When the Virtual Becomes the Real

A Talk with Benedict Anderson

On a recent trip to Tokyo, community visionary and Cornell professor Benedict Anderson, author of the widely acclaimed Imagined Communities, talked with NR editor Eric Gower about communities in cyberspace.

EG: Do you spend a good deal of time on the Net?

BA: I used to spend quite a bit of time on it, but I've pretty much stopped participating. I just found that the vast amount of time it started to take up simply wasn't worth it. I do have people who monitor it for me and who keep me informed on what's going on in the areas I'm interested in. I am a sort of parasite on the system in this sense I suppose.

EG: But the community of scholars and others in one of your fields--Southeast Asian studies--are quite active on the Net. You don't feel like you miss out by not joining the fray?

BA: No, I think it's a question of location or position. Cornell is not what it used to be, but I still think it's fair to say that it remains the top place in the world for Southeast Asian studies. A lot of people come through, a lot of people want to communicate. We still publish the only, well, substantial journal on Indonesia.

EG: What's the name of the journal?

BA: It's called Indonesia. We also have the largest publication program of language materials, monographs, etc. There is an enormous amount of stuff that comes through. I think that if you were sitting in Indianapolis or in Melbourne, I think that you would feel much more a need to hook up. I really think it's a locational thing. I notice that people in London--the other place which is sort of very central--people are going through all the time, specialized papers are available, you can talk to governments very quickly and easily. But as soon as you go to Manchester, then you need the Net, as a way to bring you into that circle.

EG: About four years ago the American writer Howard Rheingold published a very interesting book called The Virtual Community. Rheingold is a cyberguru of sorts who makes his living, among other things, discussing the nature of the virtual communities found in cyberspace. According to him, eventually the idea of a meeting of minds in physical space may become somewhat marginalized; virtual communities that include people whose interests converge either narrowly or broadly may become so dominant that this need to be in, say, Ithaca or London will not exactly disappear but it will just become marginalized. You don't see that happening?

BA: I talk a lot with my students who spend a lot of time on the Net. Like all day long. They just live for it. I don't know whether it's something they will grow out of or whether it is part of the new culture; it's still not clear to me. But when you ask them what they like so much about life on the Net, some very odd things come up. I asked a very sweet, very naive young Chinese kid about his attraction to it. I mean, compared to going to a bar and chatting with a bunch of your friends over some drinks and so forth. He said "First of all I don't drink, but the nice thing about the Internet is that you can't be interrupted. On this you are highly intact. The beauty about the Net is that you don't have to listen to anything you don't want to listen to, you don't have to talk to anybody you don't want to talk to, and in that sense it is the exact opposite of a bar or newspapers." It's not as if you can't argue on the Net but you can screen out what you don't want. It's like niche marketing: you only have to hear the three rock bands you really like. Niche marketing has honed it down so finely. I can't escape the feeling that some kind of loss comes from this.

I was talking to an Armenian guy who has been very active on the Net, and the Azerbaijans got hold of some very heavy-duty, Net-saavy computer people who actually bombed the Armenian Net; they found a way in and just crashed it. I don't know exactly how they did it but I believe it was by overloading it with every conceivable kind of junk they could find and just brought it to its knees. Of course, then the Armenians had to figure out how to do the same thing back to the Azerbaijans. Comic, modern warfare. And he was describing the absolute rage when you open your Net and all this garbage is there which you know is sort of enemy garbage.

EG: Can the Net give rise to a true global community that in a physical sense you could never have? Can individuals, when they become increasingly part of a larger, overarching culture, plug into that and feel charged by it in the same way traditional communities charge us? How is it different? Do you see this trajectory as an inevitability? Is it threatening in any way?

BA: I don't see it as inevitable. What strikes me about the habits of the people who spend so much time on the Net--well, it's so new that we don't know what will come next--is in fact precisely how niche in character it is. You ask people what nets they are on, and they're all so specialized! The Argentines on the Argentine Net and so forth. And it's particularly the Argentines who are not in Argentina. Or you have the gay/lesbian networks or the aeronautic fan club net or any one of a zillion specialized places. What is so extraordinary about this thing is that it is not a superhighway at all in that sense. It's much more like a new kind of broadcasting. Even now in the States, if you have the right gizmos you can track into three hundred channels and surf your brains out. But if you ask these kids what they actually watch . . . they like the idea that there are three hundred channels but they don't really use them. They want them there but they actually follow only two or three. So I think that there is a sort of fetishization of the concept of choice.

I recently gave a talk to about three hundred kids in Indianapolis. We were talking about exactly these sorts of issues. A lot of the kids felt somewhat awkward or nervous because they feel that the kind of argument I am making is sort of . . . .

EG: Luddite?

