Compared to most new media, the use of webcam platforms such as Skype and Facetime have crept up on us. Today, they have become almost taken for granted, at least for transnational communication, without much reflection upon their consequence.
Most people probably assume that these are not very profound. By contrast, this book starts by using this development to re-think what it means to be human in the light of this particular technology.
As is often the case with anthropology, it is the developments we barely reflect upon and quickly take for granted that turn out to be of the greatest significance, once we are prepared to force them from the background to the foreground of academic inspection.
Each of the subsequent chapters adds a particular argument and perspective, which gradually build to support this claim. For example, the second chapter examines the nature of self-consciousness, pointing out that the little box in the corner of the webcam screen is the first time we have ever seen ourselves as we actually appear to others in the course of mundane extended conversation.
Other chapters show how at first we see webcam as merely a kind of video-phone, the visual addition to ordinary phone calls, but increasingly it is used in `always-on’ mode’ which helps us to re-think the foundations of everyday living together within the same house. In the final chapter, we explore usage by commerce to see how webcam relates to precedents such as CCTV and camgirls to challenge our sense of truth, trust and authenticity.
Putting these together we create what we call `A theory of attainment’ which considers how we can move beyond speculative and more sensationalist ideas such as post-human or trans-human that seem to consider each new technology as though this was some fundamental challenge to being ordinarily human. Using our evidence of webcam use we try and consider a more sustainable concept of being human that can incorporate not just this technology but those that will continue to be developed in the foreseeable future.
All of this makes our book sounds rather abstract but actually we strive for a very readable style using extended ethnographic case studies of particular people and stories about their experiences. Even our theory of attainment is laid out in colloquial language which is intended to be clear and transparent, so that this book is open to both academics and non-academic readership.
Daniel Miller is professor of anthropology at University College London and one of the leading anthropologists in the world today. He is known particularly well for his work on material culture and his many books include The Comfort of Things, Stuff and Tales from Facebook.
Jolynna Sinanan has just started her post-doctoral research fellowship in anthropology at University College London, which is part of a larger project on social networking. She has recently completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, where she examined economic development in post-conflict societies, focussing on Cambodia.