The Internet and Diasporic Experience

The internet is a space of wildly shifting scales—from the private message (between you, me, and the NSA) to the seemingly all-encompassing google search. Or from the tweet to the unending twitter feed. Nicholas Negroponte captures this simultaneity of scales in the remark that in the “post-information age”, mass media has gotten both bigger and smaller. Information can be hyper-personalized into a meticulously-curated RSS feed alongside the separate folders required for the vast amount of spam sent out indiscriminately. This constant shifting between different scales is encapsulated by the hand-held device with access to the world-wide-web. Both the internet itself and how people use the internet is a constant operating on micro-levels of engagement with a macro-system.

With these images of fluctuation and fluidity between the personal/public, discrete/networked, smaller/bigger, I was struck when Derek Walcott commented on the Caribbean as a space where the expansive continents of Africa and Asian along with their histories, cultures, languages have been condensed into a series of smaller islands. In his words, the Antilles is where he sees the “scale of Asia reduced to these fragments”, referring to the ceremonies, customs and visual markers of culture of the descendants of indentured laborers from India (Walcott 67). Walcott then evokes the image of fragments again to describe the disparaging view of the Caribbean as “illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized” filled with “fragments of real people” (67-68). Does this not also align with some of the more cynical commentary of the internet as a cultural space? The profiles that proliferate on social media platforms display the pieces of personality and personal data that stand in metonymically for the person and life behind the screen. But if we project Walcott’s descriptions of Trinidad onto the internet, we might conclude that these fragments do not bespeak tragedy but modes of survival. The processes that have brought people to the internet are not the same as histories of forced labor and bloody conquest but they share qualities of the diasporic experience.

The experience of the internet is always a kind of diasporic experience. On a site like caribBeing, the diasporic experience is multiplied through the rootless placement of many routes. Diasporic subjects extend their travels to an online space created to “build community through the lens of Caribbean cinema, culture and art.” The site identifies along the lines of a Caribpolitan, a clever term that captures the tensions of different scales described above in relation to both the internet and the Caribbean. The word is indeed structured around a mismatch of sizes: condensing all of the Caribbean into a single “polis” that describes not only a place but can also refer to “21st century person with West Indian origin/descent living in diasporic metropolitan communities such as Brooklyn’s Flatbush, Florida’s Miami, Toronto’s Brampton, and London’s Brixton.” These metropolitan communities are again examples of condensed places from much larger regions, brought down to the size of a neighborhood surrounded by countless other neighborhoods. The last definition of Caribpolitan provided is an “urban person with parentage from one or more Caribbean islands.” Thus, the individual carries a huge span of land and ancestry within the small space of a human body. Just as an individual body might become a node in an online network, the Caribpolitan is a convergence of a much larger web of relations.

Walcott sees a deep love in the metaphorical glue that binds together the fragments of diasporic experience of the Antilles and he notes with admiration the spirit of survival that holds it together. However, I am also drawn to the tensions, the messiness, the insecurities that might persist in a fragmented online Caribbean identity. Might there be a kind of whiplash experienced by the digital Caribbean subject when navigating not only from the individual space to the networked community, something not unique to the Caribbean subject, but also from the experience of continents condensed to islands and further condensed to a subheading on a website?

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