x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Digital dreaming: how the internet can change lives

Our relationship with cyberspace is changing us in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Ponder this: what would you look like if all of your digital information, your likes and your dislikes, your wall posts and your Tweets, your Google searches and your online purchases were put together and turned into a cartoon character? What would your digital self be? Would you be a superhero or a villain? A temptress or a Casanova? Would you drive a gas-guzzling 4x4 or an environmentally friendly hybrid? What colour would you be? The olive-toned hues of Middle Easterners or the whites and pinks of Caucasians? Would you be wearing a jellabiya or jeans and T-shirt? And most importantly: would you look like yourself?

For most of us, these are as difficult questions to answer as they are intriguing. To conceive of a digital self is to step out of ourselves and into a reconstructed version. In The Matrix, Morpheus called it "the mental projection of your digital self". But in that fantasy world, the mental projection was more or less the same as the real thing. In real life, it's quite different.

Digital self-imaging has become as much an art as it is a science. We often do it unconsciously, making our online choices in a world ruled by the imagination, limited only by the extent of our ability to dream and guided by hopes and desires birthed in what psychologists would call our latent mind, the part of us that once expressed itself only in our sleep.

But in the 21st century, we dream while we are wide awake. Our dream world, in the age of cyberspace, now bleeds into the real. As we sit in front of computer monitors, that dream unfolds in byte-sized fragments of places and lifestyles stitched together in chat rooms and social media sites, on blogs and web pages where digital representations of the real have taken on the tangibility of fact. What was once only fantasy has now become real. Places that in the past were impossibly distant and fantastical to us have plopped - digitally speaking - into our living rooms.

Our relationship with cyberspace is changing us in ways we are only beginning to understand. At first glance, the transformations appear utopian: as digital beings, the world is our oyster. We can be who we want to be, create what we want to create and re-imagine our futures in a universe of endless possibilities.

But at least one expert is not convinced that the internet and the opportunities it offers always produce positive results.

Dr Samuli Schielke is a research fellow in anthropology at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. He has tracked and documented the digital dreamscapes of Egyptian youth since 2009, mapping worlds dominated by visions of escape, and alter egos built in the image of their online representations. His project, Imaginary Cosmopolitans: Engaging the World between Egypt and Europe, examines how the internet has made dreaming - of a better life, of a different reality - more "real" than at any time in human history and how that constructed "reality" operates in the minds of young people.

His findings are startling.

"One of the most powerful dreams in Egypt in the past years has been migration," Schielke says, "preferably to Europe or North America, otherwise to the Arab Gulf states. It is a very frustrating dream because not being able to migrate is often experienced as a failure, while actually migrating creates new kinds of disappointments and estrangement."

I've witnessed the same phenomenon in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where young people, plugged into cyberspace, voraciously consume images of the West, adopt a simulated western lifestyle - in their tastes in music and film, for example, or in how they communicate, the language they use. Using internet models, they construct an identity in the image of a projected self, one that will eventually move West. Some of them actually do make it, arriving in western countries where, in today's environment of diminishing economic opportunities and rising racism, they find themselves in a warped and frightening parody of their dream.

Indeed, in many developing countries, the price of admission to a western lifestyle is not cheap. To live like a New Yorker in Islamabad or a Londoner in Kabul, to exist in Schielke's "imaginary cosmopolitans" in the real world, within your immediate environment, means having money. For the vast majority of young people, the dream remains an aspiration only, existing somewhere beyond borders and in a yet-to-be formed future. In both cases - for the rich and for the poor - the common thread is this: to be modern, to be successful and happy, is to be western.

"Yes, my friends and I are primarily interested in American television and music," says Insiya Mankani, a 17-year-old living in Dubai. "It's what we're generally most exposed to. It's the world we want to be a part of. Most of my friends do hope to leave Dubai. Most of them are applying to universities in the US, Canada or the UK."

The uprisings in the Arab world are being led by youth. In Egypt, the seeds of revolution were sown on the internet by the April 6 Youth Movement, and during the early days and weeks of the confrontations in Cairo's Tahrir Square it was these youth who sacrificed themselves for the dream of a democratic and just homeland.

