The authors of this book are at pains to say that it is not about the impact of the internet on Trinidad. Rather, it concerns the "embedding" of the internet in Trinidad. Though this is doubtless a bit of semantic quibbling, they do make a persuasive case that there is no genuine distinction between the real and "virtual" worlds. The internet is no more virtual, say, than a country with different strands of ethnicity where people still feel loyal to a single flag. In fact, they demonstrate that the commonly accepted distinction between life "online" and life "offline" is altogether an artificial one.
Thus there are sites that advertise the family business on the web, or a special forum such as "de Trini Lime" that allows "Trinis" to spread across the globe and stay in constant touch with their friends and family members. It must be said, though, that the authors labour the point as if to drive it home to a dissertation committee.
But at least here you do not run into techno-babble about TCP/IP networking. Instead, alas, especially in the first chapter, which summarises the findings, there is "anthro" jargon that is no less intimidating. Here is an example: "Norms of Trinidadian internet chat that cannot be understood except as examples of what [Bruno] Latour terms a hybrid that is irreducible to either its human or its material agents. We trace other dualisms that the embedded internet renders increasingly anachronistic, especially that of production and consumption...." This sort of stuff calls into question the claim on the back cover that the book is "clearly written for the non-specialist reader". But happily the opacity of the writing vanishes almost entirely in the later chapters, where the book is highly readable and observant, and not infrequently funny.
The internet, the authors say, affords the average mouse-potato the opportunity to experience a Naipaul-esque enigma of arrival in far-away lands without ever leaving the shores of Trinidad. By virtue of the "expansive self-realisation" of the internet, a "Trini" may amplify his sense of Trini-ness or his adherence to his faith however much he wishes, by participating in chats dedicated to such themes with active participation from compatriots all over the world. There is a wealth of thought-provoking anecdotes throughout the pages of this book, such as kids in a junior school often calling each other by their ICQ nicknames, or the authors asking a squatter the "self-evidently daft question" whether he had used the internet - only to be bowled over by the depth and breadth of the man's knowledge of computers.
The internet has allowed the three core "Trini" values (the Trini Trinity?) to be realised for the first time in one individual: namely, being in the vanguard of style; maximising oneself through education in designer schools; and displaying entrepreneurial acumen by successfully bypassing standard channels of education. No wonder this has made the net "hot" and explains how it is greeted with the "heady aura" of an approaching carnival rather than as a bastion of high-tech super-geekdom. From my experience, readers in South Asia, especially in the cities, will likely feel a resonance.
Other topical internet issues such as e-commerce and web evangelism are visited in this book. Overall, the common thread is one of the internet intensifying the "offline" equivalents of these experiences rather than marking a point of departure. The chapter on relationships (chapter three) is a true gem, which I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who has ever spent any time on the information superhighway. This chapter will genuinely appeal to non-specialists.
Aniruddho Sanyal is a consultant in web technology in the United States.
The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach
Author - Daniel Miller and Don Slater
ISBN - 1 85973 389 1 and 384 0
Publisher - Berg
Price - £42.99 and £14.99
Pages - 217