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The weekend in Dubai

I’ve been in Dubai for the past three days at a World Economic Forum event. WEF is starting a new project called “Global Agenda Councils”, and they’ve invited people to participate in conversations on 68 topics, ranging from the very broad (“Faith”), the very scary (“Pandemics”) and the very prosaic (“The Future of Mining and Metals”.)

(Why 68? According to one account, they wanted 70, to riff on the lucky number seven, but two didn’t come together.)

I suspect that gatherings like this one represent the ultimate nightmare for the world’s conspiracy theorists – seven hundred wealthy, powerful, privileged, important and self-important people gathering in an opulent setting to debate the world’s problems. And more than one person pointed out that there’s something of an irony in asking the sorts of folks here at WEF to address the outcome of the global fiscal crisis – aren’t these the folks who caused it?

To disappoint all the folks who imagine a secret world government emerging from these meetings… don’t count on it. The phrase, “the world’s largest brainstorming session” has been thrown around for the past couple of days, and that may or may not be true, but the emphasis has been on brainstorming and talking. Lots of talking. Three days of talking.

This was a very useful thing within our group. While the folks confronting “the future of the internet” agreed that we’re not facing a crisis, as many of the other groups are, we did agree that there’s two sets of issues worth considering in explaining the state of the current internet: stresses, and fractures. Stresses are widespread strains to the system – a huge increase in traffic due to filesharing and online video, the continuing copyright wars, the professionalization of cybercrime, the increasing effectiveness of DDOS attacks.

Fractures are slightly more subtle. They’re issues that if left unchecked might cause the single, unified internet we know and love to split into multiple internets. These include incompatibilities between the mobile and wired web, the immobility of content trapped in the “walled gardens” of companies like Facebook which make it challenging to migrate content, as well as more social issues, like the fragmentation of public space online (the possibility of echo chambers ala Cass Sunstein) and the danger of fragmentation by language, culture and local laws, my current obsession.

The structure of the event demanded that we offer policy recommendations to ensure a healthy future of the internet. This is easy to do, but hard to do in a way that breaks new ground. We spent a difficult and frustrating day simultaneously trying to draft a short set of recommendations and brainstorming on ways that the internet could be a useful tool for the other 67 councils, most of which are working on issues more pressing and challenging than ensuring a vital, creative and generative internet. The brainstorm yielded what I think is a pretty interesting frame, the idea of the internet as a tool for social homeostasis.

Homeostasis is the set of processes that organisms use to regulate their internal environments. If a mammal gets hot, homeostasis systems cause the animal to sweat or pant, trying to cool it off. They work based on feedback mechanisms, constantly monitoring environments and changing behavior based on this feedback. It’s been observed that an emerging “internet of things” will allow for refined environmental monitoring, both locally and globally. On a personal basis, you could have much better control of your personal energy use if you could get a display of every appliance turned on in your house and its energy usage; similarly, we’d likely have a better understanding of temperature fluctuations if we could embed billions of temperature and atmospheric sensors into infrastructure around the globe.

This idea of using the internet as a backbone for feedback mechanisms may have utility beyond the realm of environmental problems. Image a schoolsystem with pervasive internet connections and a mechanism for collecting and listening to feedback from students, teachers, administrators and parents. An enlightened school system might be able to make better decisions and change decisionmaking mechanisms through incorporating opinions from all levels. As Jeff Jarvis pointed out, it’s as likely that networked publics will build their own feedback mechanisms and find their own ways to institute change, either cooperating with existing powers or challenging thems.

For the internet to act as a medium for homeostasis mechanisms, it needs to be free, open, uncensored, accessible, multilingual and all other sorts of good things. It also might mean that it makes sense to advocate for universal connectivity in the context of advocating for other problems, believing that systems that aggregate information bottom up and communicate it vertically and laterally could lead towards better problem-solving on large societal issues. A few of my colleagues and I are trying to group-write a short essay on this topic, which I hope to share on this blog later this week.

One of the reasons I was excited to come to the Global Agenda Councils meeting was the chance to visit Dubai. I hadn’t visited previously, and I’ve a wide range of opinions about the city. We got a truly unusual picture of the city, one that gave me a bit of cultural whiplash on Sunday.

The geeks and the sheik. Photo by David Sifry.

After the main conference ended, our group stuck around to meet Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai. The sheik had requested our presence for a fifteen-minute audience to brief him on our deliberations. This turned out to be long enough for each member of our party to make a single statement about what we thought might be important about the internet’s future.

