[Home]DistantLand

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Before the Internet was cheap and available for everyone, life was very different. Life was local.

It was so difficult to communicate with the rest of the world, people mostly communicated with people near by, through OralCulture. If you needed to know how to get a pesky stain out of your carpet, you'd ask your neighbours. If you wanted to learn how to cook, you took a class down the street. If you wanted to be inspired by great ideas, you'd visit the local library.

Indeed, most people only interacted with people very much like themselves because their neighbours were in the same predicament. How could Joe be very different if he talked to Jane and Jane talked to you? Certainly, people travelled and immigrated, but this is exceptionally expensive, and therefore on the whole quite rare. Either way, it wasn't very deep. Either you could travel to immerse yourself in an entire foreign culture for a short period of time, or you could interact with a small and unrepresentative (why else would they emigrate?) subset of a foreign ex-patriots for a longer period of time.

Books were an OutsideWindow, but they were also expensive. They had to be physically shipped from somewhere, and the most efficient method of shipping goods is always a hierarchy of regions. And it is always cheaper to buy books produced locally than those produced far away. Music and movies are no different.

The most cost effective way people gained a sense of the outside world was through the pervasive BroadcastMedia?, particularly the ElectronicNetwork?s. Radio, television, and newspapers (which actually are really reliant on telegraph and telephone to get overseas stories) were mature enough and pervasive enough and seeped into the very pores of society enough that MarshallMcLuhan could call the world a GlobalVillage, and we all agreed.

While we all watched the Berlin wall come down together, we did not all choose to watch it. Rather, the choice was made for us by those who owned and controlled the BroadcastMedia?. They had to be owned because they were incredibly expensive to construct, more so than nearly anything else built by humankind. While this contradiction between the utopian GlobalVillage and the necessarially unilateral GlobalMedia? led to a rich and varied era of media criticism, the inability to strike up a casual conversation kept the world apart, until...

...Until the ElectronicNetwork?s become so cheap and so mature that it was practical to convert them to DigitalNetworks, and then the Internet itself. When the Internet was first made available to first academics in the 1980s and then average people in the 1990s, it was an obvious experience. Everything done had to be explicitly done. Every response dribbled in slowly, piecemeal, and deliberately, so that you the reader understood that something was happening.

In this Internet, whose seams were exposed with stuffing puffing out, whose clattering rusty pipes belched steam, whose hand cranked engines broke down at the most inconvenient times, you did not simply communicate with someone else on the other side of the world. You often intimately knew the entire path to get from you to them. In "real-time" media like InternetRelayChat and MultiUserDungeons, you could even physically feel each connection's lag accumulate between your world and theirs.

In those moments, as cultural handshakes from one DistantLand to another were being patiently negotiated through by a series of technical handshakes from server to server, you had time to notice the significance of the event. A casual conversation was inadvertently paused for dramatic effect. We could feel the world finally stitching itself together into a GlobalVillage.

Today, while there are parts of the world that remain, well, balkanized because their connections are still obvious, the Internet is increasingly technically seamless, smooth, unified. Thus, it now costs only the mental and spiritual effort to explore the culture of a DistantLand, to invite a casual conversation and even nurture long-term PersonalRelationships with people who remain fully situated in their own culture. Indeed, this is so common place today it is not often noticed. The world is finally settling down into the GlobalVillage.

IdentityTourism?

Life on the Internet is not so simple, however. We can also re-situate ourselves into a DistantLand through IdentityTourism?. It is nothing significant to spend your Sunday afternoon downloading Scandanavian electroclash from your Toronto apartment, or be a leading expert of New York hip hop from a suburb of Helsinki. What is foreign in person can be identity online.

This does not simply pass as ordinary, though. The whole world is not truly a singular, united, homogeneous GlobalVillage. The Internet is full of cultures, and picking one to explore can only be a personal choice, as your neighbour will choose another. So what, after all, motivates a person to master a culture his or her neighbours won't understand? Why sacrifice communal identity, or time to stare at a screen alone instead of face-to-face with potential or actual friends and lovers next door?

Could it be that this IdentityTourism? to DistantLands brought electronically close is not very different than ex-patriots emigrating to see other parts of the world? Are they seeking the half-illusory narrative tourists tell themselves about the cultures they pass through? The mirror narratives that are really more about what they are missing at home than what is really present. Tourists always talk about the differences, not the similarities, after all. Is it not an escape, just mental not physical? The trouble, however, is that ex-patriots almost always become more like their home culture when surrounded on all sides by the foreign culture. Identity tourists, not so. While in their DistantLand, they remain safely distant behind their screens, physically home, and thus able to appreciate the foreign culture without being threatened by it.

Their appreciation of another culture is their souvenir. Identity tourists often will show off their obscure tastes to their friends, but in a local context that makes the differences stand out, just as they might show off a Turkish rug bought in Istanbul in their North American suburban living room. Sometimes this is pretentious, but when done tactfully, it can guide their neighbours, friends, and lovers to visit the DistantLand themselves. Sooner or later, as global hip hop has demonstrated, the lands do not feel so distant any more and the GlobalVillage is stronger.


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