Cybernauts of the Arab Diaspora:
Electronic Mediation in Transnational Cultural Identities

Jon W. Anderson


Anthropology Department
Catholic University of America
Washington, DC 20064

prepared for
Couch-Stone Symposium
POSTMODERN CULTURE, GLOBAL CAPITALISM AND DEMOCRATIC ACTION, University of Maryland
10-12 April 1997

THE INTERNET is fast becoming a new site for transnational diaspora communities; but these topics have been discussed in isolation from each other. Bringing them together might be beneficial for freeing "theory" from limited bases of data and from merely solemnizing those limited bases of data as newly privileged sites. Internationally dispersed individuals of the Middle East's "overseas" are finding each other through the Internet and forming communities of discourse that bypass traditional gatekeepers of political and religious interpretation. Moving to this new technology, and to new fora, involves a migration also of "intellectual technologies" that challenge not just religious and social orthodoxies but also conventional boundaries of thought and the social bases of their authority. The result is creolized discourse, society and ultimately culture among overseas Arab emigres, exiles, labor migrants, students and new professionals.

Much as Benedict Anderson's (1983) creoles of early modernity were crucial to the imagined communities of ethnolinguistic nations that are modernity's signature, so, too, may be the "virtual" communities for the emerging Information Age. These on-line Information Age communities have excited much speculation (Rheingold 1993, Negroponte 1995, Esobar 1994) that, like speculation about transnational cultures, strains to connect individual (often personal) experience with macrosociological features, often by translating one directly into the other. Each neglects middle range phenomena that might bridge those extremes and bring them back into balance.

Transnational theories, fixated on media and forms of alienated consciousness distinctive of late modernity, tend to overlook the social organization into which new media are brought in a rush to the new in expression. Impressed with what Simmel much earlier called "cosmopolitanism," we overlook measures of social organization in pursuit of media effects.

So also the Internet. The technology of nearly instantaneous, nearly world-wide communication and the speed with which it seems to have spread in the past few years is even more dazzling than motion pictures or television earlier. The speed and reach of Internet communication provides resources to make contact with others through which marginal measures of community may be enhanced, magnified and thus have an organizational impact. But those measures of organization are a missing middle that needs to be restored for accurately assessing the impact of the medium.

Measures of Organization.

Developed by industrial-academic consortia, the Internet enshrines values of engineering and applied sciences in its open, self-regulating, decentralized and nearly instantaneous communication that can accomodate a variety of tasks and talk. The multiplication of these interests to the avocational beyond the vocational continue a migration of tasks to the Internet that are rooted and enabled in the world and through the values of engineering and applied science.

The Internet of inspiration is less a world of work than of talk that expanded first to include other, avocational, interests and then into communication with other sorts of communities. Talk about the Internet has tended to focus on those denizens of cyberspace whom Evelyn Early called cybarites because they so obviously enjoy it and virtually (at least) embody its liberating experiences of new connectedness. But these are for the most part individual and not social, collective phenomena. More distinctive to the medium are what I would call cybernauts, or that class or group of cyberspace travelers, who, like the Greek originals and Malinowski's subsequently, as much explore what to be in cyberspace as they move through it. By cybernaut, I mean explorers in, not just of, cyberspace, whose phenomenological attitude toward cyberspace is practical. The Internet is not their passion so much as it is, to return to the Greek original, their vehicle (as the Argos was Jason's).

The cybernauts I have been watching are Middle Easterners, mostly Arabs, scattered throughout the high-tech reaches of late industrial capitalism -- university, polytechnic, government and corporate research labs and technology companies. Working and studying in those precincts which spawned the Internet, they use it as a tool both in their work and also to reach out to each other and to others like themselves in the contemporary Arab and Middle East diasporas of students, labor migrants, members of immigrant communities and political exiles in North America, Europe and Australia and New Zealand. Theirs is a Middle Eastern world, but not in the Middle East; instead, it is a diaspora world of the Middle East's own "overseas."

This is a world of the best-and-brightest, in which computer scientists are the latest in a series extending back through engineers and physicians before them, and military officers even earlier, who went or were sent from their countries to acquire the latest learning of the West. A trail, so to speak, blazed before, now extended to a new precinct.

As the Internet has first outgrown the laboratory to become university-wide and more recently graduated to the wider world through commercial access providers, so to have the cybernauts of this Arab diaspora expanded to include, first, other professionals and, more recently, a sample of others beyond the university worlds. Amid the thousands of virtual "sites" of Internet mailing lists, newsgroups and file archives are a few dozen devoted to Arab countries, issues, topics. Until recently none was actually "in" the Middle East. Instead, they were "in" and "of" the Middle East's overseas.

What emerges in all of these venues is what I have called a creolized discourse (Anderson 1995) that mixes bits of wireservice news, transcriptions of sermons, intense debate about home-country issues, stories of expatriate life and notices of cultural events, sources for food and of cheap flights home, and even matrimonials. This discourse is conducted almost entirely in English (sometimes, for North Africans, in French), the lingua franca of the Internet. Whatever the frame, the discourse is also mixed in a third way: it deploys the styles of reasoning, and senses of evidence and closure of engineering and applied science for discussing religious, political and cultural issues that otherwise would be conducted in more "traditional" terms back home. That is, there is additionally a migration of what Eickelman (1992) has called "intellectual technology" that breaks down traditional boundaries of authority to interpret. Like the people, topics and language, the organization of this talk is a creolized product of a diaspora population and enacts its properties.

