Marianne van den Boomen on Sat, 1 Aug 1998 02:03:07 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Virtual communities and social reality 1/2

Utopia in cyberspace - Virtual communities and social reality

Lecture ICSA Conference "Utopian Communities and Sustainability"
8-7-1998 by Marianne van den Boomen (


The keyword here is: imagine. I would like to ask you to imagine a typical

You probably have a small village in mind, or a kibbutz, or a commune. In these
communities people share a certain space, geographical or architectural. They
share and spend a great deal of their time in these communities. Here they
work, learn, play, love and sometimes die. For all these things there are
social or political rules. The members derive part of their identity from
belonging to the community and from their specific social position in here.
They meet almost every day and they know each other personally, by name and
face. People here depend heavily on each other. You can imagine peaceful
harmony or bitter conflicts, a caring and supportive atmosphere or a
suffocating climate of social control, but either way there is continuity.

But you can also imagine a community on a larger scale. Perhaps you think of
the city you live in, or even your country. Yes, these are communities too.
People here share a certain space as well, a geographical or geo-political
space. They spend a big part of their life time there and derive part of their
identity from this community - you become aware of this when you vote for your
community board or government, when you"re on holiday in a foreign country,
during the world championship soccer or when your country is at war. In these
communities people work, learn, play, love and die (sometimes they even die for
their country or city), and most of the time they do this according to the
social and political rules of the community. People also meet each other - on
the streets, in shops, on busses - but they certainly do not know all the
inhabitants of their city or country. Nevertheless, these communities are
strong - strong in their impact on people and the way their lives are
structured, strong in their continuity. At the same time this kind of community
is less tight than the former kind, because the mutual dependencies in a city
or country are not constantly manifest.

But perhaps you had other communities in mind. Perhaps you thought of the
Moslem community, the New Age community, the community of biochemical
scientists, the gay community or the community of motorbike riders. We call
these communities too. In these communities, people don"t a priori share a
certain space, but they share a certain belief or interest. Sometimes a
certain place coincides with these non-spatial communities, as in some
Moslem countries, but in most cases these communities have to organise local
meetings at specific locations, like a mosque, a scientific symposium, a gay
party, or a ride for bikers. Here people don"t know each community member
personally either, though they recognise each other very quickly.
The members of these communities don"t spend all of their time in the
community. Nevertheless, these communities have their own continuity and
their own social and sometimes political rules. Rules about working,
learning, playing, loving or dying - or all of these things together in a
religion or lifestyle. These communities are certainly also identity shaping
- sometimes totally, but mostly only partially. You can even be a member of
more of these communities at the same time, say when you are a Moslem
scientist or a gay biker. However, beliefs and interests are liable to
change and you can more or less easily slip in and out of these communities.

These three kinds of communities are all known as real communities. They exist
in real life, they create specific social realities and specific social
cohesion. But the realities of these communities differ sharply. Their reality
can have a material or organical base, as in the old village and the kibbutz.
These communities are based on physical closeness and are more or less
self-sufficient in their material needs. That"s why each community member is
dependent on his fellow members. In other cases the communal reality has a
more abstract base: historical, political or juridical, as in cities and
nations. The communal reality is even more abstract when based on something
cultural, spiritual or educational, as in the community of Moslems, gays,
scientists and bikers. What"s the aim of these communities? At first sight
they all seem to have different aims, as different as their common
denominators. But in fact these communities all have the same aim, namely their
own reproduction: to sustain and maintain the community and its members.
There's nothing wrong with that, communities are a basic need for people, for
all people. Without a community to belong to, you are totally alone, and
socially dead. Yes, this means dependence, sometimes a personal dependence,
sometimes a more abstract dependence. Dependence, that"s the stuff that
produces social cohesion. Wherever people make alliances with some continuity,
communities emerge. They emerge from enduring social interaction.

But perhaps you had yet another kind of community in mind, a utopian
community. (After all, we are at a symposium about utopian communities).
Perhaps you imagined a community where people live together in a very caring
social way, where everyone feels responsible for each other, where peace and
justice reigns, and where neither people nor the earth is exhausted and
exploited. Famous people have done that before, imagined utipian
communities: Thomas, More, Francis Bacon, Karl Marx. They imagined, and more
or less designed utopias: places where people live together more
harmoniously than they do in reality. People imagine utopian communities
because the social reality of existing communities is sometimes so bitter.

