Stranded in the Jungle--29


SEEN. Jenni has put her life on display. Every two minutes, an image from a camera in her apartment is uploaded onto the World Wide Web. The Jennicam has been online since 1996. Jenni promises to keep it running for the rest of her life. The photos come twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Whenever I want, I can see what Jenni is doing. I've never met Jenni in the flesh. Nor have I spoken to her online. I don't even know her last name. Yet I spend more time with her, and know more about her life, than is the case with many of my friends. I keep a Jennicam window open on my screen. I check it several times a day. Usually, it's while I'm busy with other things. I rarely give Jenni my undivided attention. But in my idle way, I keep track of her constantly. It isn't just a matter of sexual fascination. Now and then I catch a flash of breasts or pubic hair. But most of the time, there isn't that much to see. Jenni's life is rather ordinary. Sometimes friends come over, or a lover stays the night. But Jenni lives alone, and spends a lot of time by herself. She even works at home, as a freelance web designer. In the daytime, I see her sitting at her computer. She is typing, or staring intently at the screen. When she goes out, the camera keeps on running. Then I see her empty chair, a corner of her desk, and a row of bookcases further back. From time to time, one of Jenni's pets wanders into the frame. She has three cats, two ferrets, and a hedgehog. In the evening, I see Jenni in a black nightgown, reading in bed. Later, if she leaves the light on, as she often does, I watch her sleep. I have found that Jenni is not a peaceful sleeper. She tosses and turns a lot in bed. She moves uneasily from side to side, lying first on her stomach, then on her back. One moment, she is buried under the covers. The next, she has kicked the sheets off, and twisted them all about. Often, she clasps a huge body pillow in her arms. Now she holds it above her, now below her, now to one side. I can watch Jenni like this for hours. It's an odd thing, watching somebody sleep. Sleep is the time when each of us is most alone. The sleeper retreats into her own private realm. She shuts out other people, and turns her back on the world. As Jenni lies asleep, I cannot know what she is thinking. I cannot reach out to her in any way. The Internet brings Jenni to my desktop, but it doesn't give me access to her dreams. Still, I am close enough that my looking feels like a violation. The sleeping Jenni lies utterly exposed. She has let her defenses slide. She has allowed me, a stranger, into her bedroom. Now she is powerless against my prying gaze. She isn't even aware of my presence. She just lies there, passive and vulnerable. This body, this image, could be anyone's for the taking. And that's the paradox of the Jennicam. Its pictures are intimate, but not revealing. They show me everything, but tell me nothing. Though I see Jenni every day, I never get to know her. Her body is online, while her mind is not. It's the opposite of what they usually say about cyberspace. Jenni's real life is open to me. But her virtual life remains a mystery. Finally, it doesn't matter whether she's asleep or awake. In either case, she does not play to the camera. She does not even really acknowledge it. She just keeps it running, no matter what. As Jenni says in her FAQ, "the cam has been there long enough that now I ignore it. So whatever you're seeing isn't staged or faked. While I don't claim to be the most interesting person in the world, there's something compelling about real life that staging it wouldn't bring to the medium." It's a modest sort of exhibitionism. Jenni acts the same way on camera as she does off. She doesn't do anything special for her audience. Nothing about her life is unusual, except for the fact that she has opened it to the public. In one sense, this changes everything. In another sense, it has no consequences at all. What's compelling about the Jennicam is simply that it is there. To be seen is important. What is seen is not. Whatever I'm doing, I know that Jenni is around. All it takes is a few clicks of the mouse. And there is Jenni, floating in a window on my computer screen.

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