November 22, 2010

Tech Effects, Iranian Style

- Technology is more than a noun – it’s a lifestyle!

A lot is said about the effects of technology on our lives. Such effects can be positive or negative, simple or complicated, superficial or profound. The technology is not per se neutral for it intrinsically encourages some special ways of doing things. In my opinion, however, there is no such a thing as good/bad technology because new technologies usually affect our lives in many diverse ways, some of which may be indeed very good while others might be very problematic. The effect’s spectrum gets even wider should various applications developed for a certain technology be considered.

There are numerous examples to cite here, ranging from two centuries old inventions such as Steam Engine to Information-Age phenomena such as World Wide Web. Take, for example, Email. On the plus side, it is cheap, saves time, allows us to make frequent contacts with the people we love and value, and to make it green, it saves tons of trees and fuels every day! On the negative side, it increases the possibility of (mutual) misunderstanding, replaces face-to-face encounters which are (were?) a richer form of communication, contributes to obesity and laziness, increases our exposure to unwanted messages, and even opens the door to new crimes and illegal actions.

By the above, I surely didn’t mean to share with you something new or extraordinary. BTW, above paragraphs was a review. Now I would like to turn my and your attention to a more nuanced aspect of technology’s effects: local characteristics of the effects of global technologies. Or put it slightly differently, recall the title: “Tech Effects, Iranian-Style.”

As it’s self-evident, in such a debate no one can cover all technologies, much less all of their effects. Hence, I would like to focus on a profound effect of Cell Phones: how cell phones helped establish new norms and practices of Privacy. To demonstrate this effect of cell phones on Iranian lifestyle, we first need to know how life used to be before Cell Phone Age.

When I was a teenager, private room was a luxury privilege. (For the first 15 years of my life, my family used to move every year. Some years, I had a semi private room, enjoying solitude during the night but sharing the room with other family members during the day. In other years, I had to completely share the room with another family member.) Another example: I usually had a personal commode. However, it was not that personal: my parents frequently took a look at it, often out of my sight, “just to make sure that everything is OK.” It was kind of a preemptive monitoring, even if there were no sign of threat. BTW, that was a common characteristic of many parents in that period. Diaries had a similar fate as personal commode. Even though I personally didn’t use to write diaries whatever the reason, I’m almost sure that if I did, it would have been subject to unwritten, non-negotiable rule of “preemptive monitoring.”

While these facts surely had something to do with common parental worries, there was another element in them as well. Intimacy and love had a special meaning for parents: the mental arena and most of the physical world should be shared by all members of the family. If it didn’t happen, they would feel as if they were outsiders.

This “your private space makes me feel as if I’m outsider” was a general behavioral rule of that period, not only applicable to parent-child relations but also relevant to peers’ relations. Moreover, “I need some privacy” was often interpreted as “I want to do some bad things.” The rationale for this was very simplistic: if what you want to do is not ‘bad,’ you can do it publicly.
All above facts and analysis converge on one simple point: privacy was not recognized, acknowledged and respected.

Over time, many factors helped transform that situation. In my opinion, Cell Phones played an important role in this regard. When cell phone technology entered Iran, it was an expensive option. To make a comparison, consider that while acquiring a mobile phone subscription would cost around US$ 1,000 just ten years ago, nowadays a prepaid subscription costs only US$ 5. Therefore, in recent years, many Iranians have found Cell Phone affordable and consequently got used to it.

However, the cell phone technology didn’t come alone; rather, a new lifestyle accompanied it. The lifestyle associated with Cell Phone Age may be analyzed in terms of its features. First of all, it has made communications easier and more personal. While family members used to share just one landline phone, today each one of them has his/her own cell phone. Moreover, one can easily define with whom he/she wants to exchange calls and messages. And he/she can easily hide his/her contacts, making them his/her private asset.

In addition to easier communication, cell phone has many built-in features such as calendar, alarm clock, cameras, games and GPS services, each one of which has impacted our culture in its own unique way. What matters in regards to our discussion is portable memory and interface (Bluetooth technology) that allows easy file sharing. In second place after contacts, this feature made cell phones much more personal. One may record or save various files on his/her cell phone, classify them, and define several levels of privacy for those want to access classified files. In some ways, cell phone memories can reflect much of the personality of the owner.

In sum, personal services of the cell phone technology and almost absolute control of the user over it has made some privacy out of it.

As an increasing number of people turned to cell phone and took advantage of its personal features, they better learnt that each person needs his/her privacy be recognized, acknowledged and respected. And in this way, I believe, cell phone technology contributed a lot to the emergence of modern values and norms of privacy.

Cell Phone and its privacy-related effect is just an example to show how profound the effects of new technologies can be. In fact, many other technologies imported to Iran deserve close look to reveal their hidden socio-cultural aspects.

In the end, I would like to emphasize an important point. Even though new technologies “encourage some special ways of doing things” and can introduce a new lifestyle to the society, we have our ways to adapt the technology to our needs and expectations. As George McRobie nicely put it, “The choice of technology, whether for a rich or a poor country, is probably the most important decision to be made.”

P.S. Title of this post is borrowed from Divorce, Italian Style, a 1961 movie. Subtitle is borrowed from William Arthur Ward who once said, “Love is more than a noun – it is a verb.” Many other things are borrowed from many other people. Big thanks to them all.