(First published in Man’s World, September 2000)
I can’t believe I’m doing this, even if it does qualify technically as research. For years, I’ve mollycoddled the family PC. Porn has not been permitted to sully its virgin screen. I stay away from chatrooms where descendants of Jack the Ripper might be tempted to talk dirty to my RAM. Audio feeds that might include incendiary material–Lapsed nuns fantasising about what lies beneath the papal robe? Manic Hindus discussing the respective merits of Krishna or Shiva as Divine Lovers?–have been banned from the speakers, which are tenderly nurtured on a diet of classical music and jazz feeds. And after all this, I’m watching as a live feed from Atlanta inexorably bears down on Jason (“radical designer”) taking a dump?
It happens when you’re wandering around the fascinating world of webcams, those nifty little gadgets that can be set up ala surveillance cameras to take pictures of you, your street, your cats, your vacation, your sexy spouse, and transmit those online in either streaming video or continuously updating picture format. Jason’s cam, usually on 24/7/365 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year) isn’t one of your X-rated hardcore watch-us-do-the-daisy-chain thingummies. It’s just that Jason, normally to be seen explaining bias cuts and the new funk look, is pretty casual about sharing bodily functions with whoever happens to be tuning in at the moment. He does, he says, switch the cams off when he needs a moment of privacy. The bathroom, however, is not a high-privacy zone for the man, and that’s why my PC is traumatised and the nice man who comes in to clean in the morning is threatening to quit rather than work in the home of raving perverts.
Of all the weird and wonderful things online, the one I found hardest to understand was the whole webcam concept. The personal cams, that is, we’ll get to the traffic cams, educational cams and wildlife cams later. People who pulled dog-eared photos of their kids out at a moment’s notice and people who forced you to watch the unedited wedding video were bad enough: why on earth would you want to share the unedited, dogeared version of your life with perfect strangers?
Sex and/or money was the short answer in many cases (surprise, surprise). For many gays and lesbians, webcams were a great way to make a political point and extend their social circles painlessly. For swingers and exhibitionists, the webcam was the logical next step. For porn sites, webcams weren’t even an issue: there was gold in them thar hills. Aspiring porn stars–it’s a highly competitive field–find that webcams offer them a way to put up a live biodata. For some companies, such as a satellite TV channel called Bravo, webcams offered a great marketing opportunity–Bravo sponsors a house with multiple live webcams, and allows young girls to live there for free, in exchange for having their lives on display. Sometimes, it was just the happiness of being able to share perversions, like the Japanese guy who got busted for using a webcam on subways to look up the skirts of unsuspecting schoolgirls.
It goes a long way beyond the bonk factor, though. There’s the 15-minutes-of-fame factor, where webcamming is an augmented form of egosurfing. The latter involves searching for references to your name on the Net; it’s only logical to presume that if you have a home page, or better, a webcam, www.google.com will throw up references rather than a disappointing “no items exist” message. Occasionally linked to this is a subtle, but more activist, factor: several people began “living” on the Web either as a quasi-scientific experiment, or because it fitted with their ideology. One webcammer I chatted with says that someday he expects to upload himself into the Net. Until he gets there, he webcams. Beyond all these is the extension of the photo-album: some of the most prolific non-adult webcam sites on the Net are all about nauseatingly cute children, pets, cars.
It isn’t all anthropocentric, either. One of my favourites is the Alcone Systems CatCam, set up to give you a felines’ eye view of their owner’s kitchen. There’s the genuine, official, one and only Watching Paint Dry Cam. I have a sneaking fondness for the Discovery Online cams, particularly the one focused on the shark exhibit at the Waikiki aquarium in Hawaii. The traffic cams are pretty big in the US and Singapore, and as WAP phones catch on, should be made mandatory in India. (“See the giant traffic jam at ITO in Delhi! Watch as non-credit card enabled rioters storm Crossroads in Mumbai!”) Then there’s the infamous webcam that tracks the nonstop party better known as Bourbon Street, New Orleans; the Amsterdam webcams that give you a briskly efficient tour of the city’s briskly efficient red light districts; and the non sequitor of the police webcam that takes a picture of the Cathedral of Berne every 5 minutes–not, frankly, the kind of stuff that makes for riveted eyeballs.
Uh oh. Jason’s through, and even as I’m wondering why watching some American twerp online on the crapper bothers me while watching Indian backsides array themselves along the railway lines doesn’t, he gets up, washes his hands and walks out. This cannot be happening. Pull the flush, Jason. Goddammit, come back and PULL THE BLINKING FLUSH!