WMU News

Romanian scholar studies coexistence of a cyberculture and 'real life'

May 9, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- As Internet usage continues to grow, so does the fear that everything cyber will take over. Fear not, says a Fulbright scholar visiting Western Michigan University, for cyberculture is evolving alongside, instead of permeating, "real life."

"Many people operate in cyberspace and in real life without realizing the difference of being in the two realms," says Dr. Adrian N. Mihalache (MEC-ha-la-kay), a Romanian scholar who arrived at WMU last September under the Fulbright Scholar Program. Mihalache, a professor from Politehnica Universitate in Bucharest, Romania, originally came to WMU with the intention of assessing the quality of Internet Web sites and the Internet's ability to create cultural diversity. But within weeks of his arrival in Michigan, his research took on a new focus.

In Romania, the use of the Internet is not as widespread as in the United States and it is viewed as something for the wealthy. In America, however, Mihalache's Eastern European perspective of looking at this technology as just a tool was forever altered. He found that people here work, play and communicate with each other in cyberspace much like people do in "real life." He says the technology and use of the Internet is seeping into society and being embraced much like industry and urban culture were embraced during the Industrial Revolution.

"At first I thought information technology had developed some cultural meanings which were about to change the society at large," says Mihalache, "Instead, I saw that it was not the changing of a culture but the advent of a new culture, an alternative to the real life culture. People who live in cyberculture are also part of real life. This is obvious, but to me it seems that it is the same phenomenon that happened when urban culture was developing.

"Then, people still had something to do with nature-they still ate vegetables and meat,-but the most meaningful part of their lives was spent in banks, in libraries, in industrial companies, which is another space. You cannot feel and touch cyberculture, but it is real. It also exists in another space."

As part of his research, he is collaborating on a book, "The Ethnology of Cyberspace," with Dr. Arthur Helweg, WMU professor of anthropology. Helweg and Mihalache met while working together on an academic collaboration in 1993 at the Black Sea University in Romania.

In addition to proving that cyberculture is evolving as a "real life" culture would, the scholars seek to compare and explain the dissimilarities between cyberspace communities and communities in the "real world." Mihalache and Helweg have already presented and published several of their recent findings at regional conferences and in Internet publications.

Mihalache explains that their research is valuable to those in academe as well as average people, whose work takes them constantly into cyberspace, because knowledge of how both worlds operate will make them more efficient workers.

"Being aware of what we are doing increases dramatically the effectiveness of what we are doing," he says.

Mihalache is due to return to Romania when his Fulbright grant expires in June. He says he will continue to keep in touch with Helweg so they can complete their book.

"Unfortunately, we were not able to complete the book during my grant here because we were very much involved in this exchange of ideas, speaking at symposiums and conferences," Mihalache explains. "We have about half of the book written, and it's always the second half which is much more difficult to write."

When not busy at the computer in his office on the first floor at Moore Hall, Mihalache gives guest lectures, sits in on his WMU colleagues' class lectures and attends regional academic conferences as well as social activities, such as gallery openings and plays.

"I don't know the difference between work and pleasure," he says, with a huge grin on his face. "Work is pleasure and pleasure is work, and the greatest pleasure of all is this project."

For more information about the "Ethnology of Cyberspace" research, contact Mihalache or Helweg at (616) 387-5362.

Media contact: Pauline Oo, 616 387-8400, pauline.oo@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
616 387-8400