The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach
Author: Daniel Miller, Don Slater
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2001
Review Published: February 2005
Daniel Miller and Don Slater's The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach is home to many counter-assumptions spread by earlier literature on cyberspace as virtuality. It transcends many dualisms -- real/virtual, global/local, subject/object -- and seeks to go beyond an analysis of the homogenization of culture through globalization forces. The authors take into account cultural subtleties, metaphors, and idioms that allow actors to understand and use the technologies in a way that is particular to Trinidadian culture. They take on Latour's (1991,1993) work on mediation, showing how science and society are dissolved into each other. Internet uses in Trinidad are hybrids that cannot be reduced to either its human or its material agents. The authors contend that this book is not a case study of localization or the appropriation of a global form by local cultural concerns. It is not about domesticating a technology. On the contrary, it is largely about how Trinidadians put themselves into this global arena and become part of the force that constitutes it, but do so quite specifically as Trinidadians.
This ethnography shows that the Internet is not a monolithic or placeless "cyberspace" disembedded from an offline reality; rather, it is numerous new technologies, used by diverse people, in diverse real-world locations. The authors' ethnographic approach, carried out through time, allows them to show how places are redefined in Trinidadians' engagement with forces such as the internet, as well as the different universes of social and technical possibility that have developed around the Internet in different places.
Their approach seeks not simply to ask about the "use" or the "effects" of a new medium; rather, they are looking at how members of a specific culture attempt to make themselves a(t) home in a transforming communicative environment, how they can find themselves in this environment and at the same time try to mold it in their own image.
The authors contend that Trinidadians have a natural affinity for the Internet. They take to the Internet naturally, fitting it into their lives effortlessly. It provides a natural platform for enacting, on a global stage, core values, and components of Trinidadian identity such as national pride, cosmopolitanism, freedom and entrepreneurialism. It also fits within their intensely diasporic family relationships. The majority of families have members at the nuclear level who are living in London, New York, Toronto, and Miami. Thus, Internet use evolves to keep in touch with family and friends in Trinidad but also to reconstitute or enact Trininess online, quite often with other Trini expatriates.
Miller and Slater's approach to the study of the Internet in Trinidad is one from material culture which shows the fit between technology and social order. This approach is concerned with "alignments" or "elective affinities" between Internet use and particular facets of what being Trinidadian is supposed to mean. This is done through the study of the practices of Internet use on a regular, everyday basis. This implies the need to examine not only the specificity of Trinidadian self-conceptions, but also the specificity of the technology, such as email, surfing, and chat. In both cases, Trinidadian culture and Internet culture are multifaceted not homogeneous. Trinidadians engage with the technology not only as Trinis but also as members of youth cultures, music scenes, career structures, shoppers for consumer goods, etc. In the tradition of material culture analysis, the authors are as much concerned with how subjects are constituted within material worlds as they are with how they understand and employ objects.
The rich data was collected using different methods and in several sites. For the section on the political economy of the Internet, the authors carried out several interviews in the capital, Port of Spain, including businesses, the ISPs (Internet service providers), and governmental officers. For everyday life and relationships, they "limed" or "hung around" in cybercafés, watching people go online and chatting with them. Miller and Slater also interviewed them, employed students from the local university to carry out household questionnaires, and followed them up with in-depth interviews.
The authors developed an analytical strategy based on "dynamics," a term that directs us to look for both the driving forces as well as the emergent patterns of change. Hence, they identify four types of dynamics whereby the Internet is assimilated into Trinidadian way of life and self-understanding:
The Internet in Trinidad is not restricted to an elite but rather has permeated all sectors of society. This is due largely to the collective character access has taken: workplaces, cybercafes, libraries, and increasingly schools are points of access. Nowhere in Trinidadian society is the Internet remote and inaccessible, and it is frequently wrapped up in sociable and familial relations. Although the authors studied smaller cities, they found a very wide spread of Internet use. Trinidadians adopt the Internet in pursuit of popular and commercial culture on the one hand, and domestic practicalities on the other.
The Internet does not appear to Trinidadians as exclusionary and divisive, it seems to cut across rather than exacerbate social divisions. The net acts as a leveling force mainly on the field of education, in a country where this is a path to social mobility yet the system is strongly skewed towards selection. Trinidad has an entrenched class system around the access (or lack thereof) to prestigious secondary schools. This is articulated with ethnicity: White, Syrian, Chinese, and Portuguese minorities assume that they will find a place in these schools for their children, while African and Indian populations are more disadvantaged. Jobs in Internet services or ecommerce were a route to a wide range of new and professional middle-class employment.
Interestingly, the Internet could be read in Trinidad as a kinship system. Kinship represents a potential pool of people whose circumstances determine whether or not there develops a bond of affection or whether or not a relative becomes an important node in solving some logistical problem. As in the transient family, one finds with Internet relationships that larger appeals to sentiment or obligation on the basis of nearness or proximity often have little authority. Rather, there is a pool of potential contacts that can be realized to create bonds of affection, sometimes including deep intimacy and acts of confession. As in transient kinship, Internet relationships are more dyadic, voluntary, and based on the continuity of their re-constitution through constant acts of exchange. Thus, it represents a continuity rather than replacement or opposition to "traditional kinship." Online and offline worlds penetrate each other deeply and in complex ways. The Internet is used in family relationships to roll back changes that were dissolving some of those relationships.
Everyone agrees that growth has been and will continue to be exponential, spurred on by factors such as massive increase in computer ownership and skills, falling prices of hardware, software and access costs, telecomms deregulation, and integration of the internet into a broad range of activities.
By reading this ethnography, readers will gain knowledge of rather deep cultural understandings and political economic factors that are embedded in socio-technical change and globalization processes, how globalization is constituted in everyday practices, and the enactment of national identity on the Internet. Likewise, readers will appreciate the centrality of place in the study of the Internet in Trinidad where "being Trini" and "representing Trinidad" are features that bind up the Internet and Trinidadian society.
Latour, B. 1991. Technology is Society Made Durable. In J. Law (ed.), A Sociology of Monsters. London: Routledge.
Latour, B. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Maria Rosales-Sequeiros is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, in Madrid, Spain. She was a visiting scholar at Carleton University, Canada (2002-03), and a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Kent at Canterbury (2003-04). She is currently writing up her Ph.D. thesis about international computer programmers' identity construction. Previously, she reviewed Local y Global: La Gestion de las Ciudades en la Era de la Informacion for RCCS. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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