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Around the turn of the last century, videotelephony transformed almost overnight from science fiction into a daily routine for a sizable chunk of the world’s population. And following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in January 2020, much of everyday life — work, friendship, sex, politics, and even mourning — has been forced through the lossy bandwidth of video chats. At its core, all videotelephonic tech is basically the same: your image is transmuted into a grid of pixels by a webcam, then compressed and reproduced on another user’s screen in something close to real time, give or take the inevitable lags and glitches. But that still doesn’t quite account for the choppy, uneven experience of life in the era of the webcam.
In a way, the webcam is less a thing than an event. When Apple and other companies started manufacturing personal computers with integrated webcams in 2005, it was as if a million unblinking eyes had suddenly opened to the world. Over the subsequent decade they multiplied further — covertly implanted within public infrastructure, integrated into kitchen appliances, glued to every hand. By 2013, more machine eyes were being created in Apple factories per year than organic ones in human wombs.
But considering that neither sets of eyes are self-sufficient organs, it is perhaps more appropriate to append than compare birth rates. The webcam eye acts as a prosthetic extension of the human, not only in the sense that it extends our scopic reach. It also redesigns the habits, norms, and systems that structure how we see and what we do with that sight. Mediated by corporate platforms and embedded within broader circuits of capital, desire, and power, videotelephony has a protean nature that goes both ways: as new uses are invented, its users transform as well.
The Fernsehsprechstellen (1936)
Properly speaking, the webcam did not create videotelephony. In fact, two-way video links had already been in use for almost a century before their arrival. Shortly after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he was debating the possibilities of a “telephonoscope.” By the 1930s, AT&T had a functioning prototype. Around the same time, the German Post Office Laboratory stretched 160 kilometers of coaxial cable from Berlin to Hamburg, and then from Leipzig to Nuremberg and Munich, allowing the public to experience remote video conversations as a novelty within a special booth dubbed the Fernsehsprechstellen, or the “far sight speech place.” This technology was instrumentalized by the Third Reich to demonstrate national technical ingenuity, just as they had used a live television broadcast — the first of its kind — for the 1936 Olympic Games.
In the 1960s, AT&T launched its Picturephone service, which brought videotelephony into everyday spaces. Both the service and hardware were expensive and marketed exclusively to businesses until a consumer model was eventually released in the 1990s. While cheaper than the enterprise models, it was still conceived, marketed, and priced as a luxury good for a niche executive-class audience. Only about 30,000 models were ever sold.
There was only one coffee machine in the Trojan Room Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in 1991, and about 15 young researchers were entirely dependent on it. So, one day, sick of the recurrent letdown of an empty pot, a young computer scientist decided to run some wires under the floor and connect a camera to a video frame grabber. His colleague then wrote a script to capture an image three times per minute and broadcast it on the “coffee club,” a local server using a client-side software dubbed XCoffee. The goal was to increase caffeine intake and thereby reduce wasted time, not to invent a new form of communication. Nevertheless, when the researchers moved the feed to the Internet a few years later, they officially — and somewhat inadvertently — created the first true webcam.
Following the 1994 release of the QuickCam, a consumer webcam that could deliver grayscale video at a resolution of 320x240 pixels, an online community emerged around privately run, publicly viewable one-way feeds. These broadcasts featured everything from scenic landscapes to largely uncensored self-surveillance, such as with the conceptual artist Jennifer Kaye Ringley’s Jennicam. Launched while attending Dickinson College, her “lifecast” (one of the first of its kind) attracted up to 7 million daily visitors at its peak. Averse to filtering, Ringley treated her feed almost as if a confessional and sometimes appeared on camera nude, masturbating, or having sex with a partner.
While not the primary purpose of Jennicam, these broadcasts marked aspects of what would come to define the adult camming industry. Initially free, Jennicam quickly started charging for access to certain content. Ringley added extra pages that shed light on her personal life, for example, featuring images of her pet ferrets. As her popularity grew, she faced hackers and death threats, but also gained public exposure and was invited on talk shows and given roles on television series. She formed friendships with other “cam girls,” and would visit them IRL. At the end of 2003, Ringley shuttered Jennicam, citing the introduction of an anti-nudity policy on PayPal. By that time, there were already reality shows like Big Brother, as well as countless other cammers who had drilled peepholes into their own lives.
When it was first launched in 2003, Skype was billed as a peer-to-peer communication service with “highly secure end-to-end encryption.” In fact, its Scandinavian founders (a Dane and a Swede) built the platform in collaboration with the Estonians who had originally crafted Kazaa, the legendary music-sharing platform that eventually was taken down in the face of piracy lawsuits. According to the company, Skype uses the RSA cryptosystem for key negotiation and the Advanced Encryption Standard for conversations. But since there’s no public review of the technology, it remains impossible to confirm when, if, and how these algorithms are actually used.
Hackers began to cast doubt on the security of Skype by the mid-2000s, and by 2009, the company’s top security officer offered a Glomar response when asked about their own internal access to user communications: “We provide a safe communication option. I will not tell you whether we can listen or not.” Turns out, they could — and so could cops. An Austrian police official claimed they listened to Skype calls without problems back in 2008, and, in 2012, the company allegedly handed over user data of a WikiLeaks activist to a private Dallas security company without a warrant or court order. In fact, back before the company was sold to Microsoft in 2011, Skype quietly launched an app called Project Chess, which was intended to share information with law enforcement. And when Edward Snowden blew the lid on the NSA’s mass surveillance program in 2013, his leaks confirmed that the agency had enjoyed total, unfettered access to Skype’s servers.
