The Mobilix advert below first appeared in the Danish press
and on billboards in the early Spring of 1998. Three Danish words "Samtale fremmer
forståelsen" ("Dialogue promotes understanding") bridge the starkly
contrasted images of two women separated by an abyss of white space.
The woman on the left is white and stereotypically Nordic; she wears
sunglasses. The woman of colour on the right wears a veil typical for a devout Muslim
woman; only her eyes are visible. Both stare out of the advert at the viewer; not at each
other. For a reader, this advert may conjure up the binary distinction between the West
and the East, between native and immigrant woman, between emancipation and oppression,
between freedom of expression and censorship, between Christianity and Islam, played out
through the contrast between the women's appearances, dress, and fashion. This is one of
those Benetton-inspired advertising campaigns which ambivalently insert themselves
virus-like into contemporary social debates on, for example, immigration, religion, gender
and discrimination. This one promotes the salvation narrative that a value-free
communications technology can provide the means to overcome deep social and cultural
divisions. It also reinforces the assumption that troubles in intercultural encounters are
a matter of communicative misunderstanding between two distinct, homogenous cultures.
Compare it to the simulacrum of the intercultural in the image below.
The image created by Roger Zuidema for the book Avatars!
is called 'Avabar scene', a composite digital mixer of avatars from the many different
virtual worlds that have been implemented using the Internet as both communications medium
and distribution network.
All are gathered in avaface-to-avaface presence in a 3-D environment,
which resembles a large hall with a bar and dance floor, tables, pillars and an aquariam.
It is a bounded public space, a supposedly egalitarian, neutral place, where people meet,
chat, socialise and make friends. Since none of the software required to 'inhabit' the
different worlds yet have provision for avatars to transfer with integrity between worlds,
such a 'gathering of the tribes' in the new virtual 'global village' is not currently
What then are we to make of this fantasy image? Does it signify an
ecumenical vision of a global community to be realised through us 'inhabiting' new virtual
communications technologies with representations such as avatars? Is it a means to 'meet'
other virtual cultures, to surpass the digital apartheid of software interface design, to
potentially contaminate other cultures, yet to universalise affordances through
Given that these digital virtual environments often support a strong
sense of sociality and community despite their crudeness, and that they are created and
maintained in and through interactional, semiotic and linguistic practices, and that they
are likely to have a profound effect on society and (inter)cultural practices, then we
need to study them critically and prudently, yet with an engaging curiosity.
McIlvenny, Paul (2001). Avatars R Us? Discourses of
Community and Embodiment in Intercultural Cyberspace. In Allwood, Jens & Dorriots,
Beatriz (Eds.), Intercultural Communication - Business and the Internet: Papers from
the Fifth Nordic Symposium on Intercultural Communication, 1998, Gothenburg, Sweden:
Papers in Anthropological Linguistics 27, Department of Linguistics, Gothenburg
University, 129-147. Appears also in the first issue of the electronic journal Intercultural Communication, 1999.
McIlvenny, Paul (2000). Performing Re-mediation in
Graphical Cyberspace: Mediating Agency, Body and Identity in Virtual Interactional
Practices. In Digital Borderlands symposium, May 2000, Norrköping, Sweden.
McIlvenny, P. (1999). 'Here's Me Looking at Me Looking
at Me Talking: From Broadcast toWebcast to Served Talk in Virtual Worlds' Presented in
the Broadcast Conversations: Interaction in the Media conference, Roskilde,
Denmark, March 1999.
McIlvenny, P. (1999). Is There a Community in This
Technology? And Is It Gendered? Plenary lecture presented in the 9th Annual
Conference for Women's Studies and Gender Research, Aalborg, 11th - 12th April 1999.