New Criticals

Skype en Abyme


"Close! stand close to me Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God.”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

A computer’s webcam is centered on the top of the monitor, just above the screen itself. When video conferencing, there is always a choice: look at the person on the screen, or look into the camera. By looking into the camera, I can, for the other person, simulate eye contact; on his screen, it appears as if I am looking right at him. However, for him to simulate eye contact with me, he would have to look into the camera too. In this case, we would both be simulating eye contact – simulating what the field of oculesics (the study of eye movement) has termed the “mutual gaze.” But neither of us would be able to enjoy the simulation – we’d both be looking at a shiny black camera lens. Instead, we opt to look at each other’s image on the screen. There is something of security camera effect, watching someone who doesn’t appear to be watching you. But of course, he is watching you, just as you are watching him – twin Peeping Toms, a voyeurism without scandal. The technology industry's term for this phenomenon is the “Skype gaze.”