2002 MLA
Globalization and the Image I: Imagining the Global

Jillana Enteen
Northwestern University


Networking Against Spatial Conceptions: Tamil Eelam on the World Wide Web


Do not cite without permission of the author.

In 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.

Possibilities 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 territory.

Mapping through TLDNs

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.

Tamil 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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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 history.