The IT factor in Saudi society |
Arab News - 17 August, 2012
It is no surprise that in a survey of cell phone use in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia emerges as the most dedicated user, with the most competitive market. There are 53.7 million mobile users in the Kingdom, which means that many of us have more than one cell phone to our name.
Indeed, it is very likely that in terms of general information technology use, people in Saudi Arabia are the most technologically adept in the Arab world. A few years ago, the story was told of an old Jeddah shopkeeper who despite his advanced years, decided he needed to embrace the new technology to improve his business. His son got a call from the local computer shop, asking if his dad had really meant to order three computers for his little shop. So the son went to his father and asked how, since there was only him and an assistant in the shop, he thought he needed three separate computers.
The father, mystified by the question, replied that one computer would be for writing letters, the second would be for keeping details of the stock and the third would be for the accounts. It is hard to imagine such charming naivety today. Cell phones, the Internet — on mobile devices as well as computers, have transformed the way the Kingdom functions. At one end of the IT spectrum, oil field reservoirs and the equipment that installed on them are managed remotely and often have their own “artificial intelligence. Thus for instance, a pump will monitor its own performance and send a warning, when one of its parts is starting to wear out and needs replacing.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the ubiquitous cell phones, ringing and being answered all the time, or being used to send text messages, even to someone sitting just across the table among a group of young men in a coffee house. Saudis are highly social people and the cell phone has added a remarkable new ingredient to the way they keep in touch with friends and family.
There is however a downside to the dominant role that IT now plays in our lives. For a start, anyone with a cell phone — and that means virtually all of us — is always contactable. Moments of peace and quiet are increasingly hard to find. And turning the cell phone off is not really the answer. Not only will people be either concerned that you are all right but, if they discover you cut yourself off deliberately, they are as like as not to think you rude. And besides, when you turn the cell phone back on again, you will be bleeped to be told you have a pile of voice mails or a load of new text messages will spring up on your screen.
And then there are the desktops and laptops and tablet computers. But virtually all IT requires two essentials; power and an Internet connection. If some awful disaster struck and there were a major power failure, it might also knock out the local cell phone infrastructure and take down servers on which the Internet relies. Where would we be then, without something that has become an integral part of our lives, which we take so much for granted?
This is a question that bothers analysts in many advanced countries, not simply Saudi Arabia. And the vulnerabilities do not end with IT infrastructure. A software trading program error two weeks ago, nearly brought about the bankruptcy of a major Wall Street stock dealer, costing its hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for erroneous trades.
Risk managers around the world are still trying to work out how their businesses can survive and recover from catastrophic IT failures. What most perturbs them is that since data move so fast today, when systems fail, errors will occur just as quickly, with potentially massive costs.
No one would ever want to “un-invent” modern IT, because it has become a fact of life. However it surely pays everyone to think about the commercial and personal impacts of a breakdown in any or indeed, every part of the system. Have businesses with “mission-critical” systems got back-up servers in different locations, which could immediately take over if there is a local failure? And if the Internet is gone, and e-mail and texting with it, how many of us remembers how to write a legible and decent letter?