its current state, the Internet may be understood as a dynamic,
shifting network of computers and other electronic signal receptors
transmitting and/or receiving bits of digital information. Popular
conceptions of the Internet, however, depict this exchange of information
as delimiting virtual space. Privileging certain conceptions of
cyberspace over others is not a 'disinterested' aesthetic strategy;
the envisioning of space, like all forms of rhetoric, inscribes
particular relations of power.1 In this brief discussion, I argue
that current procedures for identifying the location of electronic
data, Uniform Resource Locators in particular, situate the Internet
and the world wide web (www) as geographically based systems with
corresponding geopolitical reference points in the physical world.
Rather than recognizing the networks formed through on-line data
exchange, the prevailing archeology of the Internet and www ties
individuals to physical locations. This perpetuates the belief that
our planet consists of a conglomeration of nation-states with bounded
territories and national subjects, sustaining, as a consequence,
the inequities inherent to this way of organization. Some websites,
however, resist this model, such as those launched by citizens of
Tamil Eelam, members of what might be termed a stateless nation
that uses the world wide web to argue their agenda, organize, and
inform electronic visitors. The designers of these sites employ
the notion of networks rather than presupposing that geographical
referents are the primary framework for meaningful exchanges.
of Network/Hierarchies of Space
Why has the image of the Internet as a network languished in the
popular imagination? If one must provide a "shape" for
the Internet, it would be instantaneously dynamic, changing minutely
whenever a byte of information is deployed. Networks accounts for
these processes more accurately than the image of occupied, navigational
space. The dominant metaphor of the Internet as cyberspace may have
encouraged the adoption of territorial metaphors (Dodge and Kitchin
75). Journalistic and popular accounts initially relied on cyberpunk
portrayals of the Internet, such as those of William Gibson's Cyberspace
and Neil Stephenson's Metaverse. These interactive systems are gridded,
Euclidean worlds, stretching uniformly in three dimensions, geo-metric
totalities. One influential example, Howard Rheingold's 1993 tract,
The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier,
as the title suggests, redeploys the frontier metaphor for computer-mediated
communication (CMC). This extends the logic of manifest destiny
and space exploration, ideologies reflecting those employed by European
nations to justify the colonial project, reinvigorating the U.S.'s
sense of entitlement and spirit of conquest.
Tongchai Winichakul uses the instance of Siam to explain one ramification
of colonial attempts at territorial acquisition, the mapping of
national boundaries: maps "anticipated. . .spatial reality,
not vice versa. In other words, a map was a model for, rather than
a model of, what it purported to represent" (Winichakul 131).
Maps do not merely represent that which already exists; instead,
they actively mediate the relationship between human beings and
space. Perceiving of information available for access by a remote
computer with a specific application and some hardware as a website
with a fixed location in the cyberspace of the www, to be traveled,
surfed or navigated and then put into perspective, located, and
mapped, forces current global conditions resulting from colonial
and expansionist practices upon the electronic domain. Conceptualizing
web pages as locatable under the logic of domain names and Uniform
Resource Locators (URLs) enforces the ideological implications of
mapping and displaces other discourses about electronic communication.
While some sites, such as those run by search engines, function
primarily as connections to other sites, the majority of websites,
particularly those dedicated to nation-state representation, assume
an unproblematic correlation between the world wide web and physical
The status of a web page depends on its domain name, the Uniform
Resource Indicator (URL) that presumes to locate this collection
of data in the vast territory of cyberspace. The connection between
this system of nomenclature and contemporary conceptions of geopolitical
configurations is most clearly articulated by Top Level Domain Name
(TLDN) suffixes. These suffixes were initially purported to indicate
the physical location of the computer holding the primary data for
each website. Nations that did not occupy bounded territories recognized
by the International Organization of Standardization, the ISO, such
as Tamil Eelam, were not assigned country code Top Level Domain
Name (ccTLDN) suffixes with which to organize their Uniform Resource
Indicators (URLs). Sites are often interpreted according to the
physical nation-state to which they refer, and names without nation-based
suffixes, such as .org, .com, or .edu were initially assumed to
be U.S.-based, reinforcing assumptions of the United States as originator
and center of electronic connectivity.
Yoking networks of connectivity to nation-states through TLDNs extends
the forces of capitalism, rendering a virtual topography where nation-states
with little power in the global marketplace become increasingly
invisible. In several instances, corporate entities have negotiated
for the control of the domain suffixes of small, less-powerful nations.
