Concluding Thoughts

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This chapter has not sought to argue that the Internet or cyber-interaction is

profoundly transforming Moroccan society. The cost of Internet access in

Morocco is still too high for most phone subscribers to afford home Internet

service. For that matter, since the introduction of an independent mobile phone

provider, the tendency has been to end home phone line subscription with the

state-owned telecommunications agency Ittissalt al-Maghrib and use a mobile

instead. In addition to its practical advantages, most users would also confirm

that a mobile phone is way cheaper than a home line subscription. Informants

have admitted that, given the current rates of local calls and the high taxes

charged by Ittissalat al-Maghrib, home Internet connection is financially

unaffordable for most households. Also, though Internet cafés are becoming an

integrated part of urban landscape, they too remain inaccessible to a wide

public because of cost, know-how or other limitations such as proximity, café

reputation or location. Additionally, most users complain about the slow

Internet lines in cybercafés and the frequent disconnections of the service.18

Conversely, what I have sought to demonstrate are ways in which Internet and

computer-mediated interaction permeate people’s everyday practices and

help in the invention of new identities, performances, and experiences. I have

sought to pin down the ongoing changes by documenting samples of incrustations

and subtexts computer-mediated interaction is writing on Moroccan

culture. The contributions of Internet to the expansion of the public sphere in

Morocco are multi-fold. The public has access to previously undreamed-for

information sources and forums for debate. As an ISP manager explains, “there

is no ‘usage contract’ which needs to be signed or agreed to by the Internet

subscriber whether purchasing an hour in the cybercafé, a dial-up account, or

a leased line” and that, on the contrary, “all Internet subscribers in Morocco can

be completely anonymous if they wish” (as cited in Human Rights Watch,

1999).

In a closely regulated news media environment, unfettered access to news and

online speech maintains public opinion enlightened and channels into public

debate marginalized and subversive voices. Different publics use the Internet to

come to terms with their social, economic or cultural exclusion. For students,

the Internet is a universal library; for free-lance entrepreneurs, it is a global

market; for human rights activists, it is a window onto the world to project

Moroccan reality while the unemployed, the poor, and the dispossessed pin

their hopes on the Internet to generate alternative identities and possibilities to

an oppressive everyday environment. Also, the Internet, in its spatial dimension

of cybercafés, is allowing women access to public spaces traditionally appropriated

by men. Online forums and public chatrooms provide subjects with

space and opportunities to rehearse new positions and identities and, thus,

contribute in ways which may still be undetected, to the reconstruction of

gender and social relations.

This chapter has also argued that conservative powers are putting up a stiff

resistance to the freedoms generated by new media technologies. From

proposals which seek to ban underage users access to cybercafés to resolutions

which propose to extend the enforcement of “red lines” policy which

regulate commentary in traditional media to Internet usage, proponents of the

status quo are trying very hard to contain the space of freedoms the new media

technologies have generated. Besides attempts to legislate forms of legal

liability concerning Internet usage or materials Internet Service Providers carry,

the forces of reaction have filtered popular culture with stories that represent

the Internet as an alienating technology which carries a potential danger for

social order. Dalil al-Internet, a newspaper that specializes in Internet news

in Arabic, recently ran a story about the risks of Internet usage that epitomizes

the negative representations in which reactionary forces try to couch the new

technology. The story, entitled “The Wolves of Chat,” tells of the seduction and

tragic fall of a homemaker. Written in first-person narration, the story tells of

how an upper middle class virtuous wife and mother becomes an addict to

Internet chat and develops an online romantic relationship.19 The narrative

provides “realistic” details that trace the steps and processes through which this

virtuous homemaker becomes enticed into “the web of sin,” how she forsakes

her marital and parental duties, and is eventually caught into a trap set by a “chat

wolf” who, taking advantage of her naiveté, abuses of her emotionally and

physically. The story ends by depicting how the once joyful and generous wife

and mother has become a manic-depressive and unpleasant being who undergoes

therapy to cope with her tragic experience.20 The ideological implication

behind this story is that the freedoms provided by the new technology must not

be extended to bear on the norms of the real world. Female Net users must be

reminded, the message in such stories seems to be, that preying wolves hunt the

virtual world as well and that they had better fill their time with “more useful”

activities than roam chatrooms “unchaperoned.” Obviously, traditional intimidation

tactics are being adapted to the environment created by the new

technology to curb a woman’s freedom and keep under check her virtual

rehearsals for self-recognition and self-assertion.

