Digital Spaces in Physical Contexts

This week, I struggled somewhat with Jennifer Brinkerhoff’s critical engagement with diaspora and the digital (and their various points of intersection), so I’m going to write through my issues with the text in hopes of reaching a clearer perspective for tomorrow’s class discussion. It’s probably evident at this point that I’m deeply skeptical of a lot of writing on “the digital” — not just in this class but in general — due to all-too-prevalent tendencies toward techno-utopianism. I will say that this wasn’t a problem in Brinkerhoff’s piece; the overall sweep of the argument certainly didn’t have this problematic tendency. Instead, the sites of confusion I encountered are more related to Brinkerhoff’s priorities, particularly in Chapter Two — by which I mean the areas of the digital (or of diaspora) that she chooses to privilege at the expense of not fully-arguing-through others.

For example, the second chapter contained a great deal of introductory material on both diaspora and the digital: see, particularly, the sections “What is a Diaspora? (29) and “What’s the Relevance of Information Technology? (44). Brinkerhoff devotes several pages to each of these questions, when presumably the reader is coming to the text in search of particular encounters, overlaps, or tendencies between the two; or for an exploration of where the digital and diaspora meet. The most interesting issue raised by Brinkerhoff — that of assimilation or the adoption of “liberal values” (she used the two here more or less interchangeably) — comes up repeatedly but is never quite addressed in this chapter. I want more: obviously the debate over the perceived value and benefit of assimilation is as strongly-contested (if not even more so) in cultural studies and studies of immigration as that of the debate over the meaning of “diaspora” which is given such a thorough treatment in this chapter.

On the other hand, the material structure and function of assimilation or value-formation is certainly depicted in the following chapter — particularly in Brinkerhoff’s analysis of the Tibetan discussion board. I hope we can discuss these issues further in class: both debates around immigration and assimilation (and what these debates mean for Caribbean diaspora identity) and Brinkerhoff’s depiction of value-formation (or at least value-contestation) occurring on the forum. In connection with the sites we were asked to look at today, I would also like to point out that I was particularly impressed by Brinkerhoff’s attention to the context and (for lack of a better word) genre of each website/community. Consider The Gleaner. In contrast to the three sites Brinkerhoff studied, which sprung out of a particular diasporic need that the digital sphere was uniquely positioned to respond to, The Gleaner appears to be a web offshoot of an existing print newspaper.

I say “appears to be” intentionally: the “About Us” page provides this information, of course, but it’s evident even from the homepage of the site. The Gleaner has clear visual traits signifying “news site” — from the newspaper-style header to the menu bar to the visual intrusions of advertising and weather information. It’s also important to note another key difference: The Gleaner is aimed at a Jamaican audience —presumably those in the country as well as the diaspora — but it is based in Jamaica and publishes local news. I want to say this is an important difference from a news organization or web community founded by members of the diaspora for members of the diaspora, but haven’t quite put my finger on why this feels so fundamental. What are your thoughts? Can an organization founded in the home country be part of the construction of diasporic identity in the way that Brinkerhoff suggests, based on the sites she studies?

PS — couldn’t help but think about questions of ephemerality raised by Brinkerhoff as well as the other readings, as it appears that at least two of the sites we were asked to look at for this week’s class are down! How does this ephemerality connect to, for example, the use of mobile money? (Sure, you might not get mugged on your way home from the bank late at night, but what about identity theft? What if the network goes down?)

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