For example, the .tv corporation, a subsidiary of the Verisign Corporation,
sells Tuvalu's domain names with the .tv suffix at the home page
for this nation (www.tv [Image 1]). Finding any mention of this
pacific island nation on its national homepage is no longer even
possible. Until August 2002, persistent visitors could follow a
series of six links to find, deeply embedded in the website, a brief
description of Tuvalu and four photographs that blatantly implied
a primitive society with simple inhabitants (Image 2). In addition,
there was a commitment by the .tv corporation to allot a percentage
of its earnings for the purchase, installation and maintenance of
computers with internet connections for the island residents. This
island and Verisign's financial commitment no longer exist-at least
not on the world wide web.
There are many alternatives to this practice of mapping the world
wide web according to political configurations: employing the numerical
designations that underlie these text based space markers; or devising
generic URLs without regional designations. TLDNs are no longer
required to reflect a national affiliation, but corruption and incompetence
by corporations such as ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers) with the authority to assign TLDNs has hindered
the widespread deployment of alternative systems of notation. Increasingly,
however, suffixes such as .com or .net are understood to reference
international or non-local, albeit primarily economic, webpages.
Despite the popularity of these extra-national suffixes, ccTLDNs
continue to function as the most widely used designation for organizing
people, products, information, and interactions on-line. By "buying
into" the value of this system of nomenclature, website managers
and web page visitors accept that web pages possess real world referents,
thereby reinforcing current geopolitical hierarchies. Tamil Eelam
websites, however, offer several alternative models that resist
this territorial correlation.
Eelam and the Network
Tamil Eelam is a nation fighting for territory located within the
island nation of Sri Lanka, formerly the British colony of Ceylon
(Image 3). Their claim to this land has been refused by Sri Lanka
and by international governing bodies such as the United Nations,
and unsuccessful negotiations have led to violent conflicts between
the ruling Sinhalese and the Tamils struggling for independence.
Many Tamils in Sri Lanka therefore support a resistance movement,
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil
Tigers, who are committed to obtaining control over this historically
Tamil-occupied territory. In order to escape persecution from the
Sri Lankan government, which has suspended their rights as citizens,
a large number of Tamils have fled the island, relocating around
the world in countries offering political asylum. These far-flung
Tamils, together with their compatriots in Sri Lanka, constitute
the citizenry of the nation of Tamil Eelam.
Tamil Eelam national websites, launched and maintained by Tamils
no longer in Sri Lanka, embody networks with scattered and shifting
nodes. Although the websites representing the Tamil Eelam nation
attempt to place their nation on the geo-political map, these sites
execute a variety of practices that dislodge dominant connections
between the world wide web and real world locations. The domain
names they use challenge this territorial link, several websites
function as networks rather than virtual spaces, and their sense
of what makes community imagines bodies in diaspora as the crucial
network component that will enable territorial sovereignty. Furthermore,
web duration is premised as superior to territorial correspondence.
Sri Lankan Tamils in diaspora established a presence on the Internet
early--from controversial newsgroups emerging as early as 1991 to
several sites launched on the www by 1996.2 Tamil Eelam, however,
has no country code Top Level Domain Name (ccTLD) suffix to locate
and affiliate its national webpages. The citizens, situating themselves
as opposed to the actions of the Sinhalese-governed nation-state
of Sri Lanka, would violate Sri Lankan laws that forbid national
critique if the sites employed the domain suffix of Sri Lanka, .lk.
For this reason, the five most prominent Tamil Eelam websites--the
Tamil Eelam homepage, Tamilnet, EelamWEB, Tamil Sangam, and the
Tamil language site TamilEelam--each have URLs that do not locate
their nation according to their geopolitical coordinates.
As I've discussed, the U.S. based domain-names end with a designation
reflecting the classification of the institution housing the domain
server rather than a suffix marking the nation-state to which it
refers. Since no ccTLDN suffix anchors Tamil Eelam citizens to the
territory they claim, these web pages use the U.S. based TLDNs of
.com and .org. The .com suffix increasingly indicates an economic
function extending beyond the boundaries of a single nation-state;
by employing a .com suffix, the Tamil Eelam websites, like other
.com websites, break the cyberspace/geo-political correspondence
and diminish the centrality of the U.S. on the web by rejecting
a U.S. affiliation that a .com address would have, at one time,
presumed. While the .org suffix continues to designate U.S.-based
non-profit organizations, the Tamil Eelam webpages employing .org
disrupt the notion that on-line issues compliment the policies of
their suggested nation of origin. Since the U.S. government classifies
the Tamil Tigers as terrorists, Bush has proclaimed Tamils working
for national sovereignty to be enemies of the United States in the
current "war on terrorism." The .org suffixes that locate
these sites, one of which appears primarily in Tamil language as
a news source for Tamil speakers, and both of which support the
actions of the Tamil Tigers, illustrate that implied locational
markers need not reflect the opinions or concerns of the corresponding
host nation-state's government nor its citizens. These URLS thereby
resist the logic of previous domain naming practices.