This is not to say that virtual interaction warrants a safe environment for its

users. A female Net user is still prone to substantial dangers, which could have

serious consequences on her life. In the course of this research, I was quite

frequently compelled to forego the position of a researcher to draw an

informant’s attention to certain realities. As a general observation, I realized

that most young Internet users were impressed by the idea of receiving

invitations from foreign correspondents met in chatrooms. Even if I knew that

most would turn down such offers, I felt I had to be quite emphatic with a few

young informants who hinted that they seriously considered responding to

certain invitations. The case of Iman, 21, required that I spent time trying to talk

her out of what seemed to be an imminent misadventure. Iman had a Dutch

correspondent who offered to send her a return ticket and provide her with an

apartment in Amsterdam for her visit. Iman was a nice attractive young woman

who worked as a shop assistant. In the course of the interview, she confided

that she used the Internet to search for migration opportunities because her

family was poor and she had low prospects about her future in her country. For

her, virtual hrig was only a prelude to a promising real life experience in exile.

I realized she was so desperate to go that she seemed ready to take

unnecessary risks. I also concluded that her Dutch correspondent must have

reached the same conclusion since he made his offer quite irresistible. I was

astounded to find out that she did not even consider the possibility that she was

being lured into a dangerous network. I had to try hard to make her realize the

risks she was facing. In short, the environment may be virtual, but the risks for

a female Net communicant are real.

In the final course, it should be remembered that the importance of the Internet

does not only lie in the unfathomable pool of information it now makes

accessible to its users. For that matter, as Philip Bereano has put it, “[only] the

naïve or the scurrilous believe the Third Wave claim that ‘information is power.’

Power is power, and information is particularly useful to those who are already

powerful” (as cited in Stoecker, 2002, p. 148). Moreover, following Mowlana

(1994), one can make the point that Moroccan society has long been an

information society. While Moroccans have traditionally appropriated folk

culture (Haddad, 2001), folk media and public spaces for information transmission

(Graiouid, 1998, 2003) and grassroots organizational channels in the

case of social movements (Belghazi & Madani, 2001), traditional communications

tend to reproduce existing power relations and spatial division.

The Internet, by contrast, provides a space where individuals can implode

borders and rehearse multiple identities. It is too early to have a clear view of

how Internet use is affecting users and society at large. Cummings, Butler, &

Kraut (2002) are right to insist that “[only] by examining people’s full set of

social behavior and examining their full inventory of social ties can we assess

the net social impact of online social relationships” (p. 108). Yet, it is already

evident that one important contribution of new media and communication

technologies lies in their appropriation by different groups and communities as

forum for interaction and the rehearsal of invented identities and relations.

Given the strict spatial divide which regulates gender and social relations in

Morocco, the Internet acts as a palliative channel to the separation between

men and women and as a sphere of interaction where participants exchange

opinions about issues of general concern. At times, relations built in this virtual

space migrate to other settings and may even develop into global partnerships.

However, we need to remember that emancipation or empowerment is not

mapped onto online interaction. Rather, the World Wide Web is better viewed

as a nexus in which relations are negotiated, contested, but also reproduced.

Eventually, virtual hrig comes out not as an escapist exercise practiced by

dysfunctional individuals but as an engaging rehearsal for more tolerant and

accessible worlds, both virtual and real.

Acknowledgment

The author would like to thank Professor Douglas A. Davis for his continuous

support and genuine interest in this research and for his insightful feedback on

an early draft of this chapter.