As we’ve grown into an atomised world, something has changed within us. In creating a system for individuals and not for the community, we have fundamentally changed people’s capacity to live a non-atomised life, form healthy bonds, and maintain them. This personal psychosocial conflict entails confusion about one's social role and a sense of isolation, writes Valdai Club expert Nourhan ElSheikh.
Arab society has changed significantly over the last several years. People are deeply grappling with their day-to-day life. They do not know their neighbours or colleagues. People feel simultaneously unfulfilled by their jobs and their families. Many of the ties that once held people together seem insufficient nowadays. Of course, compared to Japan, South Korea, and the nations of the West, Arab countries still fare relatively better. However, they are witnessing a dramatic change and can no longer take pride in their societal cohesion and in their children’s adherence to societal values.
In recent years the segment of the “invisible”, who feel ignored by their society, has expanded significantly in Arab societies. Those are a group not defined by age, ethnicity or religion. The most important characteristic of them is their withdrawal from society and their loss of interest in public affairs. This phenomenon has been called “Atomisation”.
Scientifically, Atomization is a process in which molten metals are broken into small drops of liquid by high-speed fluids or fluids via centrifugal force.
Societal “atomisation” did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic; it began more than a decade ago. Social atomisation is the process by which extended families, thought of as molecules, give way to “nuclear” families, and then disintegrate further into sub-particles, their individuality gaining clarity as relationships disintegrate.
The middle classes that have been the basis of political and social stability in Arab societies have found themselves squeezed. They are trapped between the masses, who tend to find comfort in conservative religious values, and the elite, who derive society’s biggest benefits. They are seeing their own social identity destabilised as well as their economic and living conditions. Under pressure, they may join the masses and bring religious or ideological values into politics, or turn to radical forces.
Politically, the effect of the organisations that would normally work as intermediaries between politicians and ordinary citizens – political parties, labour unions, and associations of enterprises – has been weakening. This has led to a kind of atomisation of the population into disparate groups. Increasingly, citizens are relating to political issues on an individual level.
Such atomisation has been a result of many factors. Among the most important are social media and the internet. Social media is intended to enhance human interaction, which partly happened. However, it has reduced direct, face-to-face contact within society, institutions, and even within the family. Families today are atomised as well. This coincided with the expansion of “automation” technologies, which had serious and escalating repercussions on community cohesion. The machine, whether a computer or an iPhone, has become closer to the human being than the surrounding individuals at work and in the family.
Digital technology captures much of our attention. While its usefulness is undeniable, we are ill-equipped psychologically to manage it, and it has crept increasingly into our shared time and common space. Cafes and clubs were originally a place of community, where people came together to share ideas and create things. Now they offer convenience and comfort to people who are affixed to their laptops and smartphones. Throughout all this, people have lost their common values, and suffer from the absence of community.
Economic deterioration, particularly after the Arab revolutions of 2011, has increased economic and social disparities and weakens or destroys the groups that used to mediate between governments and their people; this process has worsened due to COVID-19. Moreover, economic woes have increased the cost of direct social networking. Hosting dinner parties regularly and taking on projects with friends and family has become costly. Many cannot afford that nowadays.
Anarchism is another effect, as people surge into the streets and form huge seething crowds. Because people have become atomised, citizens are easily enraged by small matters. At the same time, fragmented populations can be brought together by the Internet into large, temporary groups without any clear definition. There is always a risk that these drifting groups will break apart again, or become hijacked by other, differently constituted groups.
One of the most remarkable things about these recent uprisings is the way in which they begin apparently spontaneously and spread like wildfire to engulf a whole society. Many of the fiercest demonstrations in the Arab world have been sparked by events that seem particularly unexpected. The masses go to the street spontaneously, without organisation. At first glance, in fact, many of them seem to be triggered by events which governments would not normally expect to provoke such an explosion of mass emotion. What started as protests against relatively minor decisions develop into a nationwide movement. Atomisation is a main factor for prompting so many people to join violent demonstrations rather than engage in political argument and debate.
Overcoming the challenges posed by the “atomisation crisis” necessitates comprehensive efforts from the family, school, and the whole society. Education and upbringing have a pivotal role in controlling the relationship between the individuals and machines, promoting social integration, and enhancing dialogue from childhood onward. The family also has a crucial role. The parents are the model that children emulate. They are the source of healthy social relationships and the boat between family members, neighbours and relatives. It is everyone’s responsibility to help themselves and others, so that all may recover from atomisation.