Leonardo Thinks


Contemporary Opinion by Ricardo Mbarkho

Ricardo Mbarkho comments on how globalization and new media have fostered change and creative pursuits in Lebanon from 2008-2011.
On New Media and Creativity in the Lebanese Setting: 2008-2011

People in Lebanon are obsessed with their country. The technology network has become a place where the utopian models of Lebanon are in continuous reshaping. But when interacting with the network, the active citizen is not often active in content filtering. People in Lebanon tend to be very receptive to mass media and the huge amount of information, which is often contradictory. Consequently, their identities and roots are blurred and they can fall into the trap of being fragmented into pieces of identities. Some might even be ready to defend their new but fake identity, whose real owners might have thrown away and whose new owners might have found somewhere on the information sphere. Real values are into one’s real identity, not only into one’s economic value. Economy can rapidly change in a lifetime, contrary to identity. The morning coffee with neighbors is now sipped over subjects that used to be static but that have become varied, variable, and scrambled, depending on the media perceived on the screen.

Not only was the Lebanese satellite dish era a turning point in the local social behaviour, but so were the SMS and mobile phone eras. A 60-year-old citizen sitting on the balcony, observing and even supervising the activities taking place in the street below, noticing the tiny changes and micro-events happening here and there has now a new favourite place at home: the sofa in front of the TV set with the wide choice of satellite channels, or in the Lebanese (literal) terms “sitting in front of the Dish”. The large variety of channels offered this person a new way to spend his spare time. This citizen needs to find ways to fill the emptiness of what is left of his life: what remains after their spouse’s death, their children’s marriage, their children’s trips abroad for work or study; what remains after his role of telling stories and leading discussions in the family is eclipsed and defeated by new technology. This citizen is convinced that studying in Lebanon is good, but not good enough, and that working in Lebanon is also fine but not always available and secure because of the unstable security and economic atmosphere. Thus, young people leave Lebanon for good in order to seek stability, security, and a better future for their children. They seek a second nationality; a sort of social security paper that would enable them to be evacuated from the country should another war start again. Then the parents of these young people start to enjoy the multitude of channels – the hundreds, even thousands of channels! They discover how lively zapping can be. They become zappers. They are no longer desperate Lebanese. They have a reason to live for again. They wake up in the morning and start zapping. The remote control has become their favourite tool; even though they do not necessarily know how to fully use its features, they are at least able to locate the channel and volume buttons. These two buttons fill their spare time occupation, zapping: a tool of energy for life. Having become advanced zappers, they have discovered that they can zap whenever they feel bored. Zapping, thus, has become a means to escape boredom, control the media, and react against the passivity associated with TV. As such, they keep zapping and only stop for a short while to watch what seems to be interesting fragments to them. They enjoy these ‘peak points’ which connect them to life. Each peak point is a link followed by the search for another peak point. However, there is a red alert when the next link happens to be very distant. This creates mutual business between the viewer and the broadcasting company because the moving images are coherently constructing a new edited meaning by the viewer: the broadcasting company has to provide interesting quality content and the viewer has to hunt them. Hence, this adds the new role of hunting to zapping.

In this ever-changing screen, the broadcasting companies started to seek ways to get their programs to reach these active viewers who continue to avoid bad content and search for a good one. In addition to rerunning a program up to five times a day in order to satisfy all viewers who might live in different time zones, broadcasting companies fully invested in the loop phenomenon, i.e. continuously showing the same movie in loop mode. Thus, each time the citizen clicks on a certain channel, he will get a fragment of the movie he is supposed to see from the beginning till the end in the traditional movie-viewing manner, just like in movie theaters. Nowadays, zappers inadvertently view many fragments from this movie. Then, later on, they realize that it is in fact the same movie being shown over and over again on the same channel. However, this does not incite them to ask any questions. To them, it is the cable guy who is running the same movie again and again and not the channel itself; they think this Lebanese guy ran out of movies or maybe does not know that he is showing the same movie. They might even call him and notify him about this technical problem in his cable connection. However, it might also happen that these citizens may not be bored by seeing this movie and actually enjoy it. They would not enjoy the movie itself, but rather the looped movie. It is absolutely a new perception, a new meaning for images on the screen, because for the viewers, these are the forgotten moving images, or simply the only images that the cable guy has to offer. They are watching the movie to express their solidarity with him.

