Middle East Diasporas on the Internet

Jon W. Anderson
Anthropology Department
Catholic University of America

Let me confess up front to being an Internut. I'm enthusiastic about how the Internet facilitates my tasks and the information it puts on my desk. As a journal editor, I have promoted its potentials to bring information more readily to hand in international area studies. As an anthropologist, I see it as an extension not only of research but for research into the connections of communication and community in our time. It's been a boon as my university, my profession and colleagues come more and more online, from e-mail to mailing lists to new ways to access remote file archives with Gopher and World Wide Web. With amendments, that probably describes most members of this Society.

At the same time, I am also struck by how sociologically impoverished are understandings of the Internet. Always pro or con, they typically project from parochial, even individual experiences (Rheingold 1993, Negroponte 1995, Rifkin 1995, Stoll 1995). While conveying enthusiasm--indeed, strong emotions, negative as well as positive--popular and even academic descriptions lack not only objectivity; they lack perspective independent of involvement with the phenomenon (e.g., McLuhan 1967, Escobar 1994). This is particularly true of tendencies to universalize from a limited base of experience that tends to take its own frames for granted as portable and to project that portability onto the Internet.

This becomes particularly apparent when testing universalization against its most obvious context, the international dimensions of the Internet. Here, the tendency is to imagine growth of connection as a process of extension, vastly magnified, of countries and societies coming "on line" rather like individuals do, in a rising curve, something like compound interest (e.g., Rheingold 1993). But natural systems do not work that way. They are stochastic, developing in stages that are qualitatively different. Few would disagree with that, but as yet little discussion of how it applies to Internet is grounded in social realities.

Individuals might progress from e-mail or online library catalogues to mailing lists and remote file transfer, thence to Gopher and the Web. Or from terminals and time-sharing to PCs with modems and progress to higher capacity connections, these days to local area networks with seamless Internet connection. We may start with a few tasks and accumulate more that are pursued online. We welcome more new resources. But all this is a small part of the sociology of the Internet, and an even smaller part of the sociology of its international dimensions. While not untrue, it should not get in the way of seeing other features, for which one has to step outside the Internet: the actual social settings it impacts, those on which it draws and whose properties it privileges; and the balances variously recalibrated.

My perspective arises from looking, as participant and as observer, frequently as a seeker, for the Middle East on the Internet. There is little of the Middle East, per se, so far online. A few research institutes in Tunisia and Algeria, a network or two in Egypt, including the first indigenous commercial ones in the Middle East, a network in the Gulf, academic and commercial beginnings in Jordan and Lebanon. Only Israel and Turkey have anything like the density of connections between universities, government and corporate sites that have become the Internet that has graduated, so to speak, from laboratories and research environments that spawned to serve up wider ranges of information in the forms of news and entertainment.

This last suggests two processes at work. One is the expansion of the Internet to more people; the other is expansion of types of information it carries, which is in part a function of new people. Or, who is online affects what is online, and critically in the initial, launch stages.

The launch stages are what we have seen the most of, and what enthusiasts generalize and detractors disparage. But they have two important features in an international context. First, while there is not much of the Middle East online, although that is changing rapidly, there are Middle Easterners online. They are for the most part those most like the ones who conceived and built the Internet: students and practitioners in high-tech engineering and the sorts of applied science on which the Internet itself depends. When I first began looking for the Middle East online in 1992, what largely was there was a select sample of the Middle East's own "overseas"--students and practitioners of advanced forms of engineering and applied science at North American, European and Australian universities, polytechnics, laboratories and a few corporations. All were in the overseas, diaspora communities of Middle Easterners, but almost no one in Middle Eastern countries apart from Israel and Turkey.

Among the best and brightest of their societies who have been sent or who have made their own way into the leading edges of the post-industrial world's Information Age, they are trained in and dedicated to engineering and applied science, and embrace the values and epistemology built by such persons into the Internet: open, speedy, nearly worldwide communication, the sort of world researchers want for their own work and built for it in the form of the Internet and on which they depend to communicate results and share interests.