I had been thinking about internet censorship that day since encountering a brief story in the Gulf Times about a set of photos of the Obama family watching election results. The story referenced a Flickr URL, and when I tried to load the page, I got the UAE blockpage, alerting me that “the site falls under the Prohibited Content Categories of the UAE’s Internet Access Management Policy.” In UAE’s defense, they’re transparent about filtering the internet and allow people to request sites be reviewed and unblocked. However, my colleagues at the Open Net Initiative have researched UAE’s filtering closely and argue that it’s inconsistent and strays beyond censoring “un-islamic” topics to blocking political speech. I used my 90 seconds to introduce the idea that the internet is a method for social feedback and that it can’t work in this fashion unless the internet is open, pervasive and uncensored. I have no idea whether the sheik and his advisors realized this was a reference to UAE’s filtering policies – my colleagues did, and I felt better than I would have had I let the opportunity pass.

With no international incidents other than David Sifry beginning his remarks, “Your excellency, Hi!” which reduced several of our team members to laughter, much of our merry band headed downtown to explore the older side of Dubai. We’d spent three days in the Jumeirah Beach hotel and associated properties, which are very beautiful, hospitable and comfortable and feel very much like the newer hotels in Las Vegas. They’re an imagined version of Arabia, very comfortable but entirely divorced from history, and it’s very hard to feel like you’re actually visiting a real place. Walking alongside the creek in old Dubai, I felt myself relax a bit.

Walking around the souks, it’s easier to understand how Dubai came to be – a trade city allowing for interaction between Indian, Persian and Arabian culture. It’s amazingly multiethnic and cosmopolitan in the old town – I had fun trying to identify national origin by face and dress. Walking with Bruce Schneier, he observed, “It’s like one country laid on top of another.” Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, maybe? Or Las Vegas redone by Walt Disney overlaid on the universal souk. I managed to talk our group into dining downtown at one of the outlets of the Evergreen Restaurant, a chain of vegetarian Indian restaurants pitched at the folks who work in Dubai, not at wealthy travellers. We ordered an embarrasing amount of food for six people, all of which was richly spiced, vegetarian and filling – dinner for six cost under $25.

And then to experience true cultural whiplash, we took Afghan-driven gypsy cabs back to our luxurious hotel, cleaned ourselves up as best as we could, and talked our way into the Burj al Arab hotel. Advertised as a “seven star” hotel, the Burj isn’t the sort of place you simply visit and stroll around in – fellow travelers told us that we needed to make a reservation and leave a cash deposit just to tour the lobby. We managed to talk our way into the bar that’s cantilevered high above the ocean, one of the more opulent and absurd spaces I’ve ever entered. And yes, the drink I ordered cost more than the dinner we’d purchased for six.

I came out of the evening feeling a little dizzy, and not just from the gin. Many development economists suggest that a society with a high level of economic inequality is inherently unstable, and it’s pretty clear that the difference between the world of the Burj al Arab and the Evergreen is pretty vast. Then again, the folks who do most of the physical and service work in Dubai are guest workers here on work visas, making it highly unlikely that there’s going to be an effective rebellion of the underclass.

I had a moment of reassurance in a very strange way as I drove home today, not about economic inequality in the UAE, but about Schneier’s observation about places laid atop one another. I was hungry as I drove home from Kennedy and knew from experience that there are few places to stop on the Hutchinson Parkway. So I turned off at the exit for City Island and had breakfast in a truly unique corner of New York that looks more like a coastal town in Maine than like any part of the Bronx I’d ever seen. I was baffled by the fact that I’ve driven past the turnoff to this neighborhood dozens of times and never realized that there was a treelined parkway leading two miles to a rustic beach town, which is part of the city of New York. It’s not the difference between the downtown and the beach hotel in Dubai, but it’s a reminder that places are laid atop one another all the time, not just in the strange, beautiful and unsettling country that is the UAE.

6 thoughts on “The weekend in Dubai”

  1. Pingback: BuzzMachine » Blog Archive » Where is Dubai?

  2. Ethan, what a nice write-up. Thinking of the internet as “a tool for social homeostasis” will help your Council link with others: I participated in the council of Challenges of Gerontology (we’re debating whether to rename it the Future of the Aging Society or similar) and obviously a key component of aging is health, and more and more people use the Internet to find the information they need – which may provide very useful aggregated information for healthcare and insurance providers and policy makers.

    Drop me a line, so we are in touch. I will be posting tomorrow my reflections on our council.

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Sniffing out the future in Morogoro, Tanzania

  4. Pingback: Internet censorship in Dubai-Bruce Schneier « FACT - Freedom Against Censorship Thailand

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