Technofile: Arabian nets

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The Independent Culture
It was a photograph of a man in traditional desert garb sitting on his camel, a transistor radio pressed to his ear, which first showed the world what electronic communications meant to Arab nationalism. As the wind of decolonisation blew across the Cold War world, President Nasser realised how potent cheap radio could be, and turned western technology against the West. Later, Palestinians pioneered the use of the fax machine as a political tool, bypassing official channels to transmit messages about the Intifada. Now there is Arabia Online, an enterprise dedicated to pursuing common Arab interests on the World Wide Web.

In the old days of militancy, these would have been ideological interests. Today they are corporate. Arabia Online bills itself as a "digital gateway to business, culture and art", in that order. Each of the nations shares the same logo and house style: pan-Arabism has been re-invented as corporate identity. The Arab world has been re-branded as smart, modern and international.

Online so far are Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and Kuwait are billed as forthcoming. Just as well that the design framework is strong: it'll need to be, to hold that coalition together. The requirements of the nations already featured differ enough as it is. Dubai been promoting its Shopping Festival with a graphic of a row of children holding placards that flash the slogan "Do Buy @ Dubai." Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Islam precludes images of people at all. Lebanon's news section reports intrigues and incidents from the tense southern regions, while its arts department attempts to recover a sense of pride in the country's multicultural history.

Like most Web regional guides, Arabia Online puts tourism in the foreground. There is much to lure the traveller in the Arab world, of course, but occasional infelicities are inevitable. A prize is offered for filling in a questionnaire about the service, but non-Arab site visitors may not be tempted by the prospect of a holiday in Egypt. And it's hard to imagine why anybody at all would want to follow the links on the Palestinian tourism page directing them towards the Gaza Strip.

Pluralism of expression is invoked in a blandly uncontentious manner by the advertisement for a discussion area called forum.arabia: "People and opinions come in different colors. What is your color?" Grittier discussion is patchily distributed: the Palestine news section has more dud links than the average three-year-old personal home page, although elsewhere there's a live one to the official Palestinian National Authority site, which is cramped, shabby, and therefore very atmospheric. A flash of high Web comedy comes from a news link which is supposed to lead to a joint Israeli-Palestinian project called the Alternative Information Center, but instead jumps surreally to the Alive In Christ Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri, with a little animated bunny advertising the Community Easter Egg Hunt.


A cruise liner and a helicopter may both be excellent vehicles, but you're making trouble for yourself if you try to use the former to keep up with the latter, rather than the other way round. Books likewise can be useful vehicles for contemplating hypermedia, but whereas the best part of a year may be a normal lead time for book publication, that repre- sents about a quarter of the history of the Web as we know it. Daniel Donnelly's compilation Web Design: The Next Generation (Thames & Hudson, pounds 29.95) is rash to bandy the phrase "cutting edge" around as liberally as it does. The screen shots are a giveaway, with their old-school Netscape windows, and the flavour of the collection will be familiar to any design buffs who already have a Web anthology on their shelves. There's an accompanying CD-ROM, which looks as though it belongs on the cover of a downmarket computer games magazine, and functions about as well.

Web Design is aimed squarely at the design community, drawing much of its material from designers' showcase sites. As far as I was concerned, the one that really stood out was that of Miika Saksi, from Finland. Saksi's designs look fiddly, but are easy to navigate and continually intriguing to explore. The really remarkable thing is his biographical page, with a November 1980 date of birth. He'll still be lucky to get a drink in an American bar when the rest of the world has stopped worrying about the Millennium Bug. Of course, the moody blonde Smash Hits geek might be a front for a pudgy 45-year-old with a ponytail, but assuming he's kosher, we have met the Hanson of Web design. You might be 22, fluent in Java and fresh out of St Martin's, but there's always someone younger and hot- ter than you.


Off the beaten track in the reference regions of the Web, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is available on line. It's the original 1894 edition, admittedly, but then the rest of the Net is saturated with 20th-century fables.


Why go on kidding yourself that you are ever going to watch those tapes of documentaries you thought you ought to record? Save wear and tear on your video cassettes by downloading the transcripts of Horizon programmes from the BBC website. Five minutes' scrolling and you'll have the gist, plus 45 spare minutes to waste watching Friday night ninnies.