New Technologies Are Crucial to Cross-Cultural Dialog

Rym Tina Ghazal

AFP photo: Issac Lawrence

An algorithm could carefully choose the best job for you after a careful analysis of your abilities and aspirations. Another program might even match you with a life partner based on your personality, appearance or even your genetics. Sounds far-fetched? Hardly. Online companies are already offering both services – or claiming to, at least – in an interconnected world that would have been unrecognizable just a couple of decades ago.

Our new digital lives have tremendous consequences for the future, with broad horizons of possibilities but also dangerous pitfalls that are only just beginning to come into view. As different peoples are brought closer together and cross-cultural dialog spans geographical divides as never before, how we use – or fail to use – new technologies will shape these new communities, either promoting understanding or sowing the seeds of instability.

Digital issues were front and center at a recent forum I attended in Montpellier, France, where young people, entrepreneurs, academics, artists and intellectuals discussed the variety of challenges and opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration. A prelude to “The Summit of the Two Shores, Mediterranean Forum,” an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron, which will take place in Marseille on June 23 and 24, the series of closed meetings focused on culture, tourism and media. But what was striking was how many of the themes veered, of necessity, on to the cyber-sphere.

Some of the new choices we face will be about lifestyle and convenience. Closer to home, the Saudi Food and Drug Authority recently released “Sara,” an AI “helper” that can assist consumers with information regarding food and medicine, from calorie counts and how to make healthy choices to prices and availability. It’s still at the trial stage, but people are already sharing about it on WhatsApp and curious about what else a hijab-wearing avatar can do.

Artificial intelligence and robots are no longer imaginary possibilities in some faraway future but part of the consumer and service culture that is all around us. This will inevitably lead to further questions on how best to utilize new technologies in today’s very connected world.

Part of that crucial balance will be about personal data. Most search engines have already deployed algorithms that monitor online search habits, including clicks and bounce rate, and compile data profiles that in turn filter content displayed as ads or search results. It’s no coincidence that ads displayed on my computer and social media feeds are swarming with cute animals, after all. But the less cute side is that data is power, which is increasingly concentrated in the hands of just a few.

We are in an era when the touch of a button can give access to information from almost anywhere else in the world but at the same time, you are also under scrutiny as soon as you log in. What does “private” really mean anymore?

The irony is that with the digitization of personal information, it has become even more difficult for actual people to be as mobile as their data. Tens of thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa are seeking to migrate to Europe and North America not only for their personal safety, but for the chance of acquiring the passports that would allow them to travel more freely.

In the context of new physical barriers, one of the crucial topics raised at the Montpellier forum was cross-cultural dialog, initiatives and reporting, which increasingly depends on digital tools. The exchange of experiences and ideas – for example between a journalist from Malta and another from Tunisia – is integral to the new skill sets needed today.

There was a palpable hunger for learning from other participants, but at the same time it was a challenge to get everyone on the same page, a real-life experiment in cross-cultural dialogue. In just my group, there were people from Algeria, Canada, Egypt, France, Italy, Malta, Tunisia, the UK and many other nationalities – and we all had to agree on the final project.

Another group suggested a physical “cross-cultural and media ship,” which would stop at ports of call for exchanges of culture, expertise and ideas. The plan might seem grandiose, but this form of contact and communication fostering understanding, defusing intolerance and finding joint solutions to the shared problems of the day, such as climate change, is clearly needed. Of course, one of the biggest challenges would be mobility. Visa restrictions, security checks, travel bans, not to mention funding, would all need to be resolved before such a ship sets sail.

An alternative – to build a community in cyber-space – is one obvious solution to those logistical barriers. As we grow that community, however, there are other issues to consider – the digital divide being prominent among them. How do we make sure we reach those who have little or no access to information, including refugees, poor people in remote villages, the disabled and other marginalized groups? In many cases, these are the people with whom we expressly want to communicate.

Data accessibility and limits on human mobility for many are changing what it means to be truly global citizens. There are challenges, certainly, but they are not insurmountable in a world where we are already increasingly part of a worldwide community: the internet.

Rym Tina Ghazal is an award-winning journalist. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.