The names of two of the most trafficked sites, TamilNet (www.tamilnet.com
[Image 4]) and EelamWEB (www.EelamWEB.com [Image 5]) function as
news services rather than as web-based locations standing in for
or speaking on behalf of a traditionally conceived nation-state.
Their webpages aim to respond to international condemnation of the
Tamil Tigers for terrorist activities by providing sympathetic portrait
of freedom fighters attempting to control their historically occupied
territory and by reporting the international human rights violations
committed by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils.
Both TamilNet and EelamWEB function in a way that diverges from
neighboring Sri Lanka's nation-state based website, which envisions
itself as a window for the outside world into a geographically specific
tourist destination or investment opportunity (Image 6). EelamWEB,
in particular, imitates news services anchored to a place such as
the New York Times (www.nytimes.com) or the Washington Post (www.Washingtonpost.com
[Image 7]), reporting on events of concern to the corresponding
location rather than providing a portrait for visitors. Rather than
reporting news for Tamils located in Tamil Eelam, however, who are
unlikely to have internet access and who presumably support the
cause, EelamWEB attempts to persuade a global readership. It's layout
adheres closely to on-line news service conventions, with along
the top banner, folders for specific news areas below the banner,
links to relevant sites along the left hand side, headlines and
photos in the largest frame with links for the entire article, and
prominent update information to suggest up-to-the-minute accuracy.
In addition, EelamWEB's special services such as an on-line store,
free downloadable games and computer wallpaper reflect the electronic
branches of these newspaper-based on-line news services. EelamWEB
provides news in a conventional format, and, like the washingtonpost.com,
offers items of interest to keep the reader engaged and likely to
return. Yet EelamWEB is primarily concerned with the achieving political
recognition for Tamil Eelam. The designs for the free wallpaper
downloads (Image 8) for instance, feature waves, an aesthetic reference
to both Eelam's physical location on the former island of Ceylon
and the "waves," as this site and others refer to it,
of resistance committed by the Tamil Tigers. The wallpaper page
also features a series of five maps that show the war zone and detailed
views of the land said to constitute the nation-state (Image 9).
TamilNet, also configured as a news service with no corresponding
territorial locatrion, claims to "report to the world on Tamil
affairs." This suggests a network of writers and readers sharing
interests on a particular topic rather than ethnic or national affiliation.
Some reporting in Tamil is offered, but the site is primarily English
language, the dominant language of the internet, thereby, like EelamWEB,
targeting a large constituency beyond the Tamil community.
Incorporating the terms Net and WEB in their names invokes internet
and wwweb specific references, locating these sites in a strictly
electronic realm. TamilNet emphasizes this; no maps appear that
outline the contested territory of Tamil Eelam. In fact, TamilNet
does not necessarily invoke national affiliation. "Tamil"
refers to an ethnic group that includes a large population not involved
in the struggle for Eelam. With no domain name that maps location,
no clear base of operations beyond the www, and services aimed for
a worldwide audience, these nets and webs, like their names suggest,
situate themselves in an electronic network rather than tied to
a physical location.
Although EelamWEB displays detailed maps that locate Tamil Eelam,
it too deploys a network metaphor by predicating Tamil Eelam upon
the activism of its citizens abroad. Tamil Eelam, the site insists,
is sustained by the Tamil diaspora; these remote citizens enable
the continued existence of Tamil Eelam. The "Our People"
link shows photographs of Tamils in exile around the world demonstrating
on behalf of Tamils in Sri Lanka (Image 10 and 11). The shape of
the web produced by EelamWEB is defined by the locations of its
participants; citizens in diaspora embody this web, providing an
ever shifting constituency connected through actions and intent,
one that transcends attempts to enforce territorial boundaries.
This assumed web, however, is not the focus of the site's content;
the daily reports center on the Tamil Tigers and their resistance,
as well as actions taken by Sri Lankan forces to curtail them. As
a result, the contested territory of Tamil Eelam links seamlessly
to these networked bodies around the world, and the political project
of national recognition is advanced without insisting that this
website possesses a traditional geo-political correspondence.
