Arabic and information technology

Computer ownership in most Arab countries is well below the world average. In Algeria, Egypt, Djibouti, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen it is less than half the world average. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are the only Arab countries where computer ownership exceeds the world average.

Similarly, internet use in the Arab countries, though growing rapidly, is still only about half the world average.

This might seem bad enough, but even more striking is the fact that Arabic-only web pages account for only one-thousandth of the worldwide total: the presence of the Arabic language on the internet is far below what might be expected in relation to the number of Arabic speakers.

Discussing this problem in a chapter on information and communications technology (ICT), the recent Arab Knowledge Report says: 

The efforts expended in creating Arabic digital content are also restricted to limited areas, most of which are disconnected from the reality and needs of Arab societies and fail to enrich knowledge related to social or economic development.

Certainly, the domination of some subjects and meagre treatment of others ... is out of keeping with the challenges of a highly competitive world; in such a world, marginalisation is the fate of cultures that fail to reproduce themselves adequately through the creation of knowledge and devise new forms for its utilisation.

Creating web pages in Arabic used to be an extremely cumbersome business and the report acknowledges there are still some serious technical problems in working with Arabic on computers (morphological analysis, automatic vocalisation and automated parsing, for example) which affect other processes such as indexing and searching. 

Amazingly, though, the report also points out that there is still no universal system for encoding Arabic letters and symbols – and this seems not so much a technical issue as a symptom of the Arab countries' wider inability to get their act together.

The report's chapter on ICT certainly contains some interesting facts, even if parts of it are virtually unreadable. But, as with the 
chapter on education which I discussed earlier, it glosses over some fundamental issues such as government attempts to control the internet (filtering of web pages, harassment of bloggers, etc). As with education, Arab regimes want the benefits of information technology but without the political consequences that would result from a "knowledge society".

The report recognises that the course of development of ICT has major implications for Arab culture and in particular the future of the Arabic language:

Will current and future technologies lead to a decline in the status of Arab cultural identity? Or will they provide opportunities that enable its preservation and the consolidation of its position on the map of human civilisation? A positive answer is conditional upon the digital presence of the Arab countries and their citizens on the current and future internet.

Unfortunately, though, it envisages a central role Arab governments in providing a solution:

It falls on the shoulders of the governments of the Arab countries and concerned NGOs active in them to play founding and creative [!!] roles that deal with the formulation of policies, strategies, and initiatives for the production, distribution, and utilisation of knowledge in areas where the private sector cannot get involved or with which it should not perhaps be entrusted.

I dread to think what the result of that might be. The dead hand of Arab governments is probably the last thing anyone needs in such a situation, and talk of "preserving" Arab culture in this context is ill-conceived – it smacks of trying to hold back the tide. Cultures are not ancient monuments; they have to serve needs of the people who live in them. Trying to preserve a culture by freezing it in time is the quickest way to destroy it. In order to survive, it must be allowed to adapt and develop with changing circumstances.