But since then, they have been gradually supplanted by more traditional Islamist and labour groups. The inability of the digital revolutionaries to maintain their place at the forefront of the revolution is rooted deeply in the technology they use to organise and define their movement and how that technology has shaped them as individuals.

The example of Aliaa Elmahdy is telling: the 20-year-old Egyptian student, activist and prolific blogger recently posted nude pictures of herself on her blog to protest against misogyny in her homeland and the hypocrisy of male chauvinism. Some regarded it as courageous. A majority of Egyptians, however, condemned her for failing to understand the reasons behind the revolution - hope for a better future, wresting control of their destiny away from dictatorship. She had subverted the revolution's message, they said, and turned it into a western trope, centred around sexuality.

One way to understand Elmahdy's actions is to take a closer look at her online persona: according to her Facebook profile, she considers herself an avowed feminist, vegetarian and secular liberal. She attended high school at the English School and the Rajac American School in Cairo and now studies Mass Communication and Media Arts at Cairo University's English Section and the American University. Her favourite sport is basketball, her favourites in music are pulled primarily from western pop (Madonna, Shakira, Michael Jackson), with a few Arab artists thrown into the mix. Her taste in films is distinctly Hollywood, and television painfully American (Oprah Winfrey, Xena: Warrior Princess, South Park). And her prodigious list of activities and interests include some patently western pursuits: graffiti, street art, bikinis, the hippie movement, ethical vegetarianism, ethical veganism and No Pants Day. You would have a difficult time concluding that she lives in Egypt at all and an easy time deducing that she dreams of escape - either to move west or to bring the West home to Egypt.

Overall, her digital self is, in some ways sadly, a postmortem on the victory of western media over eastern cultures, where the flow of cultural information moves largely in one direction - West to East. In that context, Elmahdy's nudes would barely cause a ripple in the West. But in Egypt, they have elicited a firestorm and illustrate how the online activist movement has lost touch with everyday people.

"At best, 20 per cent of Egyptians have regular access to the internet," Schielke points out, "and the Facebook public sphere is in certain ways quite disconnected from other social movements. The fact that the revolution reached its most powerful momentum in a moment when Egypt was cut off from the internet is a good reminder that we should not overestimate the digital level of political expression. It is successful when it links with daily action, with social movements."

With, in other words, an understanding of the real world. In the real world of Middle Eastern society and politics, Islam is an undeniable force. Conservative culture cannot be conveniently swept aside, replaced by a digital facsimile of liberal democracy borrowed from the West. But for many online activists, complex and undefined concepts such as freedom and democracy have become confused with their western-inspired simulations in cyberspace. And when that happens, once the simulation is taken as the reality, the real, the quantifiable thing that is culture, ceases to exist. It becomes an abstraction, reliant upon the new gods - the creators of the simulation - for its continued existence.

The defenders of the digital revolution, however, see things differently.

"I do not think that the youth of developing countries are mimicking western youth," says Karim Alrawi, an Egyptian-Canadian writer and activist. "This is what television allowed them to do, and encouraged in some respects. But through the internet they are re-imagining themselves in roles that they can participate in developing through the interaction that the internet permits."

For the online activist community, Alrawi says, cyberspace offers an imaginative realm where young people can "imagine difference", where they are given the tools to "re-imagine a future for themselves and strive to make it happen".

And yet the sobering reality is that the internet, like the technologies that preceded it - television in particular - is a place where largely commercial interests compete to influence young people and to create a market for their products. In that sense, the West, the US more so than anyone else, will inevitably win. They've been perfecting the art of creating consumers for decades.

But all hope is not lost. As Schielke points out: "There is also another power of imagination. Unrealistic dreams have the advantage that their practical relevance is not bound to their practicability. The Egyptian revolution, until last spring - and to a certain degree until today - is an unrealistic dream because it goes beyond that which can be reasonably expected, and invites one to expect the unexpected, to work for something that is beyond the ordinary horizon of possibility."

It still is possible to reach Alrawi's ideal, where the internet becomes transformative, bringing cultures and perspectives together without forcing them to compete but instead offering a chance to mingle and to exchange. What that brave new world requires is for us to engage with cyberspace, to push it to its potential rather than submit to being moulded into mere consumers of information. In that world, we shape cyberspace and not vice-versa. And we participate in the creation of an entirely new reality, right here, in the place where we live.

In the real world.