Opinion | Columnists

Cultural uniformity isn't a good thing

The effect of increased access to media is that there is little to distinguish Middle Eastern youngsters from their western counterparts

  • By Muna Al Gurg, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 00:00 January 15, 2010
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News

As I sipped my cappuccino at Jumeirah Beach Residence on a pleasant summer morning, I couldn't help but notice the young Emiratis in front of me. Long-haired boys in kanduras listened to their iPods, others sported baggy jeans and Ed Hardy caps. A group of girls at the adjacent table took one another's photos on their digital cameras and I could tell they were uploading them into their Facebook accounts every five minutes.

The scene was familiar, I thought to myself, so familiar in fact that it took me back to one summer morning in Barcelona as I watched a group of Spanish teenagers. The recent uniformity of global youth is a fascinating equivalent to a Rubik's Cube — a juxtaposition of different colours that come together as one strong identity.

Western and Middle Eastern youngsters seem to have very similar consumer and lifestyle habits; they indulge in similar activities and use similar technologies. I see this uniformity in our youth as a global phenomenon driven by globalisation.

Yes, the world is small, and our youth's attitude and behaviour are the result of this smallness. The overwhelming influence of media such as MTV, Time Warner and Showtime are some of the most powerful drivers in shaping our youth. At a time when Hollywood and its affiliates generate $10.6 billion (Dh38.9 billion) annually, one cannot deny the significance of this influence.

This development has a huge impact on the metamorphosis of a generation that is perhaps inclined to view the West as an inspirational utopia. Even in developed markets such as Japan, the highly popular Anime cartoons with large eyes and light-coloured hair have a huge impact on the appearance of their youth, although these cartoon characters have more western features. It is hard to differentiate your average teenager walking the streets of Tokyo from his or her counterpart strolling down Fifth Avenue — is this a bane or boon?

Changing times

In the 18th century, when novels were first published, many were concerned that readers, especially the young, would be corrupted by the licentious and immoral behaviour described within. By the 20th century, the potential causes for concern had proliferated dramatically. Today, media experiences seem to multiply month on month, and while much concern about their influence on young people may represent older worries in new forms, the media ecology of today's youth presents a new frontier that offers unique challenges.

A child born in the 1930s might have spent as much as several hours a week listening to the radio, reading comic books, newspapers or magazines. Since television was first introduced in the 1950s the number of hours young people spend interacting in some way with the media have increased to an extent far beyond the youthful imagination of today's grandparents. According to Nielsen's Media Research, today young people spend up to five hours a day interacting with electronic media.

The effects of the growth in power wielded by the media are colossal. In conservative countries behaviour such as cultural abandonment, identity crises and generally negative attitudes are causes for concern.

In the Middle East, parents may not necessarily want their children to adopt the social behavioural patterns of their western counterparts. Regardless of its positive or negative connotations, this phenomenon might prove to be difficult to change.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have enabled the youth to all be part of that big Rubik's Cube.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Absolute uniformity of any society is rarely a positive outcome and although we may deem it necessary to go out of our way to teach new generations about our culture and history and guide them in terms of their identity, in doing so the media can be a powerful ally.

At a recent TED talk (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, a US private non-profit foundation), British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, "We are at a unique moment in history, we can use today's interconnectedness to develop our shared global ethic — and work together to confront the challenges of poverty, security, climate change and the economy."

I find today's Arab youth (which make up 60 per cent of the population) to be both creative and technologically proficient. Take Firas Shamsan: he started a ‘Life is beautiful without smoking' blog in Qat-stricken Yemen and helped many people in the Arab world overcome their smoking addiction.

Further, the creation of new organisations such as Young Arab Leaders means the youth are given an identifiable, positive standard to aspire towards. These social initiatives all address important issues and are equally facilitated by technology.

A well-designed and executed media strategy not only draws on a population's creativity but, with proper oversight, can also encourage our youths pro-active approach in positively shaping their future.

 

Muna Al Gurg is a director at the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group and vice chairperson of the Young Arab Leaders.

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