How Trinidad became a surfers' paradise

The Internet: an ethnographic approach by Daniel Miller and Don Slater (Berg, £14.99)
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The Independent Culture

Hey, info-slave! Yes, you there with the grey pallor and the carpal-tunnel twitch! Looking for a way to tap your keyboard and drink rum till dawn? Want carnival and cyberspace?

Hey, info-slave! Yes, you there with the grey pallor and the carpal-tunnel twitch! Looking for a way to tap your keyboard and drink rum till dawn? Want carnival and cyberspace?

Then you need this occasionally abstruse, but essentially thrilling, monograph by two academics about internet use in Trinidad. Honestly. After reading it, you'll never make that long walk to your morning terminal with quite the same zeal - and you can show the door to those close-cropped globalisers who glory in the rootlessness of the Net, its disloyalty to any culture, its marauding mission to make everything real bow to the virtual.

Bunkum, say Miller and Slater. There's nothing "virtual" and everything actual about this wired society. Trinidadians (or, as they know themselves, Trinis) have embraced the Net because it seems like a natural expression of their national virtues - conviviality, cosmopolitanism and enterprise. "Being Trini" and "being digital" are seemingly at one.

The authors are clearly delighted at this; not least because it throws most of the conventional wisdom about the cultural effects of the Net out of the window. Remember how the Net was supposed to abolish petty nationalism and sweep us into a whirlwind of global consciousness? That particular cliché never made it to Trinidad. Every website the authors visit, whether its Trini hosts are at home or scattered to London, New York or Toronto, is encrusted with national flags, chatrooms devoted to "the ole talk" and downloads of soca and calypso. The web has become a way for Trinis to declare to the world their modernity and patriotism - as well as keeping their diaspora alive.

Once past the necessary jargonfest at the book's start, you find yourself immersed in a welter of heartening stories about the emotional powers of the Net. A Trini graduate tracks down his birth father, who left for Canada when he was a baby, by systematically e-mailing similar names. The son comes as a complete shock to his father's new wife, yet a new relationship builds across the wires. A Trini kid talks of his online chats with New York and LA hip-hop fans, and is bemused by the race violence his American pals suffer: "Here, we take a little piece of everything, and just mix it up".

The authors stress the singularity of Trinidad's history and why that might lend itself to such cyberenthusiasm. Trinidad and Tobago's independence movement was led by Eric Williams, whose Oxford doctorate was on the relationship between capitalism and slavery. Williams's model for national liberation was not the socialist vision promoted by the likes of CLR James. Rather, it called for rapid industrialisation nourished by foreign capital. The passivity induced by slavery was to be banished by a mass culture of enterprise, kick-started by a major commitment to education.

So the Net is only the latest in a wave of Trini enthusiasms about progress - the last being a consumer boom fuelled by the national oil reserves. When the recession hit, its impact was measured by the disappearance of favourite products. Trinis used to say that the best and brightest of the country were leaving so that they could get "real cornflakes" for their breakfast again.

Now the agenda for Trinidad's leadership is to encourage their digerati to stay at home - or, at least, give them some good reasons to come back. The best reason that Miller and Slater cite is almost too fabulously incorrect for words: the country's staging of the 1999 Miss Universe contest. Not only was the real event a roaring success, but the website was even more triumphant, receiving nine million hits and providing lots of digital trickery without even the slightest crash. The site also gave Trinis, male and female, the opportunity to celebrate Trinidadian pulchritude online.

Apart from its occasional PC (the ideological version) pieties, this is the best piece of research on social uses of the internet that I have come across. If Bill Bryson or Peter Mayle ever get their populist hands on it, there might yet be a net-topia in the sun for all us info-slaves.

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