Another strategy that big broadcasting corporations draw on to deal with zapping is to replicate traditional marketing strategies. Zapping is compared to an individual shopping in a souk. The shopper can pass from a store to another in order to seek better quality and better prices. But whether or not this person knows that all these stores belong to the same trader/owner does not matter as long as the product being sought can be finally found. Similarly, whether or not it is the same broadcasting company that is running all these channels is not really an irksome question; a company can easily announce that it runs many channels, each dedicated for a specific genre: movies, songs, cartoons, etc. Consequently, the fragments viewed by zappers will be shown by the same company, albeit on different channels. So for broadcasters, zapping is not considered anymore a means for escaping, and this is because of a major motivating element: money. While it is certain that ads will generate material benefits for the broadcasting companies, the more profitable source of money is the viewer himself, such as the woman who wants to communicate with her daughter living abroad. Now, with SMS technology, she can send a message to her daughter in the United States to tell her how much she loves her. The feature which constitutes the essence of this type of communication is the fact that the SMS message can be sent through the TV channel in the form of a scrolling marquee at the bottom of the screen when sent to a specific 4-digit number.

The mother is now waiting for the message to appear… She is waiting for a new meaning to appear. Suddenly, her message is on TV! She is famous! She is also someone who did something. She simply exists now, in this tiny but nonetheless precise moment of media power. She is no longer waiting on her sofa for her death. From now on, life means a lot to her. From now on, these SMS messages become the oxygen she breathes to carry on and to stay alive longer. They replace the children with whom she cannot play and the children for whom she cannot make sandwiches. They now replace anyone who might ever have been close to this woman. The SMS concept thus operates as a nerve that has one of its roots in the strength of love. In addition, this creates a relation between SMS users and zappers. SMS users shape the style and identity of channels: zappers know what each channel is about by reading some of the SMS messages that are scrolling at the bottom of the screen. Since the viewer enjoys looking at the screen now much more than before because of the SMS messages he is viewing, these messages have been inserted in all kinds of TV programs. Being more active and less passive, viewers want to express their power on TV by affecting stories, results, and realities via SMS technology. A major reason why this option of expressing one’s wishes is enabled for viewers is to generate more money for broadcasting companies. The cost of each SMS message is divided on all those who are part of the working mechanism in the technology network industry.

Moreover, a single on-screen horizontal line showing SMS messages was not enough: space is always available to insert more horizontal lines for scrolling SMS messages. Thus, one line is reserved for private messages; a second one for the news; a third one is dedicated to star-related news; a special space is reserved for matching tests; another space is used to show pictures and names of ringtones that could be downloaded to mobile phones; a space is reserved to enable special song requests; another space is left to display nominated candidates for whom people could vote; and yet another special space is used for playing games and winning! Consequently, the screen is covered with SMS messages of all sorts. However, one of the things done to cope with those spaces and lines is to use anamorphic framing, leaving black spaces for SMS messages and topics. Music channels have become famous for this phenomenon since they are the channels that use SMS strategies the most. Nowadays, a video-clip director tends to use anamorphic framing to satisfy the SMS phenomenon. This is how economy and global networking affect ad strategies, which in turn affect the aesthetic choices of the screen’s composition.

In fact, SMS mass-voting for this or that result greatly enhances nationalism for many of the Lebanese people. It may be thought that voting for a Lebanese singer vs. a singer from another country implies that all the citizens of the latter will vote for the non-Lebanese candidate. Lebanon is a small country in terms of the number of inhabitants. This means that if the Lebanese candidate wins, people will believe that art and creativity still exist, and this is what made people from other countries vote for the Lebanese candidate. However, if the Lebanese candidate loses, the Lebanese will become furious against the voting system and even against the fanaticism of the citizens of the other candidates’ country. There is no democracy, but only fanaticism and totalitarianism, as was proven by many facts such as the president or governor of this or that country who offered free of charge votes through SMS for his country’s candidate. The fact that the number of Lebanese voters is much smaller than any other country’s voters guarantees the victory of the non-Lebanese participant. However, mass-voting can also create disputes over the result being voted for. If a Lebanese citizen prefers to vote for a foreign candidate and his patriotic friends learn about this, they will try to raise his awareness on the duties that bind him to his country. If this citizen is convinced, he will double his votes to make up for the votes he gave to the other candidate, and will continue voting to increase the Lebanese candidate’s chances of winning. This means that in Lebanon, the concept of democracy – where the largest number wins – should never be applied because it would put an end to minorities, which would be abolished and practically exterminated and annihilated. SMS messaging makes the Lebanese people conscious about the dangers of mass-voting and referendum, given the fact that Lebanon is based on an unstable equilibrium between Christians and Muslims – especially since all factions are majorities in Lebanon. There are no minorities at all when it comes to affirming one’s word. However, playing the role of a minority has its own specific contexts; i.e. when that role is considered to serve the best interest of the community. In Lebanon, anything can be taken both for what it is and for its opposite. SMS messaging is in this manner indirectly promoting (a) the need to maintain self-security and (b) the lack of complete trust in the government. Information and Communications Technology has shaped a new perception of received ideas in Lebanon. For example, the 1975 war in Lebanon has still not officially been written or approved by the different categories of Lebanese people. However, the Internet allows innumerable versions of the 1975 war to become widespread. So today, when you see a trace of this war, you tend to ask whether this trace is due to the war itself or to something else that has nothing to do with it. In other words, access to information on the network introduces new possibilities for new explanations and discoveries that a Lebanese person might have never thought about. This is also the case for the current Lebanese socio-political events.

