Domesticating the Internet in a South-Western Chinese Town
26 Pages Posted: 2 May 2013
Date Written: May 1, 2013
This chapter draws on ethnographic evidence to examine the social implications of different methods of internet access on family life and kinship in a county-town in south west China. As opposed to many established theoretical approaches to the internet, which have places an emphasis on the separateness of online and offline spaces, this paper asserts that an ethnographic approach to the internet (as advocated by Miller & Slater, 2000; Miller, 2011) lends itself to a better understanding of both of these domains, and the interconnectedness between them. Adopting such an approach in this fieldsite precipitates two sociological observations: first, for young people who use the internet in the town, these online spaces predominantly provide mediated communication with pre-existing networks of friends in their immediate offline social world; secondly, that young people’s patronage of internet cafes to undertake these forms of communication with their peers necessitates an absence from an altogether different network: the kinship network of parents, grandparents and family.
Parents respond to their children’s absence with anxiety regarding their offspring’s vulnerability to an array of dangers perceived to be located in the ‘offline’ environment of the internet cafe (i.e. disease, dirt, radiation, immoral people, etc.); which far outweigh concerns they have for hazards that may exist online. This paper thus argues that the online occupies a unique place in these parents’ social imaginary, which cannot be assumed to align itself with certain Western discourses which portray online spaces as potentially dangerous or damaging to those that inhabit them (Turkle, 2011). Furthermore, rather than displaying awareness of, or resistance to, apparently monolithic nationwide-level state controls of the internet (which are often afforded precedence in Western media coverage), the town’s parents’ exhibit far more concern with local government measures and controls on keeping the environs of the town’s internet cafes safe.
This overriding concern with the safety of the environment of internet cafes, rather than online safety, has provoked a particular parental response. Parents in the town are adopting, in ever-increasing numbers, home broadband connections chiefly in an attempt to regain the presence of their children at home. This chapter will illustrate that the introduction of home broadband, however, creates a series of unexpected consequences in the home, challenging the flows and patterns of everyday life in the domestic sphere. The paper will argue that the degree of success to which such internet technologies are able to become integrated into family life is dependent on the extent to which these technologies challenge or sustain pre-existing routines within the home.
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