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Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan, Webcam, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2014, 220 pages, £15.99 paperback, ISBN 9780745671475.
Also see Daniel Miller's most recent contributions to Society & Space: Could the Internet Defetishise the Commodity?
Used for maintaining relationships, developing social encounters and building business networks, the webcam has become intrinsic to lives of many. In effect, the use of webcams has become part and parcel of everyday practice. It is these everyday uses that are of interest to Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan in their recent book, Webcam. In the accessible and engaging style that we have come to expect from Miller’s publications, Webcam explores the socio-cultural effects of the webcam from an anthropological perspective. That said, this book will appeal to scholars from much of the social sciences and beyond, for its contents and core arguments pose important questions for what it means to be human, and connect with others in an age of instant global communication.
Primarily based on ethnographic research and interviews in the small Trinidadian town of El Mirador, where Sinanan’s doctoral fieldwork was conducted, the book explores everyday uses of the webcam from various perspectives, including how the webcam has come to alter notions of self-consciousness, intimacy, sense of place, as well as interpersonal relationships. In doing so, the authors develop a “theory of attainment”outlined in the opening chapter, which, unsurprisingly to those familiar with Miller’s more recent work, is entitled Conclusion.
In opening with what is essentially a conclusion, the authors helpfully provide the theoretical framework for the remainder of the book. Those fans of Miller’s work will no doubt appreciate this clever trick for it allows the reader to engage with the crux of the argument from the off, whilst the book is fresh, and not let it linger in wait for the final chapter. Those unfamiliar with this move will likely be divided on its merits, for the reader may require something more in the way of an opening introduction and a final tying together of arguments in the final chapter.
The authors’ theory of attainment suggests that digital technologies (specifically the webcam in this case) do not change the nature of what it is to be human, as it is commonly assumed in popular discourse. Rather, Miller and Sinanan argue that technologies facilitate new ways of being human, to which we have always aspired. Much like the introduction of the pen, phone and email, webcam technologies realise the innate human aspiration to communicate with others beyond our immediate surroundings. The theory subscribes to the idea that humans and technology co-evolve in a mutually constitutive, rather than deterministic fashion. In the chapters that follow, this argument is unpicked by outlining just some of ways in which the webcam has made possible the realization of the human desire of long-distant communication in face-to-face social engagement.
The bulk of the work explores how the theory of attainment is realised through webcam use in five key contexts. Drawing from the work of Erving Goffman, the second chapter explores self-consciousness in webcam use and it is perhaps the most interesting in the book. Combining an ethnographic portrait and a series of interview quotes, this chapter convincingly argues that webcam technologies have realised the yearning to view ourselves as others do. Miller and Sinanan make a very valid point in stating that “the self that they are drawn to is one they have never seen before. This is not the self as portrayed to the self. It is the way they look to others with whom they engage in regular conversation, as speaker or audience”(p. 24). This chapter will no doubt excite those interested in the contemporary debates on identity politics in the digital age.
In the following chapters the authors address how intimacy, sense of place, maintaining relationships, and visibility to others have been affected by the everyday use of the webcam. Throughout these chapters Miller and Sinanan offer valuable and convincing insights into the inner workings of everyday personal and business relationships. For instance, the authors make considerable note of webcam use in long distance relationships, focusing on how “always-on” and scheduled uses of the webcam have been adopted in an effort to re-establish both the commonly associated tropes of interpersonal relationships and the places in which these are commonly played out. Face-to-face time, co-produced practices such as watching television together and simply being together on screen are all brought to attention here. The penultimate chapter builds on the notion that the webcam has multiple uses in everyday interpersonal life. In doing so the authors revisit Madianou and Miller’s (2011) theory of polymedia, which suggests that multiple media channels have made it possible for individuals to tailor their choice of communication media to suit their desires in interpersonal communication. Primarily, this theory argues that the ways in which interpersonal relationships are managed have been affected by multiple media uses. Plausibly, this chapterbrings together their theory of attainment and that of polymedia in making the case that the webcam is bound up in a multiplicity of technologies, all of which are available to us to foster and realise our aspirations for social interaction, and essentially being human.
Covering the seemingly banal side of everyday life in relationships and not afraid to broach the subject of “webcam girls”or the intimacy of relationships, the authors deal well with the mundanity and taboos associated with webcam use, and for this they must be commended. The subtle and engaging ways in which Webcam covers a wealth of social and cultural perspectives is certainly an achievement. If a criticism is needed, then it must be that the book takes overly generous strokes in its broad coverage, which can result in some neglect for important considerations. For instance, the political dimension to the use of the webcam is rarely voiced, and when it is, it is hardly explored in depth. Certainly more could have been written in this regard. However, as made clear from the outset, this book is not an attempt to provide an overview of webcam use and its many effects on socio-cultural relations, but rather to unravel specific snapshots of culture, something of a tradition within anthropology. The book will nevertheless serve as an important starting point for future work in this direction.