An Island No More

Nov 28, 2009

Beach scene with native hut on the island of Aruba, N.A.
Grabba Da Hut

ARUBA, N.A. – Aruba is a small desert island about twenty miles off the coast of Venezuela. It’s warm and sunny, yet dry. The trade winds send a gentle breeze across the landscape 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – an ever-pleasant kind of outdoor air conditioning. The water is exceptionally clean and pure because with so little rain, it flows not from na­ture but from the world’s third largest desalinization plant. You can speak Spanish, Dutch, English, or the local dialect, Papiamento.

A few years ago, there was intense media coverage of the disappearance of tour­ist Natalee Holloway. Arubans refer to that tragic incident and its consequences simply as “Natalee”. (Usually accompanied by a sad shake of the head.) In Aruba, this was a rare, un­char­ac­ter­ist­ic event. It’s always been very safe here. Now, it’s safe beyond safe – with security guards everywhere – looking bored beyond bored since there was never much of anything to prevent in the first place.

A Floating Suburb Of Anywhere You Want To Be

Nothing has brought more change to the islands of the world like the web. Cut off for so long, islanders have embraced Internet technology like a divorced parent embraces their child after a long separation. Eager to make up for lost time. The web’s ability to break through the barriers imposed by isolation is one of it’s wonders.

I don’t think it’s an accident that many islands have become hotbeds of web development, with activity levels far beyond what the size and previous inclinations of the population would suggest. Look at Australia, long isolated by geography. Look at Israel, isolated by demographics and cultural hostility. Here in Aruba, in front of the networked screen, I could just as easily be in Philadelphia.

The Hunger To Contribute

On the plane here, I noticed that the guy sitting next to me was studying Cascading Style Sheets. We started talking. His name is Rajeesh. He’s Dutch of Indian ancestry. He moved to Aruba fifteen years ago. His brother lives in Nevada, USA and, together, they run a web design shop with about fifteen sites. However, his main business on the island and his main source of income is – get this – wholesale seafood. A venture he got involved with right after moving to the island and well before his involvement with the web. For him, web work is a matter of choice – not money. And he mock-complained that it kept him up until three in the morning when he still had to get up to run his other business.

Why are people drawn to the web in this way? What drives them to participate? I’ve been reading the book Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture by Tartleton Gillespie. I was struck by a section that was ostensibly about open source but talked specifically about people like Rajeesh – and how the “familiar dichotomy of of ordinary users and professional experts” masks the great contribution made by those who fit into neither category.

“[There is a class] of users who are skilled but not professional. Who are capable of developing uncommon tools and able to make them easily accessible online” … “there exists a class of amateur experts somewhere between the poles of consumer and professional, who are regularly marginalized by the way we narrate the history of technological innovation.”

How many are there? Millions? Tens of millions? Hundreds of millions? Or is it simply more accurate to make the leap and acknowledge that the world online is now the world community and why make silly distinctions?

Rajeesh mentioned to me that he had started using anchor tags to subdivide his content and make linking to individual sections of pages easier. (A great idea -BTW) I had been reading and thinking about that recently and had made a mental note to start making it a regular practice in my own work. Rajeesh’s comment was just the prodding I needed.

Professional, amateur, expert, hobbyist: Whatever you are, wherever you are, you’re an island no more.

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