More Stuff Pete’s Been Thinking About

I often have a Wikipedia page for some concept or idea open in a browser tab. It gets closed when I’m done with it, so the longer it’s there, the more useful it’s likely to be. Currently I’ve had Imagined Community refusing to be closed every time I trim my browser down, so I guess it’s a good one to dig deeper into.

Imagined Communities is a model for looking at how nationalism can work across a whole country of millions when we barely know a few hundred of our “fellow citizens”. A nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group, amplified by the media which promotes a common vernacular language, starting with print moving away from Latin around the 16th century.

The origins are interesting, but what really intrigues me is the fluidity of it all, the fact that something as seemingly concrete as a national identity is really anchored by the shifting sands of language.

I’ve never felt particularly patriotic or felt an explicit identification with my nation of birth - I get an acute dissonance when people talk about how “we” are doing in the World Cup or the Olympics because I don’t really feel any connection with the people on those teams, other than we communicate in broadly the same sort of way. That said, I’d probably struggle to have a nuanced conversation with someone who’s life has been totally informed by the culture of sport. We might be physically from the same country but culturally we’re on different planets.

(Sidebar: at University I worked in a shop with a proper sporty lady, captain of the hockey team and all that. We became friends mostly out of mutual fascination - we’d never really known anyone like the other before.)

A major thread through my adult life has been what I’d come to call “distributed communities of interest”, from the fanzines of the 90s connected by an international postage system to the post-millennial blogs and social media of the internet. This always struck me as a fix for those who don’t fit the dominant imaged community for whatever reason, and it was why I used to recommend looking at how marginalised and/or nerdy communities used online social tools because it would often be driven by a desperate necessity rather than curiosity.

Of course by looking at what we might call “mainstream culture” as an imagined community, we can see it as just a bigger version of those communities of interest which is arguably now being fractured into smaller and smaller communities as big media loses it’s hold. The Brexit years are showing us that the imagined community of Great Britain doesn’t work anymore. Within this the imagined communities of the political parties are also weak, working at best as dysfunctional coalitions, if that.

Britain is now a nation of many nationalisms. While the power structures may still be broadly intact, no community feels it has the majority to control them. Everyone’s a minority now. We’re all nerds.

When I was discovering and helping build communities of interest for “my people” I dreamed of a time when the mainstream media would lose its power. As the internet stole commercial media’s advertising revenue and the BBC was neutered in an attempt to balance the field it seemed like this dream was coming true. Control of the media would be proper distributed amongst the people! Yay!

Of course that hasn’t really happened - the control just went elsewhere - but the structure of the British mediascape has been totally fractured into feeding and serving a bewildering variety of contradictory communities, many of which desire totally irrational things incompatible with any sane reality. Which, if you’ve ever been active in nerd circles, will seem rather familiar.

What if, by making the world more nerd-friendly, we broke the world?

Had quite the International Women’s Day faux pas last week at work. Rach, a woman, was in the bakery and called out that she’d just remembered it was International Women’s Day. Neil and I, men of middling years, were in the shop and both misheard her over the sounds of baking machines, specifically the “Int” prefix, assuming that she’d said National Women’s Day. We both, in tandem, shouted back “INTernational Women’s Day” and then became acutely aware at how we’d knee-jerkedly corrected a woman and how ironic that was given the subject of the correction. To make matters worse the conversation became completely about us and how amusingly idiotic we had been, and then about how ironic it was that we’d hijacked the conversation making it about us. A double-irony, double-hijack, if you like.

Meanwhile Rach never did say anything about International Women’s Day that morning, at least not when Neil and I were around.

Goes to show it’s not enough to be aware of this sort of thing and to see it when it happens. One needs to work to iron it out of your behaviour too. We are programmed by the society we were raised in which, the older you are, was a pretty imperfect place (in Western societies anyway - I can’t speak for other places on the globe). Deprogramming that shit is a personal responsibility. No-one’s going to do it for you, especially not those who are negatively impacted by the programmes in question. And, like most things in life, there ain’t a guidebook. Just experience, so I guess the trick is to get more and more experiences.

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