Daniel Miller, UCL
Over the last two months I have been conducting fieldwork in the Philippines, based in Manila and the surrounding countryside, along with Dr. Mirca Madianou from the University of Cambridge. One of my long term interests in material culture is new media, and its impact on relationships, and the project that we are engaged in, which later on will also include fieldwork in Trinidad, is to take this to the extreme. If you want to know how far the media itself can constitute or transform a relationship then this can be most fully explored when a relationship is entirely dependent upon that media.
Over the last year Mirca and myself have been getting to know members of the Filipino Diaspora population in London and Cambridge. Mostly the individuals we work with are domestic labourers but many are also nurses. Although there are big populations of Diaspora male Filipinos, for example, working on ships, we are working almost entirely with women. Perhaps unusually for such migrant female populations, almost all our informants first married and had children, and only then migrated for work. For many reasons, they were restricted in leaving the countries where they worked, which in most cases were places such as Saudi and Hong Kong, before coming to the UK. As a result, apart from occasional Christmas visits, they have mainly been absent for the entirety of the time during which their children have grown up.
A Child whose mother lives in the UK
We went to the Philippines in order to talk to the children of these same mothers. Most of whom are now young adults, and in some cases have children themselves. We have worked now with twenty direct `pairings,’ where we are involved with mothers and children in the same family, but also with many more separate parents and children. In our discussions we usually start with a history of the time when the relationships were mainly sustained through the sending of letters and in most cases also cassette tapes. While today we have mothers who are using yahoo messenger, skype, and in some cases a social networking site, which is very popular in the Philippines, called Friendster. Most people are also aware that the Philippines has for many years been the world’s most prolific texting nation, and in the Philippines texting is central to the creation and maintenance of almost all relationships – in fact the greatest number of texts sent, tends to be on Valentine’s day. Without twenty or thirty texts a day people feel there may be something lacking in any given relationship. I think we startled a few people by using the phone for calling them, since in the Philippines this usually signifies an emergency or problem.
Image from telecommunications company in Manila.
We havn’t yet started our detailed analysis of the material we have collected over the last eighteen months, but it is already clear this will require us to work on two levels. We will obviously have to involve ourselves in the discourse that dominates this situation, which is simply a concern with the impact of this absence on the left behind children. Almost everyone in the Philippines has seen a locally made film Anak which portrays a young woman getting pregnant, taking drugs but mainly berating her mother who is visiting from her work in Hong Kong, for destroying her life by being absent for her childhood. This is a much debated issue in the academic literature, and we obviously have a great deal of information that bears upon this debate. In general there had been a supposition that the improvement in technology would be mainly significant in its ability to ameliorate the negative consequence of absence, as mothers who could now speak to the their children several times a day could to some degree recover their role as active parents to children on the opposite side of the world. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we found this to be far too simple a story; and that in many ways the improvement in technology can exacerbate, rather than improve, what are seen as the negative consequences of separation.
Learning to use the internet prior to migration
We will clearly become involved in these debates. But working as anthropologists it is already evident to us that the debate itself sets up often inappropriate and imposed presuppositions about what it means to be a mother, about the nature of childhood, about how communication operates in relationships, not to mention a failure to consider other aspects of the situation such as the wider impact of poverty and prior internal migration. From a material culture perspective, the way we hope to approach these more nuanced appreciations and engagements is through detailed attention to the media themselves and the precise nature of their position, not just as media, but as mediations in relationships. What is a Filipino social networking site? Why is texting quite so ubiquitous, other than just cost? What kinds of text circulate? Which messages are retained as memories? What is shared and what is private? How does each media manifest different possibilities of relationships and to what extent does it realise something within the relationship as opposed to create some new potential in that relationship? We would then want to relate these materialities of communication to more specific Filipino concepts of debt, kinship and obligation.
As often happens in such fieldwork, one starts with a largely academic reason for developing a project, as I just suggested an `extreme’ dependency upon the media. But of course once one starts fieldwork it is the humanity of the people one works with and the sadness and suffering that that is associated with separation, as well as the new freedoms and the ability to contribute to one’ family that takes centre stage. Although at this point we are focused on the Filipino Diaspora we are also very much aware that this world of remittance economies, separated families and transnational communities, is fast becoming one of global transformation and global experience, which makes even the ten million Filipino Diaspora just a small component of a vast new world. It is an issue that more and more anthropologists are likely to find themselves engaged with, even if it was never the topic they intended to study, simply because its prevalence and consequences will increasingly impose itself upon us. Meanwhile, over the next few months, we hope that we will be able to bring some insights to this particular and poignant example of the social and welfare consequences of new media.