Over the course of two days and two nights in November 2009, Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow, wrote the script for a webcam-based chat website that would randomly pair users around the world. He named the site “Chatroulette,” an homage to a famous scene in the 1978 classic The Deer Hunter, in which American POWs in Vietnam pass around a pistol loaded with a single bullet and press it against their temple as they pull the trigger. The site quickly took off and, for at least its first few years, the experience of using it had some semblance of the dangerous thrill of its namesake — if you swap a bullet for a stranger’s dick.
An informal study from 2010 found that one in eight “spins” on Chatroulette featured someone exposing themselves or engaging in a sexual act. It skewed heavily male — around 89 percent as of the study — with users twice as likely to find a sign soliciting female nudity than female nudity itself. That same year, viewers reacted in horror when they were paired with a feed that seemed to show a man who had hung himself, dangling from a cord in the center of their screen. Later, it was revealed that the video was fake, a project by the conceptual artist pair Eva and Franco Mattes, known for capitalizing on the Internet’s shock economy. Today, the site has been revamped with “safety features,” including image recognition algorithms and moderators who look out for nudity and, presumably, corpses.
When Apple launched FaceTime, the proprietary videotelephony application now bundled in all its hardware, the app was heralded with a high-budget advertisement directed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes. In the television spot, Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” plays softly as well-to-do families use FaceTime to share tender, intimate moments despite being physically apart — presumably due to work travels. The message is clear: FaceTime promised to bridge the alienating distances of modern life rather than contribute to its cleft. Nine years later, a 14-year-old student in Arizona discovered a disconcerting bug in FaceTime’s group chat function. With relative ease, you could turn on somebody’s feed without their knowledge or permission, effectively allowing you to eavesdrop on anyone with an iPhone — at the time, nearly half of all Americans.
Studio 20 (2013)
One of the largest network of camming studios in the world, Studio 20 has franchises in Colombia, Romania, and a strip mall in Hollywood. Aside from the state-of-the-art technology, loan payment programs, and makeup services, one of their selling points is anonymity. In a Studio 20 room, you could be anywhere. In fact, the company website features a live tour of one of their facilities in Bucharest, though you wouldn’t know where without the operator of their live text-based chat. Instead, the rooms all look essentially the same: a red carpet, a bed with a fitted sheet, and some generic signifiers that might accord with the cammer’s cultivated persona, such as Audrey Hepburn decals, stripper poles, or a wall plastered with quotes by Albert Camus, Franz Liszt, Antonin Artaud, and Karl Marx. The windows, meanwhile, are covered with adhesive murals depicting cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Moscow — none of which house a Studio 20 franchise. These windows to nowhere are illustrated in a dusky palette of blues and oranges, as if locked in a perpetual twilight.
By the second decade of the common era’s second millennium, a panoply of videotelephony services were competing for users — as if primed for the “smart working,” “stay-at-home” reality that was rapidly approaching. Others had been acquired by larger corporate entities and embedded within their proprietary platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Once minor platforms quickly gained enormous user bases as well as ballooning revenue. Zoom, for instance, was largely unknown to the general public prior to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus earlier this year. Designed as a videoconference service for businesses in 2011, it remained unprofitable until 2019, while hosting niche communities such as gay crystal methamphetamine users — “zoomers” engaging in virtual chemsex orgies who, as sociologist Dean Ray convincingly argues in a 2019 paper in Somatechnics, performatively restaged in quarantine the experiences of the HIV/AIDS crisis. By mid-2020, Amazon’s Alexa ranked the website within the top 20 most used in the world.
Our “Live” Present
As the technological means for their capture and circulation increase, the format of self-broadcast, “live” media on various platforms — be it Facebook, TikTok, or Snapchat — have begun creating ricocheting effects across both space and time. In the United States, notably, brutal acts of violence, including extrajudicial murder against Black people by police officers — a consistent, horrifying reality since the institutionalization of slave patrols into police forces in the 19th century — became un-ignorable for previously complacent white liberals as video documentation of it increased in visibility. For instance, in 2016, the police murder of Philando Castile was captured live on Facebook’s video stream app, Facebook Live. Streams and recordings like his have contributed to growing outrage and mass protests that continue today, predominantly under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Presumably to assuage the unrest, police departments have been increasingly forced to equip officers with body cams, intended to afford transparency and responsibility. But footage is recorded privately rather than streamed publicly and, conveniently, they’re often turned off when it matters.
The fall of 2020 has turned red — a palette of hues that began with blazing storefronts and police stations has been reproduced in smoldering orange skies across the Pacific West, caused by climate inaction but blamed on chimerical antifascist arsons by conspiratorial vloggers on Facebook. On Twitter, San Franciscans offer advice on how to capture the fiery firmament accurately with an iPhone: quickly place and remove your thumb over the lens, or else the sky will be automatically “corrected” to blue.