In my book “L’intimite’ au travail” Fyp Editions 2011, I discussed of the effect that written digital communication is having on the workplace. I showed how the extensive amount of private exchanges by SMS, email, IM and more recently social networking, is allowing people to stay in touch with loved ones throughout the day. This is happening in settings where personal exchanges had been banned for the last 150 years. This irruption of intimate communication is challenging a deeply rooted belief about the ethics of work : i.e. that people should be isolated from their private social sphere to be productive. I also showed how this concept is relatively recent as it emerged during the industrial revolution when people moved outside the home to go and work in specialised spaces of production. When machines were introduced which transformed the production process, labourers were required to work where the means of production were located. This progressively emptied the house of the work activities that were carried out there, both on farms and in cities where small workshops often were to be found in the homes.
This movement modified both the notion of workplace and the notion of home. It created the prototype of the workplace as we know it and set the basis for the idea of a private home. Until the mid XIXth century all social classes lived in a rather public way. Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil, had 52 people attending on him, in his room when he woke up. Strangers, co-workers and relatives would sleep in the same bed, rural homes were composed of a single room where humans, animals and tools were cohabiting. Different generations and different social classes lived under the same roof: the notion of family included the servants in most European countries. In cities, life spilled over from the home onto the street. The promiscuity of spaces was also present within the home, where bedrooms were not separated from other living spaces and if they were they were generally not seen as a private space.
The historians Philippe Aries and Georges Duby in their collection on The Private Life, describe the onset of the private dwelling and private family. They set the beginning of this idea and lifestyle with the emergence of the Bourgeoisie in the XIX century. The new social class, introduced the concept of the house as a refuge from the brutality of the world, the place of family, affects and personal sociability. In the bourgeoise home women did not go out to work but only looked after the family.
Within the buildings a very clear distinction emerged between private spaces, the bedrooms, and spaces for receiving people external to the household. In England where we find the clearest forms of new middle class buildings, the top floors were dedicated to bedrooms and private drawing rooms, and on the ground floor parlours, dining rooms and halls were open to visitors. As the homes progressively closed into themselves, rituals for receiving visitors emerged : dinner parties, visiting times, reception days and more recently, Sunday lunches,… The model of the private home, trickled down to all levels of society as countries became more affluent and housing conditions improved for everyone. Public and social housing programs provided blueprints for housing that mirrored in a small scale the values embedded in grander middle class homes : separate bedrooms, services and a public living room. As homes uniformised also did some of the visiting rituals. Elaborate dinner parties became barbecues, and cocktail parties, and new forms of receiving emerged such as playdates, world cup matches get togethers. Common to all forms of visiting is the fact that they are planned and follow certain rules : the schedule, what to eat, where in the house it takes place, what the visitors will bring and until when they will stay.
During the last few years in the process of studying how people are using new communication media, my colleagues and I have collected hundreds of timelines of people’s days. We systematically ask all the members of the household to write down everything they did the previous day : at what time they woke up, how long it took them to go to work, what they did when they came home, at what time they had dinner and with who. One of the most constant and surprising findings is the absence of visitors in the home. By visitors I mean anyone who is not a permanent member of the household, this can mean a close relative, a friend, a child, a neighbour. Analysing closely all the timelines we have collected, we have remarked that in hardly any of them can we see the presence in the home of someone external to the household. The homes seem to be essentially private. There are no instances of visitors coming to eat, have a coffee, play a game, watch TV or a movie, or any other joint activity. When we did this research in Switzerland I thought it was a cultural specificity, however recent interviews in other European countries showed the same phenomenon.
The only instances of activities shared with non household members are done outside the home, or we have very few cases of extremely ritualised events such as a birthday party or watching a football match together with friends. The private home is therefore not a concept but a reality of practice.
If however we superimpose on the timelines, not physical encounters, but virtual digital communications, suddenly the home becomes full of holes and very permeable. Every household visited, spends a certain amount of time, in the evening especially, communicating with friends and family via the telephone, cell phone or PC. For some people this activity can occupy a few hours every day, for others a few minutes. Teenagers can be seen spending 2 or 3 hours on MSN doing instant messaging with friends from school. Adults can be observed talking on the phone, Skype or mobile for long periods of time. Social networking, email and texting can also suck up considerable portions of the evening. The plethora of channels available at home is transforming the house into a hub for communication.
The most notable transformation of the last 3 years however, has been the use of VOIP with the webcam. It seems to have transformed communication from weekly calls to recap the events of the week, to a new form of spending time together remotely. What I observe people doing now with the clunky tools they have at their disposal, a small laptop, a narrow angle webcam, and bad speakers, is to spend time together. This means not just have a conversation together, but actually extending the limits of their living rooms to include another remote space in order to be able to do some activities together with people they care for and cannot see face to face. These shared activities are not dissimilar to what they would do together if they were in the same room : cook, have dinner, listen to music, chat, play and draw if they are children.
Recently a young woman we interviewed described switching on Skype and the webcam and just spending the evening together with her parents who lived in another country. She said she did this every evening while she was studying abroad. Her parents would also be just sitting at home watching TV or chatting. Occasionally her sister would pass in front of the webcam and sit down for a little chat. Another woman we talked to described how before a special evening she would show her friend the outfit she was planning to wear. She also told us of the time she left her two children under the supervision of her husband while she went to the shops. Her husband was 3000 KM away and was supervising the children via webcam.
The difference between a traditional phone call and these Skype sessions, is in the nature of the communication itself. While the phone call often required the narration of events and was therefore focused on past events that were not necessarily shared by the two speakers, the Skype sessions are focused on the present. They allow people to be together in the present and often collectively, a few people on either side of the webcams. The change of time frame supported by the webcam and the low cost of long connections, modifies the sense of participation. By enabling people to go on doing things at home without being uniquely focused on the conversation, people rekindle the sense of intimacy that is created by sharing a space with someone you care for. Empty moments become possible again, not every second needs to be filled by a direct converstation, because the webcam provides continuity in the connection. The emotional value of this experience is enormous for millions of people, it comforts, provides companionship, fun and enjoyment, and above all provides a sense of intimacy that is lost when people live far apart and can rarely see each other face to face.
With 250 milion international migrants and 750 milion internal migrants we are talking of 1bn people who have moved from their place of origin and probably another 1bn left behind. This is also a factor that is hugely increasing the number of communication minutes being spent online and on the phone. VOIP is allowing an incredible number of family events to be celebrated remotely, thus challenging the idea that physical presence is a condition for emotional exchange, and support.
The intensity of the emotions being shared through these channels is quite astounding, many positive emotions but also negative ones. We were surprised by a story told us by a young Algerian student Amina studying in Europe. Amina was chatting with a female friend on Skype with her webcam on, when some friends came round to her house. Amina asked her friend online if she wanted to be introduced to her friends and she agreed however when her friend realised that there were boys in the room she was embarrassed because she was not wearing a headscarf. Subsequently she spread rumours about Amina saying she was receiving men in her apartment and not dressing modestly. This case illustrates how “real” and present the communication is perceived via webcam.
What is particularly surprising of this phenomenon is that it is a social innovation that is happening “bottom-up”. It is users that are wiring together bits of technology to create these experiences. Nothing has really been designed with these elaborate uses in mind.