple can be successful with its ‘iPad’ device, which in some places retails for a price of around $800, then China can reproduce a similar device for a price of no more than $100, and it is rumoured that India can produce such a device for as low as $30. There are two important issued that must be focused on with regards to this; firstly, in the late 1990s Apple finally agreed to Steve Jobs’ ides with regards to design and touch-screen technology – something that he had previously introduced with other companies that he was involved in such as NeXT and Pixar. Jobs applied this technology to Apple products, eventually producing a series of products ranging from the iPhone to the iPad. During this period, a variety of devices emerged, redefining methods of production and consumption, leading us to an unprecedented technological revolution that has changed the way that we obtain and deal with information.

In the media industry alone, the barriers that separated the printed press, digital media, and satellite television broadcast have collapsed, and none of the above can claim to best express the real world, as we currently understand it. The newspaper press, distribution networks, and other forms of production are on the verge of collapse, whilst corporations are now rushing to catch up with the inevitable changes that have taken place. Yet what is even more difficult then this is convincing older generations with regards to this new technology, considering that their knowledge is limited to what they already know. The dilemma does not only exist in the underdeveloped world, or even in our Arab countries, but is also a problem that is faced by advanced companies such as “Nokia” which transformed Finland into a global power in technology. Despite being one of the founding companies behind the first manned space station, Nokia initially rejected touch-screen technology when it was first presented by its researchers. As a result of this, Nokia lost ground to its rivals, and its market share in the cell phone – that it previously led – has declined.

The issue here is that we cannot rest on our laurels. Anyone who thinks that our only problem with Israel lies in its construction of settlements has overlooked Israel’s activities in the technological fields. Israel now possesses technologies that it can offer other countries; countries that condemn Israel during the daytime at the United Nations, but who contribute to Israel’s technological advancement – and vice versa – at night. Whilst this is happening, our projects are limited to changing the name of the Arab League to the Arab Union, and our social infrastructure has come to a virtual standstill. We have failed to propose a single idea that the world could be grateful of. Perhaps the only exception to this is what Abu-Dhabi is trying to do in the city of Masdar, aiming to completely rid the city of carbon emissions by relying upon solar energy.

However, this is all too little too late for the Arab world, that has a collective population of over 350 million, not one of whom has been able to produce anything equivalent to a “Google” or “Facebook.” The problem here lies not in consuming such products, for this is something that happens extensively in many poor Arab countries, but rather in our ability to produce such products for ourselves. Frankly speaking, the Arab mind requires liberation so that it is educated rather than ignorant, scientific rather than superstitious, logical rather than rhetorical, and civilized rather than believing in magic and witchcraft. We must focus on the future rather than the past, the international rather than the local. How have all of these changes and development taken place outside of the Arab World, whilst everything here has remained the same. We must first acknowledge the situation, and then take action to rectify it.

Abdel Monem Said

Abdel Monem Said

Abdel Monem Said is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

More Posts