BA: No, it's not Luddite exactly. They don't think of it that way. For this generation, it seems that individual identity is very important. They think therefore that I am sort of half making fun of identity politics, and they don't really like it. One woman got up and said to my absolute amazement that "you shouldn't make fun of this because I have to tell you honestly that the best sex I've ever had has been on the Net. And I have this boyfriend in South Africa; we have this fantastic sex on the network." And what really knocked me over was that I looked around at the three hundred people in the room, and nobody laughed! There wasn't any embarrassed silence either. It was just as if she said wait a minute, I need to touch reality. Does that amaze you or not?

EG: It is pretty incredible.

BA: I felt as though I must interview her because I was obviously missing something.

EG: Tell me about that Sikh in Canada about whom you recently wrote. Wasn't he directing some kind of revolutionary movement in Khalistan through the Net?

BA: It was an accident that got me started thinking about all this. I was giving a talk in Missouri and this nice old Sikh who had been in America for many years came up to me afterwards and began telling me about his visit to a younger relative in Toronto. The man came back absolutely appalled because this relative, who is a very successful real estate operator was spending every night on the Net . . . .

EG: Was he Indian?

BA: Well, that's the interesting thing. He is an American citizen, and I think he is profoundly attached to America. He really feels American and has relatives there. The younger relative is a Canadian citizen but it's quite clear that his Canadian citizenship meant virtually nothing to him. What he is obsessed with is Khalistan. It was at a time when assassinations and murders of all kinds were going on in the Punjab, and this guy was in contact with everybody around the world, doing all kinds of propaganda activities: sending money electronically, arranging guns, many other things. The Sikh asked this younger relative, then about 45, why he was doing this. He said, "Well actually I have such admiration for these brave young men struggling for Sikh identity and Sikh status. Their courage is amazing. We have to do what we can to help them." And so forth. The other man replied, "Well, you've got two sons, 19 and 21. When are they going back to join the struggle?" The man looked at him as though he was crazy and said "No, no, the reason we're here is that I want my sons to be safe. I want my sons to carry on the business." He saw nothing odd about this at all. The kids are also into this, maybe because they feel sort of marginal in Canada. This family is much more shall we say enthusiastic than the people who actually have to live there, for obvious reasons.

I also have a cab-driver friend in Melbourne. I was talking to him about these people in Canada, and he said, "You know it's very odd in Melbourne. I'm an absolute outcast in the Sikh community because I don't wear a turban, I'm fully shaved and I live an ordinary life. They do everything to make my life miserable." He also said that, when he returns to his home country, "It's like a normal life. There are many people who are orthodox and many who aren't. And that's that. But in this special situation in Melbourne, pressures to be ultra-ethnic are quite real, and they feel as if they are internally generated."

What the Net does in a certain way is break them out of their isolation. Sitting in downtown Melbourne nobody gives a whit about them. But on the Net, they are somebody. It's the same for people in Argentina, people in Germany, America, Japan, wherever. And it isn't just a hobby. You may think what you would like them to do is to pool their resources and coordinate.

EG: As an organizational tool--pooling resources, coordination--it's extraordinary.

BA: Unparalleled. And the speed at which the amount of information flows . . . ten years ago, these were very isolated people.

EG: Computers have also gotten so much cheaper and more powerful. You can pick up a used computer and used modem for almost nothing now.

BA: And the schools are starting to train these kids very early on, so it is not an esoteric thing anymore. But is it making people more cosmopolitan? Is it making people more open minded? I don't think so.

EG: Do you think it's making people more isolated even though they have much more contact with the world?

BA: I think it isolates them, but it does both. It puts them in touch with communities, real communities in the sense that they are talking to each other all the time. On the other hand, they are even less likely to have any real contact with their neighbors down the street because of these other worlds that they are hooked into.

EG: In one sense, that's very true, but in another sense it's not. There is a rather famous virtual community, originally started in the San Francisco Bay Area called the WELL. A big part of being on the WELL is that everybody gets together, usually monthly, sometimes more often, face to face to connect the faces with the ASCII.

BA: Why is it necessary?

EG: For me personally, it makes the whole thing worthwhile. If it's just me sitting in my room doing this, it's interesting on a purely intellectual kind of realm, but it's still just me sitting there working on my carpal tunnel syndrome! A particularly heated debate can often be emotional, but in general life in cyberspace isn't. It's one big sort of mind experiment. But when you actually see these people who are writing these words--and as many as fifty people will show up--you put the views together with the face and realize that there is actually a person behind those words, something you tend to lose sight of during the heat of the debate. For me, that's what it's all about.

BA: That seems to me absolutely right. My students constantly tell me that one of the great things about being on the Net is that you can conceal who you are. You can pretend to be a woman, a man, whatever. There is no way to know; you can fantasize.