As to social relations, similarly to keeping in touch through SMS messages transmitted on the TV screen, many couples maintain their relationships through the technology network facilities – especially that cohabitation is not a widespread trend in the Lebanese society, and that partners could be living in different countries for work or economic purposes. Also, the Lebanese people meet in cafés and night-clubs where the youth seek any possible type of relationship that would be maintained by networking, which helps to create relationships in the first place. Many Lebanese couples have met on the Internet. As such, the network operates as a place for ‘e-face-to-face’ relations leading the relationship through the network mechanism such as the temporality of the network in question, the non-real-time emails, the delayed chatting and voice chats, and the avatar emoticon rules. Although distance does not have a significant effect on the chatting mechanism, people prefer to chat with people located in their same geographical region, because the main aim for chatting is to meet face to face and get married. It is also noteworthy that men who work abroad are connected to their wives in Lebanon through the media: i.e. the role of the network as sex replacement.

Also, chat rooms have become locations for porn. Although families used to monitor their children’s actions, parents find themselves unarmed with the Internet: since parents are not technologically-savvy, their children develop a parent-free land through the Internet. The number of lesbians in Lebanon is decreasing because girls who were overprotected by their parents no longer have to compensate for their sexual urges with their girlfriends or have to resort to hidden hetero-relations. Nowadays, with the Internet, communication settings are safer, permitted, and wider in range. Text-based relations are safer in this context as 2D/3D avatars – in the form of real life simulations – can visually render what is going on in a manner that is clear enough for the children’s parents or people around them. The language of globalization today is English, which is not generally mastered by parents who became fluent in French before the globalization age and during the period of the French mandate in Lebanon. It is the language used for chatting. Besides, the Arabic pronunciation, which has no equivalent Latin symbols, now has established numeric codes that are adopted by chat users; this is also a foreign practice to parents. However, in addition to the positive effects, there are side effects which are not very pleasant: new media technologies create nervous problems that prevent people from moving certain organs, such as their fingers on mobile phones. Child-parent relations can also be affected. Everything goes fine as long as the children are watching their favorite cartoon show. But sometimes the owner of the Dish has a technical problem that causes the loss of transmission, or he simply loses connection with the satellite when the electricity goes off. If this happens during peak times, a sub-community is formed: parents shouting, complaining, and begging the owner of the Dish to solve the problem quickly because their children are deprived from their favorite cartoon channel, and are crying, panicking, getting hysterical and losing conscience! Parents are worried about how this would reflect on the stability of their children’s minds in the future. The psychological consequences of such an aggressive event are overwhelming. Children think that their parents are behind the cut transmission. Parents can easily feel this tacit or explicit accusation and want to get rid of the guilt they are suddenly facing.

Globalisation and ICT in Lebanon have resulted in changes related to interaction habits with media and new media. One can talk about the creative phenomenon of the consumer who tackles issues of temporality and continuity as well as of fragments and intervals in order to seek a better life in an unstable socio-political and cultural environment. Eavesdropping and voyeurism have changed the perception of private and public spheres. Global tendencies and forces have shaped the local behaviour on the ground, where the latter has already become the basis of human evolution and knowledge. Whether humanity is facing an auto-immune syndrome or really progressing toward utopia, the breakdown of social cohabitation in Lebanon is preciously maintained and frozen into a continuous struggle over power and belonging, while the country is still seeking its minimum possible-to-live-in model.
Ricardo Mbarkho is an artist and also teaches at the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts), Beirut. See http://www.ricardombarkho.com/ for more information about his work. His email is ricardombarkho@gmail.com.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Ricardo Mbarkho, E-mail: ricardombarkho@gmail.com.
Originally published as a Leonardo Thinks opinion.
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