By WILSON da SILVA
ANTHROPOLOGIST Alberto Gomes is interested in Goa, the former Portuguese colonial enclave that is now part of India. He visits villages, catalogues idle conversation and observes how the community interacts.
Yet he never leaves his office at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. His field work is done from a computer, his tool is a Netscape browser. The villages he visits are virtual communities of the Internet.
Some are in Sweden, some in Germany and some in Goa, but all of them share a fascination with the idyllic colonial relic on the west coast of India.
Dr Gomes, himself of Goan descent, logs on early in the morning and surfs for at least a couple of hours. He tracks discussion on Goa Web, a multiple user domain community predominantly made up of Goans living in Goa and elsewhere - Canada, Britain and the US.
He also finds non-Goans participating in the discussions: foreigners who have visited Goa and fallen in love with it, or unreconstructed hippies who frequented the Indo-Portuguese province when it was a drug paradise in the 1960s and ‘70s and “Goan trance” entered the subcultural lexicon.
These days, it is still famed for its narcotics-laden rave parties on the magnificent beaches, although authorities make more of an effort to apply the rule of law.
Goa Web has about 400 regular participants and every day enough new material is generated to fill between 10 and 15 pages.
This spontaneous community talks about Goan identity, World Cup cricket, outbreaks of malaria, job offers and even the nature of Catholicism (inspired by 450 years of Portuguese rule) in a largely Hindu country. They also post scores of notices about the best Goan rave parties, where to get drugs in Anjuna, how to get items past customs and whom to bribe, and the latest dance clubs.
All the while, Gomes is there - listening, cataloguing, analysing.
“It almost constitutes voyeurism,” says Gomes, a senior lecturer in La Trobe’s school of sociology and anthropology. “You are actually eavesdropping on what is going on.”
He regards what he is doing as legitimate anthropological work. He is studying a community with a sense of being, sharing commonalities and interacting on common ground - although that ground in a disembodied nether region in cyberspace.
“I am using essentially the same techniques on the Internet as I would in a tribal village,” he says. “I see myself as doing an ethnographic study of a virtual village. This is what anthropologists do: they carry out field work. You participate in the lives of the people they are studying; they are conducting very systematic observations. “
Listening to idle banter in the virtual commons of the Net is as valid as standing at a marketplace and cataloguing the ways human beings interact.
“In a conventional sociological interview, there is always something one would refer to as the ‘interviewer effect’ on the respondent,” he said. Not so on the Net; participants have no idea they are being studied and their views and feelings are unfiltered. “Here you have people who are chatting with one another, in a ‘natural’ setting. There is no interference.”
It is also a different kind of community that Gomes is analysing. Goan participants from inside India tend to be those who own a computer or have access to the Net via universities; a minority of the 1.2 million population.
It was not until two years ago, when a student proposed a study of the sociology of a bulletin board, that Gomes started thinking about the anthropology of the Net.
Since studying the virtual tribes that inhabit GoaWeb, as well as Goa-related e-mail discussion lists, he has been surprised to see a re-emergence of the “Goan trance” movement in Europe and Australia.
Gomes suspects that the Net is allowing culture to be exchanged in new ways. Hence, visits to Goa by travelling Europeans triggers an interest in Goa back home, leads to a resurgence in Goan trance in Europe, which finds its way into acid parties and techno music, and then spreads throughout the world via music and via the Net.