The Ilankai Tamil Sangam (www.sangam.org [Image 12]) similar intimates
that Tamils in diaspora are responsible for the continued existence
of Tamil Eelam. Tamil expatriates living in liberal democracies,
they argue, "are the only voice through which the voiceless
Tamils can speak." The Ilankai Tamil Sangam, also known as
the Association of Tamils of Eelam and Sri Lanka in the United States,
locates itself clearly within U.S. borders: "The Ilankai Tamil
Sangam is such an organization of the exiled people of Tamileelam
in the USA." Claiming the United States as geo-political referent
for the site calls attention to suppression and human rights violations
experienced by Tamils located in Sri Lanka, employing contemporary
hierarchies between east and west in addition to sustaining the
territorial conventions of the world wide web.
Not only are dominant visions of the world wide web invoked, web
presence is also proffered as a justification. Tamil Sangam's emphases
imply that existence on the web is separate, and perhaps superior,
to territorial correspondence. The site bases its credibility on
its lengthy web presence. For example, the moving banner at the
top of the homepage explains: "Sixth year on the web. Standing
Up for What We Believe in" (www.sangam.org/index.html). The
age of its corresponding organization is equally highlighted: "we
are 25" (Image 13) are the words accompanying the first image
below the masthead. This prominent link advertises the 25-year,
silver jubilee of the Sangam organization. Age and duration are
celebrated throughout the site; for example, the text in "Our
Mission" explains that Tamils speak "one of the oldest
living languages in the world" (www.sangam.org/Mission.htm).
While strategically employing territorial correspondence, this site
ignores the status conferred on domain names insisting instead that
duration is a fundamental criterion for world wide web credibility.
The Tamil Eelam sites refer to the physical location of Tamil Eelam
in vague, ideological terms. On the Tamil Eelam Homepage (www.eelam.com),
for example, the map of the nation of Tamil Eelam is only an outline,
shaded a darker pink than the rest of the island (Image 14). This
outline suggests a version of Tamil Eelam that is removed from the
physicality of its location, a common practice of Tamils abroad:
the nation is marked this way for children, and it appears as an
outline in maps, wall hangings, and, perhaps, in the minds of its
members. This consistent visual representation of the nation functions
as a sign rather than a navigational tool. By ignoring the specific
details contained within and surrounding the lines that form the
national shape, it provides an idealized place and national identity.
Symbolic Tamil Eelam supercedes and overrides the need for corresponding
territory. Pradeep Jaganathon explains, "Nationals of Tamileelam
have no desire to return to Eelam, nor wish to live there, but helps
them to keep living where they live. It is real, lived not as a
place, but as an image" whose space exists in virtuality and
in the imagination (Jaganathon 527). The outline of the nation functions
like a national flag, a symbol rather than a territory. Thus, rather
than following the common practice of linking national webpages
to geo-political coordinates, the Tamil Eelam Homepage uses the
shape to bind an imagined national community as a scattered network
of its members.
In the same way, The Ilankai Tamil Sangam website does not imagine
the nation-state of Tamil Eelam as an embattled physical location.
Rather than mapping Tamil Eelam, the homepage displays a palm tree,
implying that there might be more to its location than the "U.S."
while refusing any specificity. To find a geographical reference
to Tamil Eelam on the site's homepage, a visitor must click on this
image of a palm tree, connecting to a page defining the organization's
mission and displaying a series of three descending maps. The first
image is a map of South Asia, then a map of Sri Lanka. Finally,
at the bottom of the page in a location that requires scrolling
down, the Sri Lankan map with a black outline that represent Tamil
Eelam, can be seen. Tamil Eelam exists on this site as a sign, a
black border, not a detailed and defined nation-state with infrastructure
or population information (www.sangam.org/Mission.htm).
This brief examination of the effects of mapping the Internet demonstrates
that many alternatives that reconfigure or resist dominant assumptions
currently exist. The virtual existence of Tamil Eelam illustrates
that the Internet need not replicate current geopolitical configurations,
and that spatial metaphors used to describe the Internet exist in
tandem with other models. Deviating from the adherence to ccTLDNs
is a step towards alleviating the systemic inequities inherent in
current nomenclature and altering the way the www is understood
by exploiting the dynamic, interconnected and participant based
nature of electronic communication. This may ultimately contribute
to transforming conceptions of nation-state, national affiliation,
and the functions of new media.
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Dodge, Martin and Rob Kitchin: (2001), Mapping Cyberspace, Routledge,
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1 The most relevant discussions of power in relation to space include
Foucault, Soja, and Davis. Internet and cyberspace has been considered
from different angles by many New Media theorists including Benedikt,
Stratton, Sardar, Dodge and Kitchen, Sardar, Imken and others in
Crang, Crang and May's edited Virtual Geographies.
2 The group soc.culture.tamil-eelam never officially existed due
to constant violation of voting procedures. See ftp://ftp.isc.org/pub/usenet/news.announce.newgroups/
. Thanks to John Paolillo for this pointing me to this usenet group