by Wilson da Silva
American Reporter Correspondent
MELBOURNE, Australia – Anthropologist Alberto Gomes is interested in Goa, the former Portuguese colonial enclave that is now part of India. He visits villages, catalogs idle conversation and observes how the community interacts.
And yet, he never leaves his office at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. His field work is done from a computer, his tools a Netscape browser. And the villages he visits are not necessarily in Goa: they 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 Indian west coast.
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 GoaWeb, a multiple user domain community predominantly made up of Goans living in Goa and around the world – Canada, Britain and the United States.
But 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 1970s and the phrase “Goan trance” entered the subcultural lexicon. These days, it is still famed for its narcotics-laden rave parties on the magnificent beaches, especially Anjuna, although authorities make more of an effort to apply the rule of law.
On GoaWeb and its hyperlinked offshoots – GoaCom and GoaNet – there are some 400 regular participants, and every day enough new material is generated to fill between 10 and 15 pages.
This spontaneous community talk 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. But 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 who to bribe, and the latest dance clubs. There are also details of Goan trance parties, both in Goa and in Europe.
All the while, Gomes is there. Listening, cataloguing, analyzing.
“It almost constitutes voyeurism,” admits Gomes, a senior lecturer in the university’s school of sociology and anthropology. “You are actually eavesdropping on what is going on.”
But he regards what he is doing as legitimate anthropological work. He is a 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. I see myself as doing an ethnographic study of a virtual village,” he says. “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 fact, it may well be better.
“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.”
But is also a different kind of community that Gomes is analyzing. 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. And those outside seem be well-off Goans who have migrated to industrialized countries, or descendants who share only distant cultural roots, such as Gomes, whose family left Goa at the turn of the century.
It was no 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.
“I’ve got a student who is examining the Goan trance movement in Australia,” he said. “Some of the nightspots in Melbourne play Goan trance music. There seems to be a link to groups in Europe that play techno-music and relate to Goa. But I’m still baffled by the connection.”
Gomes suspects that the Net is allowing culture to be exchanged in new ways. Hence, visits to Goa by traveling Europeans trigger an interest in Goa back home, lead 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.
“One could refer to it as a kind of social movement. Quite a few people seem to have either visited Goa, or only visited Goan trance Websites,” he said.
What part is played by the Net in the dissemination of culture? Gomes is not sure. There is definitely an exchange of ideas, of anecdotes and of idle chatter. Some of this would classify as an exchange of culture.
People are interacting in ways that are poorly understood. It may well be that the Net has helped rekindle a re-emergence of Goan trance in Western subculture, or merely aided a subterranean cultural movement that was already under way.
Gomes is one of a growing band of researchers – although still few in number – looking at the sociology of cyberspace.
Another is sociologist Brenda Danet of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who started analyzing the language of the Net three years ago and has since expanded to study the sociology. She says that the Net is “changing our ideas about social relations, conviviality, and the forms of human communication we will consider ‘real’ or ‘meaningful’ in the 21st century.’
“Cyberspace is a buzzing hive of social and cultural activity. There is already evidence of incipient social organization in cyberspace. Tens of millions of people are spending part of their daily lives there,” she says.
Some of the proponents of cyberspace see virtual communities in almost mystical terms, likening it to leap forward in human evolution. Louis Rosetto, founder and publisher of Wired magazine, believes society is headed toward the creation of a “hive mind” through computer networking. Executive editor Kevin Kelly told the New York Times Magazine last year that when “enough of us get together in this way, we will have created a new lifeform. It’s evolutionary; it’s what the human mind was destined to do.”