Communicating nomadism

Posted on | May 3, 2007 | 4 Comments

A key objective of Mark Nunes’ Cyberspaces of Everyday Life is to stipulate that cyberspace is heteromorphic. Drawing on Lefebvre, he wants to demonstrate that these “virtual topographies do not coordinate into an overall system, but rather interpenetrate each other, producing spaces in conflict” (xxvi). For instance, in one passage he writes:

As a space of everyday life, cybercafés interpellate a wired middle class—not the digerati of a global elite but, rather, a subject-position articulated by access to and control over a global networked urbanism. Few of the cybercafés I contacted reported a significant homeless clientele. The “disenfranchised” who make use of cybercafés are merely away from their own computers. We might, then, tentatively suggest that rather than serving as places of gathering, cybercafés function as “spaces of elsewhere” in which the potential for displacement becomes a mode of membership in a wired middle class. What we share is our nomadism. (p. 115)

The use of “we” in this paragraph is telling, and somewhat justified: I feel like I know this condition well. Only a couple of weeks ago I found myself ridiculously caught adrift having checked out of my hotel early only to realise that the Broadway internet café didn’t open until 8am. I’d opted not to take my laptop to Sydney to save my back and shoulders some stress and to downsize on luggage. As I loitered on a bus stop seat, eating my breakfast with some hastily abandoned coffee cups and the smell of urine, I wondered how it came to be that so much of my life lies in a computer screen. Reading Nunes’ passage in relation to other things – the remarkably eerie Twittervision, or the intermittent updates my dear friend Catri continues to lob into the abyss as she embarks on her own experiment with nomadism – makes me pretty uncomfortable about my own implication in this globally networked urbanism. Then again, maybe the description only sounds right precisely to the extent that it addresses an audience of readers who can or might wish to see themselves in its image – fellow academics, and/or those who are unlikely to tread very far from travel routes already staked out by Visa and Virgin.

In the following paragraph, however, Nunes takes the example of a cybercafé in Belize to show how this wired middle class is only one group among others claiming an identity and a stake in cyberspace. For another “truly disenfranchised class”, the café was used to communicate with relatives “who, as a body of labor, have been carried to North America in the flows of transnational capitalism” (p. 116). This brief description glosses the complexities of immigrant labour as much as the previous section avoids specifying who the wired middle class might be, perhaps because a (North American) academic readership can be assumed to have a working knowledge of both. But it makes me wonder whether it’s possible to understand either group as any more or less affected by “the flows of transnational capitalism”? This is where some more understanding of what “everyday life” entails for each group would be useful, to come to terms with how “flows” are actually lived and experienced by real people. Knowing what kinds of material constraints and blockages come in to play, when, and how often – knowing how they differ, not simply that they differ – would seem a significant step towards changing the inequalities that might exist between them. In any case, I’m sure that in each instance, we’d find the physical space of the café plays host to a myriad of other worlds, filled with personal stories of love, hope, sacrifice and desire. Spaces within spaces, intimacies within cursors: the literacies of communicating nomadism.

Comments

4 Responses to “Communicating nomadism”

  1. Mel
    May 5th, 2007 @ 4:13 pm

    I am feeling deeply ambivalent about my reliance on technologically assisted sociability, as I said in my email earlier this week.

    But just now as you are talking about internet cafes, I am remembering the little thrill I felt yesterday. A certain someone messaged me from an internet cafe in another country, saying how frustrated they were to desire me yet to have to tell me so from a public place.

    Just a little story of the sort you are gesturing towards!

  2. dogpossum
    May 14th, 2007 @ 10:17 am

    If you haven’t, check out a recent (3 May 2007) media report (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/mediareport/stories/2007/1909919.htm). There were a couple of people discussing the way media are used in developing countries. The bit that fascinated me was the discussion of uses of internet by people in Ghana:

    Don Slater: When we actually did our 18 months or so of research, and what we’re finding was that in Ghana, in Accra for example, the capital city, there is an absolutely thriving internet culture even in the very poor area that we focused on. But most of those people, in fact 99% of them, had never ever visited a website or used it to access anything that a development agency or a government would deem information. Even though they might be using the Internet three or four days a week, three or four hours a day.

    Antony Funnell: So how do people in places like Ghana, how do they use the Internet?

    Don Slater: Well overwhelmingly, the internet users that we studied, and there were a lot of them, used the internet for chat. It was largely seen as a chat medium, a little bit of email, but largely MSN or Yahoo in order to access basically people in the north, foreigners. We used to talk about this as collecting foreigners, to develop a long list of northern chat partners, to discuss what things are like in the respective countries, or to basically try to get various kinds of goods, like invitations abroad, or help with visas and so on and so forth.

    Antony then goes on to ask:

    Antony Funnell: Well why is it that governments and development agencies simply don’t understand this? Why are they still pushing this idea that the Internet is a good platform for getting out information?

    This really interests me because it assumes that the only way to ‘use’ the internet for positive social change is to engage passively as ‘receivers’ of a government ‘message’. The whole community/network/chat pattern of use is perceived as ‘worthless’.

    It’s really, really worth reading that transcript (or, far more pleasingly, to listen to it and hear the enthusiasm in the speakers’ voices).

    …my attention was caught when Don Slater notes that putting up posters in internet cafes telling people about websites would be useful. I love these sorts of lo-tec solutions because it reminds me of the fact that ‘keeping it simple, stupid’ is really important. As Subbiah Arunachalam says earlier, just because it’s flash tech, doesn’t mean it’s more useful than a pen and pencil, or as he actually says:

    Subbiah Arunachalam: Yes. Our philosophy is it is not which technology which matters. What matters is how can it help the rural poor. If I need to use satellite technology, I will, but if I don’t need satellite technology, all I need is only the bulletin board, I will use that as well. So in our project we have a blending of old and new technologies. Whatever suits the local condition, we use, horses for courses as they say.

    And this, of course, brings us to the point that the old school radio is one of the most powerful and important media in the developing world – it’s cheap, it’s simple, it doesn’t require literacy. It also encourages social or collaborative media use which has some interesting social ramifications. But of course, if you’ve read any of the stuff on development media, you know all this – sorry if that’s the case.

  3. melgregg
    May 15th, 2007 @ 11:00 am

    Terrific – thanks for posting this. I’m a big fan of Slater’s work, will definitely follow this up! Great to see the ABC doing this.

  4. jean
    May 15th, 2007 @ 5:55 pm

    hey mel and dogpossum and others – if you’re interested in this stuff someone a bit closer to home to chat to as well is Jo Tacchi from QUT. She’s worked/works with andrew skuse and don slater quite a bit in various projects that kind of form a cluster around ICTs for development, ethnographic action research and communicative ecologies. For example, in a current linkage project with UNESCO in South Asia they’ve completely rethought digital storytelling because of the lack of fit between its underpinning ideologies and the existing communicative ecologies within which the work is taking place. The ways in which these ‘other’ communicative ecologies articulate technologies and social practices and produce innovation helps to shift the frame away from the kind of thinking around ICT use that allows things like, erm, the one laptop per child project to look anything like a good idea.

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