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DigiCULT 19
o fulfil their potential, virtual communities
have to be anchored in real life', says Kristóf
Nyíri, Director of the Institute for Philoso-
phical Research of the Hungarian Academy of
Sciences of which he is also a Member. `They are
capable to act only if their members, at least some of
them, actually meet. Because if you really want to do
something, you have to trust the people you work
with. And for that kind of trust you have to meet
someone face to face.'
Although he is well known for his research on the
history of philosophy of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, Kristóf Nyíri also thinks and writes about
the impact of communication technologies on the
formation of ideas and on social and political orga-
nisation. He has written about the concept of
knowledge in the context of electronic networking
and has developed a philosophy of virtual education.
Being a philosopher it is no surprise that Nyíri first
goes back to the root of the word `virtual'.
`In our world "virtual" means digitally mediated,
but originally, in the mediaeval scholastic philosophy,
"virtual" meant "potential" in the sense of capable to
act. And indeed, virtual is very much linked to the
real world, because it refers to very real effects. In the
same way virtual communities are linked to the real
world.They cannot just exist in cyberspace.That is, if
you talk about virtual communities that are "capable
to act". I am not talking about virtual communities
that are meant for pleasure like, for example, com-
munities around a popular television programme.
They can remain virtual and still be able to function.
What I am talking about are virtual communities
where people collaborate to achieve something.What
I would like to call "professional communities" can
only be sustained if their members actually meet each
other face to face. Empirical evidence shows that
virtual contacts very often lead to face-to-face con-
tacts.The latter seems to be necessary to sustain the
According to Nyíri the virtual communities
of professionals, which include communities of
hobbyists, play a crucial role in safeguarding and
extending our cultural heritage. `Culture', he says,
`is not here for fun. It is an instrument that has
developed in the course of evolution to cope
with practical problems.We have to surmount
these problems in order to survive. Culture has
been instrumental because it binds people together
by giving them a common denominator. As problems
related to our survival are becoming more global ­
partly due to the instruments we developed to sur-
vive locally ­ a community based on face-to-face
contact is not sufficient any more. Knowledge is
scattered around the world.That is where virtual
communities come in; they are necessary to over-
come global problems by combining the knowledge.
So a virtual community is not something exotic, but
it is an extension of real life communities that is
indispensable for our survival.'
The virtual community not only combines
knowledge but it can also help in identifying and
defining these global problems. Nyíri: `You could
say that they are diagnostic communities, that pool
people's experiences.Through the exchange of
messages, new suggestions can come up for solving
problems. But that is just about how far it will go.
As suggestions crystallise into solutions, certain
people will crystallise from the virtual community
that have the necessary communication and
organisation skills to really do something about
the problem and take action.'
When it comes to really doing something, you
have to have face-to-face contact, says Nyíri. `You
are going to invest time, skills and maybe even
money by taking action.You are not going to risk
these investments by working together with people
you do not know.You have to have an idea of what
somebody thinks, not only about the problem that
you are about to tackle, but also how he or she stands
in life. In short, you have to be able to trust someone.
The Internet just does not have enough bandwidth
to build up mutual trust.You have to see him or her
in the eyes. Even a Web camera would not be
sufficient, because it does not allow you to smell
people.To smell out a rat, as the saying goes. It is as
basic as that.'
Institute for Philosophical Research of
the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
By Joost van Kasteren
Digicult_THI5_JS_090104 09.01.2004 14:33 Uhr Seite 19