As with their counterparts from California, Minnesota or Massachusetts, their interests that find way onto the Internet grow to include broadly avocational ones from hobbies to politics and culture as its capacities and their time permit. Among these more "avocational" interests are political and cultural issues of their home countries. What sets these apart from their congeners from California or Massachusetts, however, is that they are part of a larger, more diffuse diaspora population, with its in- between sociology.

Individually, they intersect those larger populations and communities of overseas Middle Easterners that includes long-time immigrants as well as shorter-term labor migrants, students, political exiles and others who make up diaspora populations. They are a diaspora, not committed to assimilation, but instead amounting to a partial extension of their home societies, variably recreated, migrated, adapted, assimilated in "overseas" settings. These settings increasingly make themselves felt as commercial access changes the demographics of Internet users.

Initially, technology stratified the Middle Easterners online. Usenet newsgroups and e-mail listservs dedicated to Middle Eastern countries and topics tended to be domains of students and activists, of the least organized and established overseas Middle Easternists, and of intense political debate combined with a measure of homesickness manifest in news about cultural events, recipes, poetry and reminiscences. More organized, periodic newsletters have been the domains of more established diaspora communities, such as of Egyptians and Lebanese; and while debate about homeland politics occasionally breaks out, these are on the whole more sedate, and access to them is more controlled. Gopher and Web sites have appeared, increasingly in the past year and, while still focused on news from/about home, increasingly under commercial sponsorship. This last parallels the overall shift from a majority of educational sites on the Web to a majority of commercial ones; but the added dimension of diaspora communities points to an additional process.

Initially, existing conversations "migrate" to each of these channels; but once there, they do not merely extend existing communities. Each newsgroup, e-mail list and file archive mixes discussions that would be kept apart in the home countries, or kept under the control of specialists, and this mixing occurs on an international scale between people who otherwise never meet. Online, they form communities, and these communities are marked first by mixed discourses. It is not just a mix of topics either, but also of "intellectual technologies" as new approaches--notably the interpretive practices of engineers and applied scientists--are applied to old problems, with confidence in the command of one extending to others along the narrow channels that permit bravura performances. Not to put too fine a point on it, engineers and applied scientists try their hands at political, cultural, religious analysis and debate that, at home, are in the keeping of specialists. The crossover effects amount to types of "creolization," as a new discourse emerges in recombined bits of vocabulary and grammar from other "languages."

Sociologically, this not only connects its practitioners and projects them into shared arenas (Anderson 1995); it also magnifies their features and the features of those arenas, the more so as others already there come online, too. Here, one ventures beyond the contexts in which the Internet itself was created, and beyond the values and world views of its creators' professions into settings where those both augment and are augmented within diaspora communities. A new elite begins to merge with established diaspora communities, altering their balances as have earlier ones.

Such international precincts of the Internet are less between nations or transcending nationality than within creoles, creolized languages and creolized populations. In other words, the international Internet is not culture free or culture transcending but a special precinct of the already cosmopolitan. It magnifies that cosmopolitanism, provides it with new sinews, even enhances its realities. Still, is not cosmopolitanism that the Internet fosters, nor parochialism, but creolization.

The significance of diaspora creole communities can be far reaching, and attention has focused on media that make them possible. They are typically flexible, even opportunistic communities ranging from assimilationists to labor migrants and exiles fixed on homelands from which they are partly detached. Partly detached, they form alternative communities, partly through alternative communication. Thus, the historian Benedict Anderson showed (1991) that print capitalism fostered among the creoles of early modernity the altered senses of community that congealed into modern nationalism. The process began on the peripheries and reached homeland centers as recoils.

Electronic capitalism is already fostering new creoles of the Information Age in the form of new interpreters and practices of interpretation that fall between and combine characteristics of preexisting domains. Engineers reasoning about politics or through religious texts, sidestepping a millennium of specialist exegesis and gatekeeping, with new methods and confidence born of command of those methods as the methods of the modern world are also part of the contemporary expansion of higher education in the Middle East (Eickelman 1992). They join and increasingly are joined by the commerce-seeking that shares its values. Anthropologists have shown that the mixed or in-between has special power to break boundaries, and so is both respected and feared for admitting the power of one domain into another. We need to understand what those domains, and their points of crossover, are.


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