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The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach

Author: Daniel Miller, Don Slater
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2001
Review Published: February 2005

 REVIEW 1: Maria Rosales-Sequeiros
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Daniel Miller

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:
  1. Dynamics of objectification denotes how people engage with the technology and are caught in a process of identification. Pure competition and entrepreneurship already exist as ideals of social action and personhood in Trinidad, quite apart form any involvement in the market or in commerce. Trinidadian business people are able to see themselves as naturally highly modern actors within pure market conditions at a global level. Thus, the flow of information and resources developing with the Internet on a global scale allow some Trinidadians to feel much closer to the kind of business practice that they assumed they already followed. A frequent and paradoxical theme is that one could only become Trini by going abroad. Trinidad itself does not offer the kinds of resources, freedoms, and world position that allows people to "be Trini" in a cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial, and world-class sense. The Internet may have helped bring the potential for being Trini back to Trinidad. Trininess is enacted on the Internet and the Internet enables the enactment of Trininess.

    The current buzz about the internet can be explained by its ability to harness three of the most important aspirations in Trinidadian society: to be in the vanguard of style (not reduced to fashion); to have excellent career prospects through the established prestige secondary schools; and to bypass formal education and teach oneself the skills of the entrepreneurial future.

  2. Dynamics of mediation denotes how people engage with new media as media, how they come to understand, frame, and make use of features, potentialities, dangers and metaphors that they perceive in these new media, and how they use the different technologies represented in the Internet: email, chats, web pages, etc. Some of the findings show that the heaviest and most universal use is email for correspondence both between relatives and friends and between businesses, with a faster and wider adoption among the young. Older parents and grandparents also see its potential to communicate with their offspring. Chat is more prevalent among the young and Trinidadian surfing of the net concentrates mainly on web-based email accounts such as hotmail, sending egreeting cards, doing research to prepare for education overseas, and surfing popular culture: MTV, games, music, and sports. Facilities such as MUD and newsgroups are absent but use of Internet telephony is spreading.

    All these Internet media fit within prior practices of communication. Trinidadians consider themselves strongly antipathetic to letter writing, but rather addicted to the telephone. Telephony is much closer to the kind of instant spread of news and gossip that is basic to that foundational principal of Trinidadian life: bacchanal.

    At the time of the research of this book, the Internet was a "hot item" and fashionable; it fit with a central preoccupation of Trinidadians, that of being amongst the first to know about what's happening and where.

  3. Dynamics of normative freedom denotes how people engage with the dialectics of freedom and its normative forms as they are opened up by Internet media. The Internet has produced new freedoms (of information and of speech) and come to stand as a symbol of potential freedoms. In Trinidad, people see the opening up of markets and the Internet as an opportunity to be grasped, as new freedoms that increase people’s potential. Their history of slavery and indentured labor makes freedom (and the quest for freedom) part of Trinidadian personhood.

  4. Dynamics of positioning denotes how people engage with the ways in which Internet media position them within networks that transcend their innovative location, and that comprise the mingled flows of cultural, political, financial, and economic resources. Positioning is about strategies for surviving or succeeding in these new flows and spaces. Internet media position people in networks that transcend their immediate location, placing them in wider flows of cultural, political, and economic resources. People think of themselves as actors on over more global stage, which could be exemplified by e-commerce: a single marketplace to compare prices from all over the world. Trinidadian society has long been constituted in relation to the global -- dispersed families, market orientation, geographic mobility -- and sees itself in terms of cosmopolitanism and freedom.
Thus, the Internet is a means to participate in global culture. From their marginal position, Trinidadians can participate in a global cultural space engaging in world music, global youth culture, or pan-national religious communities as cosmopolitan citizens rather than marginalized observers. They have a global self-understanding. The natural stage for being Trini is a global one. But identities have to be positioned in relation to a far wider context and are more dynamic than before. Trinidadians in government and business are examining their "competitive advantages" in terms of new technologies, entering into flows of technology and skills transfer from North to South, and trying to ensure that the extra mobility of the information society does not intensify the historic brain drain of gifted Trinidadians to highly paid jobs in the North, although in this ethnography transnational families and careers overseas are presented as cases of brain circulation, rather than brain drain.

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:
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.  <mrrss82@hotmail.com>

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