Sunday, September 2, 2012

Imagined Communities - Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities was first published in 1983. At the time, when fights over "Marxism" and "Capitalism" were still relevant and every concept was seen through the prism of these two ideologies, the book was considered as a History book. In 1991, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the book was seen as a prophecy, similar to what happened to Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations after 9/11. Today, Imagined Communities is a text book for students of nationalism and culture.

At the core of Anderson's argument is the idea that books printed in vernacular language and novels allowed members of the national bourgeoisies to communicate with each other, which allowed them to create, little by little, a common discourse that eventually ended up in the struggle to create Nation-States. If one assumes that Internet and cell phones changed the way people communicate with each other qualitatively with respect to books, it is easy to stretch the argument and buy the idea that Twitter, blogs, and cell phones will create new and different discourses that might change Nation-States. There is already  some academic evidence on how Internet has already changed the way in which we read and write.

The technological support determines what is written and who does it:

The first known texts are written in hard surfaces such as stone, an expensive and labor intensive activity that could be paid for only by large organizations such as empires. That's why the first written records are laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi.

Paper, clay, and papyrus lowered the costs of writing, which became an affordable activity that allowed the transmission of non-essential ideas such as religion more easily.

The printing press lowered even more the costs of passing ideas: novels, poems, and all kind of texts could be produced massively at a very low cost. Bourgeois could read, but also write very easily.

Twitter and the Internet represent the ultimate democratization of writing: anyone with a computer can create a blog or open a Twitter account and say whatever (s)he wants, with an added value: previous means of communication had some gatekeepers that guaranteed, up to an extent, the quality of whatever was published. Printing a book might have been cheap for some sectors of society, but a would-be writer still needed to convince the printer that his work was worth it. 

Gatekeepers have totally disappeared in the Internet age, resulting in a lot of noise and polarizing voices, but also in a richer debate in some cases -the blogosphere changed the terms and nature of the debate on Economics, to mention just one field. 

Internet is putting us in a more democratic and unregulated World. The left likes the "democratic" part, and the right likes the "unregulated" part. The result, like in most undemocratic and unregulated environments, is lack of depth. The clearest example is the United States, whose Founding Fathers found inspiration in the books by Locke and Montesquieu; the Tea Party, in Sarah Palin's tweets...

Internet and cell phones are changing the political debate, and they will eventually change Nation-States, just like books turned empires into Nation-States. It is obviously too early to say whether the final result will be  a more unified humankind or a multiplicity of isolated communities. Whatever we think the final result will be is pure speculation and a result of our preconceptions about human nature.

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