I just got back from OTM 2005, held last week in Agia Napa, Cyprus. It is a federated set of conferences and workshops, covering everything technical related to (Inter)network information systems. The community-side of this conference is still a white spot on the conference map, but that domain is covered well by conferences like CIRN and Communities & Technologies
Agia Napa is largely an artificial town, Costa del Sol and Tenerife-style, mostly catering to the lower Maslow needs of fun-seeking Brits. To contrast that (lack of) culture, we went on a tour of the south coast on Saturday, and saw magnificent Roman mosaics, an amphitheatre overlooking the Mediterranean from a hilltop and 9,000 (!) year old remnants of houses, replicas of which looked remarkably like modern-day design buildings, having two floors and a dome-shaped roof.
On Monday, I again gave my Patterns for the Pragmatic Web talk, this time at the Computer Science Department of the University of Cyprus in Nicosia, the capital. Many good questions were asked, I really enjoyed the interaction. I am getting more and more convinced that the Pragmatic Web is a concept that could help bridge the gap between community and technology.
As you may know, Cyprus was divided into a Greek and a Turkish Cypriot part after the short but bitter civil war of 1974. The northern third calls itself the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", and has been backed by a considerable Turkish invasion force since the war. It is separated from the southern, Greek part by a 180 km UN buffer zone, the "Green Line".
Yesterday, before leaving for the airport, I still had an hour to spare. I decided to cross to the Turkish side of the island. From my hotel in Nicosia, it was about a 10 minute walk to the border. It was an unreal experience. Never before did I realize that a border is not so much the abstract line where two cultural entities meet, but that it can be a living entity itself.
Imagine following a small historical street, with normal bustling city life (meaning Greek cars aiming for you when again you forget that traffic drives on the left! :-)). Suddenly you see an empty, weathered UN post. Old deserted houses, partially filled with sandbags, alongside which is an old city wall, topped by a fence. Then turning right, you follow a larger road, leading to "The Gate".
The atmosphere now gets really strange. There is a Greek Cypriot refugee centre, covered with billboards accusing the Turkish of crimes committed. After having crossed the Greek Cypriot checkpoint, you are suddenly in no-mans land. To your right, bombed out houses, covered with sandbags and barbed wire. To your left, a huge old appartment complex, now in use as a UN headquarters. In between two buildings, you see UN troops marching. As you continue, what really strikes is the peacefulness and quiet. Sun shining, beautiful flowers among the ruins, the occassional person walking north or south, as if strolling in a nice park, rather than in a highly symbolic focal point of two communities utterly divided.
After a couple of hundred metres, nearing the end of the zone, you see the Turkish Cypriot and Turkish flags. Tension rises again. Interestingly enough, no military or police are, for the moment, to be seen. Guard houses are empty. There are only two girls issuing visas. Here you suddenly get transported back into the real world, since their computer does not accept the letters of the ID on your ID-card. Fortunately, they come up with the creative solution of only entering the numbers and leaving out the letters. Long live human flexibility over machine rigidity :-)
As you cross the checkpoint, life resumes its normalcy, be it of a very different kind. Houses look poorer here, there are many more people on the streets, talking, drinking tea. The mosque's loudspeaker calls for prayer. And yet, despite the obvious differences, it also to a large part feels the same. Similarities there have always been, the population was much more mixed and living relatively peacefully before the war. Many accuse the former British colonial government of having deliberately stirred tensions, which led to the current division. On the other hand, the UN having actively kept the buffer zone alive, surely has contributed to the peace and status quo since 1974.
I hope this little "blogwalk" conveyed some of the powerful emotions I felt yesterday when crossing this real yet highly symbolic community boundary. It triggered a whole range of questions in me.
What can we learn from the real boundaries dividing communities? Are they are a necessary evil or an impediment to the unification of communities? Should communities always be unified, or are more subtle exchange/"osmosis" processes to be preferred? To what extent should the boundary be a passive interface, leaving the initiative to the communities, and to what extent should it actively mediate between the needs and interests of the divided communities? What are the rules of engagement within the zone? What are the qualities of the boundary: how wide, opaque, guarded, inviting, controlling and so on should it be? What does history mean: an older, stable boundary probably feels and acts differently from a new one that is still forming?
And of course: what are the virtual analogues of these physical community boundaries? Virtual community boundaries are increasingly getting a focus of research, see for example the interesting "In search for a virtual settlement: An exploration of weblog community boundaries" article by Lilia Efimova and Stephanie Hendrick. I would be interested in any hints to related work that sheds some light on the questions I asked...