Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 19/02/2014

Solidarity or digital retreat?

Distance and borders are both concepts that are being challenged by NICT (new Internet and communications technology). What is distance when transatlantic fibre optic cables connect Europe and America in 0.02 seconds?

Admittedly, not all parts of the world are as well connected: although the Third World is home to 77% of the world’s population it contains less than 5% of all telephone lines worldwide. However, means of communication have been democratised; mobile networks have developed and today, as Dana Diminescu points out, the majority of migrants who are in precarious circumstances or who have no official papers possess mobile telephones. At the same time, the appearance of cybercafés has made Internet access a little easier, with these places acting as both an information crossroads and a point of intersection between countries.

Equipped with these aids and connected as a result, migrants can now stay in touch more easily with their families and relatives back in their countries or with expats in other places and thereby re-establish a certain degree of closeness. In one of the field notes recorded by Dana Diminescu, a young Senegalese man in Toulouse says: “Every evening, I log onto Skype. I call my girlfriend, my cousins in Senegal and in the United States and we chat together for hours.” Out in cyberspace, migrants forge virtual links, which allow them to be more present and active in the lives they have left behind in their home countries than they could in the past: “You know, I have a house back there.”, recounts a thirty-year old Tunisian, “I send back money and plans, my family takes care of the construction and they film each stage to show me. Afterwards, I call them to decide on colours or other things.”

Connected presence

Means of communication have developed from a purely conversational practice or one of communication as an alternative to the absence of communication towards a more complex and more connected practice, whereby the addition of technological tools helps maintain a kind of continued presence despite the distance. Agents of a culture of connection, migrants are creating a new way of being together, a form of “connected presence”, which is more dependent on the emotional bond than on the geographic or physical nearness of the parties involved. Neither should we believe, however, that migration these days is devoid of any feeling of detachment or absence. For many migrants, NICT is embodied by their mobile phones which, though they certainly allow for regular contact, are still linked with a certain level of frustration for both parties.

Nonetheless, it would be going too far to suggest that NICT is highly desirable. Studying the relationship of the Malian community in Montreuil with digital technology, Arthur Devriendt observes that these “novo-migrants” also wish to maintain a certain distance in regulating their communication with their families and developing certain avoidance strategies. The researcher also highlights that in many regards, the link purportedly maintained through NICT is merely an impression: the relationship with certain spaces – for example, the development of the village passes migrants by – and tragic events serve as an often harsh reminder of the barrier represented by the distance.

Integration through networks

The visibility and dynamism of this previously concealed culture of links restored through NICT can sometimes cause unease within the host country. After all, doesn’t this drawing closer to far-off places encourage migrants to fall back on their roots, to the detriment of their integration? According to Dana Diminescu, studies carried out paint a clear picture: the relationship of a migrant with the host country is “even more fertile if links are maintained with the country and community of origin.” According to the researcher, networks established online with the host country and the country of origin “resettle the migrant in mobility”. Thus, NICT, which offers a means of communication and information, allows migrants to feel a little closer to home while living their host countries.

Of all the networks maintained by migrants in their online activities, researchers highlight the importance of the diasporic network that NICT seems to reinforce. Indeed, as if spurred into action by a spontaneous solidarity, many migrants have developed electronic forums where they come to share expatriation experiences and pointers. Thus, Geneva-based daily paper Le Temps reports on the initiative of a Romanian farmer who had emigrated to Spain and who discussed with his entire village the difficulties he had encountered and how to overcome them via videos posted on YouTube. By contrast, Dana Diminescu underlines that in certain cases, connection is not always synonymous with openness and can even lead to a kind of ghettoization. In this context, she cites the example of a Chinese family of expatriates, the children of which remained connected with their friends at home via online gaming, only developing contact with their native social circle and not with other children in the host country. The family therefore requested assistance from an association to help their children open up and integrate. However, more than a dynamic of retreat, which is undoubtedly the exception, online diasporic networks generate a new dynamic of digital solidarity.


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