As more avenues of access to the Internet, mostly commercial, bring more people "on-line," this population comes to include members of established communities, such as Lebanese and Egyptian descendants of an earlier, economic diaspora rooted in labor migration of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to these immigrants, are the overseas "guestworker" migrant communities (including professionals and students), such as of Palestinians, North Africans, Gulf Arabs in North America and Europe (Soysal 1994), and, of course, exile communities of political dissidents, particularly from Algeria and the Arabian penninsula. These measures of organization have on-line manifestations ranging from the older, more established diaspora communities such as of Lebanese and Egyptian professionals who typically publish regular electronic newsletters, to students who predominate on electronic bulletin boards or accumulate file archives and, increasingly, produce individual on-line publications on the World Wide Web. The range is from more formal, polished productions, such as newsletters, Gophers and Web pages -- also published by embassies (Algeria, Saudi Arabia in the US) or government information agencies (Israel) -- to "national" sites concocted informally and increasingly as commercial enterprises, to free-for-all fora of debate resembling nothing so much as coffee-houses back home. The measure of organization in each emerges in periodic debates/discussions about whom to admit, or as efforts to police who has access, how to restrict admission and the like, in order to keep discussion on topic or within known bounds, such as of "family" metaphors of community or of host-guest relations or of the more formal order of editors.

Two features collide on the Internet. First, newsgroups, Web sites and electronic mailing lists provide means to find the like-minded and like-mannered. Their own goals and the purposes of setting up cyberspace venues range from keeping in touch with the home country to getting in touch with countrymen (mostly), as one moves along a continuum between established and temporary residents of the Middle East's overseas, or from sites that have more to sites that have less of the Middle East in them. Essentially, these are conservative features.

Second, and more "progressively," Internet fora permit bypassing traditional gatekeepers and adjudicators of interpretive rights, procedures and adequacy. The Internet creates a realm more akin to publication than to broadcasting in which users are also producers, or may be producers. The result is an intense engagement in political, social and cultural issues that moves around traditional gatekeepers, with their qualifications to interpret and monopolies on educational technology, and admits claims to authority and legitimacy based on other -- frequently on "scientific" -- intellectual techniques, sureties and communities.

From these features emerges a characteristic tension. On the one hand, national origin or identity becomes the focus of what is functionally an avocational interest that migrates onto the Internet. On the other hand, professional culture and expatriate social organization on which they draw for access, skills and the "intellectual technology" are applied here to interests and topics outside the vocational domains in which those arise. In the crossover of additional intellectual technologies and modes of organization to discussions of national identity and its component social, political and religious issues, one meets those "cybernauts" of the Arab diaspora who use the Internet. They combine a new set of tools with a practical focus on the objects of cultural identity. The objects are rooted, for the time being, in national formations, which they explore; but with the additional feature that the conventional boundary-keepers -- religious, cultural and political authorities -- are absent or only weakly represented.

Conclusions.

If Anderson's creoles of early modernity are any guide for understanding the significance of these new creoles of late modernity, then we may anticipate their creating something new (or at least obliterating something old) in crossing boundaries that are in the first instance social ones of class and community of discourse; but it is less new communities of communication than of interpretation that, so far implicitly, they form through these means. While Internet theoriest (e.g., Turkle 1995) imagine this close to home and in media, the actual process appears more clearly in international or transnational domains of identity negotiation. These are "real world" travelers before they are "virtual" ones, truly inter-systemic in a sociological sense of linking two (like but differentiated) systems. The additional feature of these cybernauts that sets them apart from other transnational populations is their self-confidence, often manifest as self-righteousness, that is enabled not just by mechanical and electrical technology, but also by the intellectual authority of their professions, and the confidence those inspire, which they apply to -- intrude upon -- other domains, notably of politics, religion and culture.

That this is at least partly the case can be seen in the reactions -- literally -- of bypassed gatekeepers. While national authorities try to circumscribe the impact of the Internet by attempting to control access to and use of it and in other cases by establishing their own presences on it, the more "cultural" authorities blanch at and attempt to delegitimize both advanced electronic media of communication and people who use it. To them, to liberal humanists whose authority is tied to print culture and to its technologies (from presses to genres), not less than national governments invested in the technologies of mass media, the Internet and its cybernauts are "creoles" in the vulgar, vernacular sense. To them, these are new barbarians, who, are effectively bypassing an existing establishment and creating new forms of community and communication.

What they are creating is less a "techno-scape" of wandering signifiers, although it is that at one level. This is not just a conversational world, such as of turn-taking rights, but a world where "voice" -- literally -- is found and made into social action, where talk is an organized social pose beyond mere discourse about poses, begining with but not limited to assertions of identity in a literally trans-national "space." The space is being created not so much "virtually," in techno-parlance, but "actually" in what Anderson called "imagined community," through mediated actions. The action is at once negative, in denying sanctioning authorities, and positive, in asserting alternative legitimacies of a subtle -- because intellectual, but also practical -- sort.

References.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.

Anderson, Jon. "New Creoles of the Information Superhighway," Anthropology Today 11(4): 13-15, August 1995.

Eickelman, Dale F. "Mass higher education and the religious imagination in contemporary Arab societies," American Ethnologist 19: 643-655, 1992.

Escobar, Arturo. "Welcome to cyberia: notes on the anthropology of cyberculture," Current Anthropology 35(3): 211-231, 1994.

Negroponte, Nicholas. Being digital. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rheingold, Howard. The virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1993.

Soysal, Yasmine N. Limits of citizenship: migrants and postnational membership in Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the screen: identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

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