Utopian communities are mostly imagined as self-sufficient and autonomous,
within a unity of time and space. All material and social needs of the members
are fulfilled in the community - utopias tend to be total, not partial, because
anything from outside will threaten the organised balance in utopia. People
work, learn, play, love and die in utopia, according to specific social and
political rules. Identities in these communities must be total as well.
Utopian communities usually look a little like real communities from the past,
when time, space and people were tightly intertwined. However, their aim is
different: utopian communities explicitly have the aim to create a better
society, whereas the other communities aimed to create society - just society,
not a just society. Utopias are constructed and designed completely to serve
the aim. Every detail is organised and planned to do so. That"s a big
difference with real communities: utopias don"t emerge, they must be completely

But almost by definition, Utopian communities do not really exist. Thomas More
depicted the classical proto-utopia in his book Utopia (1516). "Topia " means
"place" and "u" is a mixture of "eu" which means good, and "ou" which means
"not". So Utopia is a good place and no-place, a non-existing place. Utopia
exists in products of the imagination, in books, novels, movies. It "s a sheer
fantasy, an imagined society, an ideal, a promise perhaps. But here it becomes
slippery: people want promises to be redempted, they want utopias to become
true. We want more than just a better image, we want a better world. And ever
since the Enlightenment we try to build society. With our knowledge and
technology we try to conquer nature and scarcity. That's the core of
modernity: the idea that society can be contructed, designed, controlled.

It was the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis who set me on this train of
thought with his book The Heritage of Utopia. In this book he analyses the
classical utopian texts, he looks behind the scenes and describes how utopia
sometimes became a guide for reality, where people tried to realise it
partially. He also describes how utopia became a map sometimes, a complete
blueprint, with the intent to realise utopia totally. By now, we all know where
this ended - in Gulags, in neighbours fearing neighbours, in suffocating
bureaucracy, in equality instead of freedom (and even in: "some are more equal
than others"). Total construction of society means total control, and total
control means a totalitarian state. We learned that not only the road to
paradise is paved with good intentions and dead bodies, but also the insides of

So here we are, post-modern, stripped of our illusions of total control and
utopias. But we didn"t do away with all our notions of a better world, we just
adjusted the scale of implementation: not totally, but partially. And in every
real community there are still people who work for that. In every real
community you can find traces of utopian organising and planning. As I said
before, communities emerge from social interaction. This notion needs some
differentiation. Communities emerge from the coincidence of different
variables: spatial and temporal variables, economical and social variables, and
in the long term, historical variables. But such coincidences are not enough to
sustain the community. No community is that organic. Communities need
cultivation, maintenance, organisation.

In order to sustain the community organisation is vital. Housekeeping and
cooking food has to be organised in kibbutzim and communes. Political power has
to be organised in villages, cities and countries. When place, time and people
do not coincide, meetings have to be organised (for Moslems, bikers, gay
people). So, in fact, each social and political structure in a community is a
mixture of emergent and organised qualities.

Ever since the history of mankind there have been many shifts in social
structures and communities, not only because there are always images of
better social arrangements but also because technological innovations
continually bring new possibilities and promises. Both real societies and
imagined utopias seem to be based on technology. As Marx taught us:
technology, labour and capital together constitute specific modes of
production, and each mode of production has its own political and cultural
arrangements and institutions. Technology is the main force.

But somehow this picture seems to be incomplete. Yes, technology is an
important part of human nature, but is it all? What about communities and
their reproduction? And what about human imagination, which can produce art,
games, games, poetry and images of utopias? And what about the media people
use for these things, all those media we know - script, print, radio,
television, Internet - in which technology, imagination and reproduction
come together? In other words: don"t we need the concept of modes of
reproduction as well?

It was a book of the cultural anthropologist Benedict Anderson which inspired
me on this point. This impressive book is called Imagined Communities and from
the title you would think the book is about utopian communities, but it"s not.
It"s about nations and about how they are constructed. Anderson very
convincingly shows how nations are constructed by the printing press and by
what he calls "printcapitalism".

Of course nations must be constructed. Nations are not a product of nature, but
of social action and interaction. And not in the least of social imagination.
Anderson defines the nation as an imagined community. Imagined because the
members of even very small nations would never personally know or meet most of
their fellow-members, though every member has in mind an image of their
community, its "common grounds". And it"s a community because the nation, in
spite of existing inequality and exploitation, is conceived as a deep,
horizontal union of brotherhood. Imagined here doesn"t mean made up, not true,
not real. Imagined means: expressed, created, represented. Actually, Anderson
says, all communities are imagined. All communities bigger than the original
small villages based on personal contacts - and perhaps even those too, he adds
- are imagined. (quote)"Communities ought not be evaluated by their falseness
or reality but by the way they are imagined."(unquote) Here Anderson makes an
important point. It"s very tempting to classify communities by their falseness
or reality, and to equate their reality with spacial common ground, be it
organical or geographical. This way of thinking has very strong political
implications. It implicates that Palestinians do not form a community until
they have their own state, on their own land. And it implicates that Serbs,
Croats and Moslems only became communities after the horrible ethnic cleansings
in the former Yugoslavia. So it implicates that a lot of blood is shed by
non-real communities... But if non-real communities can have such dramatic
impacts, we should reconsider the concept of community and its supposed roots
in spatial reality.

Marianne van den Boomen      
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