Academic journal article Human Organization

Blurring Boundaries: The "Real" and the "Virtual" in Hybrid Spaces

Academic journal article Human Organization

Blurring Boundaries: The "Real" and the "Virtual" in Hybrid Spaces

Article excerpt

This chapter introduces a sequence of four papers that focus on the theme of knowledge and information flow in hybrid and virtual sites of interaction. As the Internet and the World Wide Web proliferate, people live increasingly hybrid lives where the physical and the digital, the real and the virtual, interact. In this world, online and offline identities may overlap and interdigitate, erasing prior boundaries in social, cultural, linguistic, political, and economic domains. My central argument proposes that we are witnessing an underlying process of technology-spurred blurring, resulting in major shifts in the cultural landscape of the 21st century. Providing context for the papers, I argue that the blurring of boundaries and the fusion of the real and the virtual in hybrid settings may require rethinking conventional ethnographic methods in the future, and beyond that, the actual problem space for anthropology. To frame the papers methodologically, I suggest that we are in a process of experimentation during which conventional ethnographic methods are being adjusted, or will need to be adjusted, to the requirements of a truly hybrid ethnography, i.e., one that combines research in virtual and real-world spaces. I specifically examine some of the issues that arise in and for online and offline research, gauging the impact on core concepts in anthropological ethnography such as "fieldsite" and "participant observation."

Key words: knowledge flows, blurring, hybrid spaces, lifescapes, hybrid ethnography

Introduction: A Hybrid World

In the last few years, the digital communication infrastructure provided by the Internet has become extensive enough to touch all parts of the globe. The World Wide Web has indeed become worldwide. The papers in this section1 speak in detail to some of the ways in which this has affected the flow of knowledge and information in industrial, recreational, and domestic situations. In this introductory chapter, I am concerned with two key issues that provide the context within which the papers might be seen: one revolves around hybridity, the other, very relatedly, around the blurring of the "real" and the "virtual."2

A central consideration revolves around the observation that a growing number of people now live in a hybrid world where the boundaries between what is physical (or actual) and what is digital (or electronic) continue to fade. This hybrid world is one where a person's identity, experiences, and life possibilities begin to integrate physical and virtual facets of existence so that consciousness is to some extent shared between an offline physical and an online virtual self. In this process, cultural and social dynamics interact with demographic and technological trends to conceive, birth, reproduce, and manifest this very world.

The global flows of information, capital, commodities, ideologies and human beings affect increasing numbers of people in all walks of life, from the often illegal transnational laborers who "work the border" wherever borders exist (Reeves 2008), to the meat cutters in the chicken factories of the American heartland whose manual labor supports their families across increasingly permeable borders with regular "envios" (Griffith 1985; Pribilsky 2008; Trager 2005). Many of their transactions crucially involve the Internet, as do those of the professional knowledge workers in global corporations described by Hinds and Crampton (2008), Ruhleder and Jordan (2001), Ruhleder, Jordan, and Elmes (1996), Wasson (2004), or the fishermen in Nova Scotia who, within hours, sell the day's catch to traders in the Tokyo wholesale fish market (Bestor 2001, 2004). The ubiquity of cell phones is an indicator of the extent to which electronic connections have become indispensable to people for managing their lives (Brown, Green, and Harper 2002; Ito, Okabe, and Matsuda 2005), not only in industrialized countries but maybe even more so in less developed regions where adoption of cell phones leapfrogs over earlier kinds of communication media such as conventional landlines (Ling and Pederson 2005; Rangaswamy and Toyama 2006; Wong 2007). …

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