EG: The argument about race usually comes up too. There is no discrimination based on what you look like over the Net. It's only your ideas that count. A lot of people who write on these issues are optimistic, almost utopian about the kind of technologically driven future we face. Bill Gates's latest book--about his smart house and how everybody who enters it is going to have a personal illumination that follows you wherever you go inside the house; personalized music (the house "learns" your likes and dislikes) that follows you wherever you go. This image of how we ought to live seems to me pretty loony. Does this seem nightmarish to you? How do you react to the people who would say, "No, technology is going to save us, it is quite a utopian vision of the future."

BA: The important thing is how this all gets turned into power. This seems to be the obvious answer to this question. People can communicate like crazy, but when and how does that have an effect on institutions of power? What are the exchange rates, points of intersection? Can Bill Gates get himself elected president? I don't think so. Even Ross Perot couldn't do it. What I'd like to know more about is, how does it add people together in real ways? I mean, you can see it along the ethnic mesh that I am thinking about, but in a way, for that to operate, you've got to have a real--not a virtual--arms market. There have got to be real guns somewhere, there have got to be guys who handle this who can communicate. Sure, there is going to be a lot of monitoring and surveillance people checking on each other and so forth. There is interesting stuff going on with this sort of war between the skinhead types in Europe and attempts by the police to keep an eye on them, but I wonder if they can keep up. Will they get there in time to stop the real fire bombing?

EG: It's actually a hot field in law enforcement . . . .

BA: Right. It looked for a while there that the skinheads were way ahead, but I think they've caught some people now with all these sort of encapsulations and decoding, but in the end, none of this is going to stop the fire bombing from actually happening.

* * *

BA: The gender issue can't be ignored either. It is a very male world in cyberspace. There are increasing numbers of women involved, but the people who get into it in a big way are male. There is something odd about that I can't figure out. Of your fifty people that show up for meetings, how many are male?

EG: Well, they make a special effort to include women, but at least thirty. So more than two-thirds. Stuart Brand, a founding member of the WELL, once said that once the women are gone, it's the end.

BA: What's the logic behind his statement?

EG: Well, any vibrant community needs female input. Once it becomes just a boys' club it has lost its vitality and edge. At that point, it just becomes a hub of activity for these little boys with their machines. The WELL tries for something more than that; it tries for, and achieves, a real community. And without women as part of that, it can't happen. I don't know if it's any deeper than that. The people who do post in the interesting conferences like Media seem to be about half female and half male. But I think it's the only place, at least that I know of, where that is the case. But the huge proprietary online services like Compuserve and America Online are clearly, as you said, male-dominated squared. It's extremely unbalanced.

BA: I didn't really realize until recently that 'nerd' is a male word; the idea of a female nerd is almost oxymoronic. Statistically, the kids on campus with the highest suicide rate are Asian boys. I've wondered if that at least partly has to do with the way in which they are sort of perceived as nerds. The Asian girls have a wonderful time, but the Asian boys have a terrible time.

EG: The word 'nerd' itself has undergone a change of some sort. It's gained a degree of cachet now; it has lost a lot of its derogatory baggage.

BA: Exactly, but I think that's come about from kids talking to themselves. A negative substitute has therefore had to be created: "geek" seems to have eclipsed "nerd" in precisely that negative baggage.

EG: Yes, "geekspeak" is the language of the Net!

BA: And speaking of language, the kids that I know who use the Net a lot are all inside their own languages. The Indonesian students on the Net are all in Indonesian, the Thais are all in Thai. They don't seem to want to communicate with anybody else.

EG: Really? That's surprising . . . .

BA: I mean there are a few who are into ecology or the sciences or feminism, but I would say that the vast majority are quite sophisticated kids who have no interest in communicating with anyone outside their world.

I have a very interesting Argentine friend who is doing an experiment that I suggested to him. Spanish is, of course, the language throughout Latin America. So the question is, how do you create an Argentine network? And he said that the network is basically moronic: exchanging Argentine recipes, gossip about what is going on in Argentina. But what makes it Argentine? Does the language give it away somehow? In his experiment, he's trying to very gradually ratchet up the percentage of words that are Uruguayan slang, or Chilean slang, or Ecuadorian slang and drop them in see what happens. At what point do people begin to freak out, when they finally discover a non-Argentine infiltrator in their midst?

EG: My experience has been completely different. I keep coming back to the WELL, but there are people there from every European country, as well as a lot of South Americans and Asians. You really don't get that sense of separateness at all. And in fact, one of the appealing points about the WELL--one of the principal reasons why many join--is precisely because they can drop in and they can enter this realm of globalism that may be inaccessible in their "real" life. But I think my ideas on it might be skewed because this is a special place.

BA: To me it's heartening that a lot of people go there for that. It would be interesting to know if people on the WELL are also on these other segregated nets. I have a feeling that for a lot of people it may not be a contradiction to simultaneously participate in both.