Imagined communities

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson, 1991

I wrote this about Benedict Anderson's book a while back and thought it would work well on the blog, too.

Benedict Anderson points out that the ideologies of Marxism and Liberalism failed to unite their followers at critical moments because they failed to address issues of death and immortality. Nations by contrast were able to create imagined communities, which provided a sense of belonging, of connectedness with the past and the future at a time when religious modes of thought and society were faltering. Print media, technology and economy played a vital role in creating these communities.

We are currently witnessing the weakening of the nation state. It is assumed that internet media, technology and economy will shape new communities which will “emerge from the rubble”. Yet no new set of widely accepted beliefs or form of social organization has arisen that addresses issues of death and immortality in a world shaped by an ephemeral, ever-changing medium. Some attempts have been made to refocus on previous models of religious, geographical, ethnic or linguistic communities. But they have not been adopted by a majority of that population which is increasingly immersed in an internet society. Religious models are often accompanied by hierarchical structures that seem incompatible with the world of the web; geographical models appear irrelevant when physical location is not a factor limiting communication; ethnic models also seem to have little relevance as long as anonymity is easy to protect and communication is text or voice based. Linguistic structures seem attractive only as long as automatic translation remains at the level of Babel Fish and foreign characters (e.g. Japanese or Cyrillic) require separate software.

Trust was formerly built through mutual obligations and frequent civic interaction , through a feeling of jointly belonging to a large eternal community. How is trust built in an internet world, where communication is disembodied and anyone can easily pretend to be someone they are not? Understandably, fears run deep as the old imagined communities lose their power to organize and protect, and no new transcendental communities are available to replace them – fears voiced in anti-globalization demonstrations, calls for government regulation or censorship of the internet, attempts to exclude computers from classrooms.

In terms of new communities, the internet has several familiar community institutions. There are shared habits: Reading e-mail first thing in the morning has displaced earlier rituals of watching the morning TV news, reading the newspaper or saying prayers. There are public spaces such as forums and chat rooms – virtual counterparts of public houses, salons, malls or town squares. The internet community has started creating its own language, faintly recalling the power of Latin to unite Christendom and the power of written vernacular to support nation building. Words and even facial expressions are fragmented and reduced to abbreviations and emoticons. “Tech-speak” provides metaphors for modern life: People speak of the human brain in terms of electrical signals, parallel processing, even “wet-drives”. There is a protective border to the community that is crossed by connecting one’s computer to a modem and by typing a username and password. Access is gained by using technology, not by owning a passport or tracing the sign of the cross.

Still, most people don’t feel a sense of belonging when they log onto the internet. How do communities and their institutions in the internet environment differ? And why might these differences be unsettling?

One important distinction of internet communication is that often media technology is shared but content is not. While reading e-mail is a collective, often simultaneous ritual, there is no shared information or common narrative that joins community members as news or prayers could. E-mail as a highly individual medium tends to encourage personalized relationships rather than communal ones. Chat rooms provide virtual public space, yet they also have private rooms. Quite often the objective in joining the public space is to move the resulting conversation to a private room or to e-mail, achieving fragmentation of relationships rather than forging communities. All the while, the furnishers of earlier shared narratives are becoming more disparate: For example, dozens of cable TV channels are replacing the unified voices of broadcast TV.

Chain-mails, hoaxes and viruses are important exceptions to the vehicles of social fragmentation in the internet environment. They provide a sense of connectedness with a wider community, because they reach many different members and affect them in a similar way – and because the members are aware of these effects on people entirely unknown to them. The effect recalls the tall story of early newspapers. Newsletters are another exception, providing common knowledge and narratives for specific groups as the newspaper did for the nation.

Another important distinction between print or broadcast TV communities and internet communities is choice. In the world of internet and interconnection, I can choose which and how many communities I want to be a part of. Conversely, if I don’t choose any, no community will consider me one of its members. The internet environment hasn’t yielded a community that people are born into – a community that includes them from the moment they are born, regardless of ability or achievement, as a religion or nation will. Also, it is relatively easy to leave any internet-based community. No bond is sacred in the Web – a development paralleled in the “real world”, where once sacrosanct communities (from marriages to patron-employer relationships) are breaking up. Thus the current world of internet seems to lead to existential isolation, failing to offer a feeling of belonging, failing to sanction transgressions. The choices are so numerous and the boundaries so flexible as to diminish the value of belonging or not belonging to a certain community. It seems a small reassurance that expulsion from the overall web community is practically impossible, except through lack of hardware or software.

Perhaps it is the attraction of the internet environment that – as old borders are crumbling – few new ones have yet been defined. And as long as not all people have access to the internet, a loose “digital” community has a means of distinguishing itself from others (through access to technology and skill in using it).

In this type of environment a variety of people thrive: the people who created the new medium and know it best, researchers and all curious people who have a new frontier to discover, artists, and people disadvantaged or isolated in the world of nation states. To all of these groups, a new medium in general and the internet in specific can offer a glimpse of eternity.

Creators and inventors of the internet and the World Wide Web can today assume that their new medium will outlive them. They have created a paradoxically ephemeral monument of bits and bytes. Any skilled internet user can contribute a small part to this monument by adding to its growth and to the understanding of its uses and potential, leaving a virtual footprint in the world of bits and bytes. Not surprisingly, programmers, hackers and web-designers are among the most closely-knit communities around the internet.

As experts, researchers have lost some of their power of superior knowledge, in a similar way that medieval scholars lost their monopoly of knowledge to humanists and others. However, they also have an entirely new and expanded knowledge base to work with. If medieval scholars had to move physically to acquire knowledge and 19th century scholars had to physically move books, 21st century researchers can access knowledge independently of its physical location. In addition, this new knowledge base is not organized hierarchically or chronologically (one of the great achievement of print culture) but can be searched by a variety of criteria. The internet creates webs of information as opposed to distinct libraries. In this context interdisciplinary research becomes easier and more natural as does cross-continental research involving teams of otherwise isolated experts from around the world.

In addition, anyone can learn or teach (almost) anything, independently of formal education. The spread of printed books went hand in hand with the bourgeoisie’s entitlement to personal opinion. The internet environment revives this entitlement, extending it beyond any single class and to previously closed domains such as medicine.
Artists have not even begun to explore the limits and potential of hypertext, internet-video, music, collaborative art etc. offered by the internet. As early TV mimicked radio, these forms are still mimicking current “real world” art forms. As new communities emerge in the internet environment, artists will find new audiences – and interactivity will allow them to be close to these audiences, as early authors and journalists had close relations with their readers. In the exploration of the medium and its possibilities both artists and audiences will shape the internet and the communities around it.
New media have typically offered new chances of success for anyone challenging the old social powers (which usually dominated the old medium). Some people isolated in traditional society have been able to meet through the internet and form large cross-national communities of support. Subversive and violent groups also have new channels and venues for communication, chillingly exemplified by Al Qaeda’s mastery of digital encryption techniques. Many people fear that large transnational corporations will be the most successful challengers. It remains to be seen whether they can inspire trust, loyalty and a sense of community.

For each of these groups (from programmers to terrorists), shared technology can be uniting, because they are already creating their own content with the aim of sharing it. They already have a type of common narrative which technology helps to distribute. They are neither isolationist, nor have they created the new community that will give meaning to the internet world. They have simply adapted to and made particularly good use of the new medium. Other communities will also adapt with various degrees of success, dividing power between them in new ways. Perhaps the wider freedom to choose which community or communities one wants to belong to and the freedom to create one’s own world within the Web will remain.

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