Monday, November 08, 2010

Dubai IT Expo and Trends

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
I am not a techno geek; my cell phone is one of the simplest ones around. I am not a luddite either; I’ve had a cell phone for 10 years now, I’ve had a PC for more than 20 years, and I was an early adopter of online learning. However, I always go for simple solutions, whether on hardware or software, nothing fancy or flashy, and not just for price reasons; and I only switch to a new model of anything (PC, mobile phone, TV, etc.) when there is a very compelling reason to.
I am, however, fascinated by the impact that new technologies have on social life, particularly the cultural and religious aspects. Regular readers of this blog may recall my pieces on “Ramadan Apps, High-Tech Islam”, “Ramadan by CCD”, “Islam and Technology (ringtones and facebook)”, etc.
I will continue to come back to this general theme, which I think is going to be a major issue in the next few decades, just as ‘Science and Religion’ became an important field of social and academic investigation and discourse in the past few decades. Technology, in its various developments, including artificial intelligence and genetic technology, is going to have a major impact on our lives and our understanding of life, mind, humanity, and so forth…
But while few are exploring that kind of socio-cultural impact, perhaps because it is not yet so striking, many are drowning in the fast development of gadgetry, particularly on the IT front. I shouldn’t use sarcastic or cynical vocabulary, because I do realize that such developments can be important in the kinds of changes they bring to our lives. For instance, I’ve written before about ringtones and Islamic practices (embarrassing ringtones sounding off inside mosques, sometimes in the middle of prayers; the “permissibility” of ringtones using recited verses; etc.). Another consequence of such new technologies (smartphones) is what I encounter every day as a professor, namely many students’ addiction to them and their inability to resist the urge to check their cells every short while. Still, the exponential market growth and the virus-like spread of these new technologies/gadgets, particularly in countries of high standards of living like the UAE and the Arab Gulf, is stunning and frightening to some extent. So much money spent on such products… even I am now tempted by the iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy…
A couple of weeks ago, Dubai held the 30th GITEX (Gulf Information Technology Exhibition), which is now one of the top three such expositions in the world. In 1981, this expo had 46 exhibitors covering about 800 square meters (that’s less than 30 meters by 30 m), and it was visited by about 3,000 people. This year, 3,500 suppliers were present, gathering over 130,000 industry professionals and visitors from 135 countries, for 5 days of exposition.
The press focused on the big gadgets: a 360” LCD TV (that’s 9 meters, folks!), a 152” plasma TV, new-generation smartphones, including the Windows Phone 7, a new satellite phone, etc. But the importance of the event, in my view, lied in other items: a) the parallel organization of the GITEX Global Leaders Summit, the GITEX Mobile Apps & Content World, and the GITEX Cloud Confex (a conference devoted to “cloud computing”); b) the participation of high-profile business leaders, including a vice president of Microsoft, a vice president of Oracle, the director of market development for Facebook, and others; c) the unveiling of some products with direct social impact (the kind I am more interested in), such as a real-time, GPS-informed system on traffic congestion and suggested routes to help drives avoid jams, or the new Arabic-language domain names, which have the potential of accelerating the penetration and effective usage of the internet (in Arabic) in this region – with commercial as well as social, cultural, and political consequences.

These technologies and their markets are continuing to grow, and very fast, especially in this region. At the global level, IT spending is increasing at a rate of 3 % a year, but in the Middle East and Africa, it is presently growing at 12 %!
These technologies are transforming the way people live and interact, but also the way they think and behave, even at the individual level. Surely all social observers should pay close attention to this trend and provide thoughtful commentary and guidance to educators and social leaders. No one should attempt or even contemplate blocking such technologies, but guiding society (especially the young, easy-to-impress generation) should be a must for the sake of averting socio-cultural disasters, such as addictions, loss of human contact and interaction, further loss of attention spans, etc.

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