Dispatches from the Quarantine 01: Silvio Lorusso and Geert Lovink

by Silvio Lorusso and Geert Lovink

“Media: we must work together to go back as soon as possible to normality. Normality:”

During these long days, thinking is hard. Coronavirus updates come from every milieu: friends, family, work, governments, finance, the economy at large. None of them can be ignored. Remember, we used to complain about information overload. What about now? Now that we’re uninterruptedly tuned to different sources, from apps, radio, TV and newspapers, to Whatsapp chats with people in various countries and timezones. Now that our minds are busy processing the conditions and worries of our relatives and acquaintances, the selective scarcity of close-by supermarkets, the permutations of our shaky working schedules, the proliferation of software to set up. We put effort into changing our embodied automatisms, such as the urge to touch our face. In many ways, we are not ourselves.

This ain’t no time for speculation. “Instatheory” pops up and grows old in the span of a week. Are we locked, not only into our shared rooms, home-studios and apartments, but also into the present moment? Probably. And yet much of this present will be the material for the leading images and motives of the years to come. Trends are crystallizing, counter-trends are emerging. The March-April 2020 shock is a bifurcation moment, a time in which things can take completely different directions, among which there is a also cosmetic recrudescence of the ordinary. We see this in the news: what was yesterday’s “I’m shaking hands” is today’s “stay home”. What can we do then? Here, we attempt to chronicle the present: making sure that apparently minute aspects of this state of exception don’t pass unnoticed: a new habit, a novel social protocol, etc. Change is taking place at various scales, all interrelated. Subtle adjustments of everyday life accumulate. Suddenly, not recognizing this everyday life anymore, we may ask ourselves: how did we get here?

Before this happens we look at the time being to spot new behaviors that we are more or less consciously adopting, to identify social mutations that might be here to stay, to discern which ones should be encouraged or prevented.

First, some considerations. Before Coronavirus was the time of offline romanticism, time to log off, to take a break, to rediscover the fantasized authenticity of meatspace. Now, it is the time of online defaultism. Business as usual can continue thanks to smart work solutions; podcasts and live convos can broadcast conviviality; the tedium of quarantine can be overcome with a good dose of Nintendo Switch and Netflix. And yet, we feel the paucity of this networked double of social life. To be sure, the online is no less real than the offline. And yet, they are not mutually exclusive, they aren’t meant to fully replace one another. More importantly, the conversion from one to the other is not lossless. Following Franco Berardi, the conjunctive exceeds the connective.

Remote work is in many ways as concrete and corporeal than in situ work – if not more: video calls foreground the imperfections of the medium resulting in headaches and a loss of focus. Mediocre wifi disrupts the Skype-human cyborg. Remote work brings the intimacy of the family into the work scene. Remember the journalist whose live interview on BBC was disrupted by the cheerful bustle of his kids, with his wife running to catch ’em? Well, this is everyone with a family now, all the time. The messiness of life penetrates the aseptic virtuality of the digital office. We used to think of the home as a retreat from work, we now realize that work used to function as a refuge from domesticity. We speak from the position of people used to do video calls, to manipulate windows on screen, to cut and paste files, but what about the others? People who suddenly find themselves having to install software, timidly approaching a computer that is not their mobile phone, trying to orient themselves in complex spatial interfaces? Digital literacy acquires a new urgency, novel forms of digital divide emerge. Will we witness a renaissance of the desktop computer?

The lock-down comes with a software lock-in: organizations are leaning towards pre-packaged, centralized solutions. We witness the zoomification of work. Live streaming is taking over the small and busy yet simplistic interfaces of social media based on text, images and icons. Before the Coronavirus, a degree of technical informality survived. Video conferencing, notes, memos, chats… everyone could propose and use the tool or service best suited to their technical needs, ethical principles and personal idiosyncrasies. The state of exception banned this variety and with it the right to refuse certain insidious functions. “Emergency” Whatsapp groups active at every hour of the day, mandatory reports on Slack to keep the whole team updated (which few then actually read), video calls which allow to monitor the level of attention of participants.

All of these solutions have sprung up like mushrooms. It might have taken a few days to create the remote working conditions for the coming years, and they certainly don’t seem favorable. Same goes with our appearance on Zoom sessions. Apart from all the ‘selfie’ concerns of the correct face and posture, we now also have care about sound levels, background, animals and kids that come in to disturb. It is their environment, after all. Were we ever asked to comply with this intrusion of our private space? We’re not sound engineers and have no private TV studio at home. All the anxieties of the emerging Influencer Class have now, overnight, become general concerns. History has thrown us back in 2005 as our work now consists of watching ‘user-generated content’, this time produced by friends, family and fellow professionals that were not quite prepared to become ‘streaming stars’.

Covid-19 became the message so that the medium of pre-existing conditions could stay unchanged. We cried “this shouldn’t be business as usual” during the usual meetings, with the usual schedules, to the usual people. “Stop” was the forbidden word. Cultural organizations, which fundamental role is to perpetuate themselves, demanded resilience, which is to say that their atomized workforces had to implement ingenuity and flexibility. All the while, the same workforces were putting together useful lists of resources, penning open letters and signing petitions to voice their concerns. They were doing this informally, in their own spare time, to the benefit of organizations.

The organizational burden offloaded onto the workers was three-folded: organizing the very content of their work, organizing its remote form as demanded by the organizations, and finally organizing a reaction to this very form. Not even a week was lost. In schools and academies, lectures and classes continued to take place, even when it was farcically clear that a pause was due. Dutch universities lobbied to obtain the status of “vital profession”. Was this a matter of self-esteem, of dreading the idea of being irrelevant in a moment of crisis, after all the “what design can do” and “impact” kind of talk? Cultural workers whose activities weren’t postponed or “suspended” were able to stay alert, improvise, and organize work, but not to stop it. This word, “stop”, crossed the minds of many of them, a few even pronounced it out loud at the risk of appearing antagonistic or even lazy, when everyone else thought that a display of commitment was their civic duty. In this case the bifurcation was clear: stop or continue. We chose to continue.

As one could have expected, political organization in times of the Coronavirus is frantic – and yet on hold. The idea that people, once online, with spare time on their hand, would cause a revolution in cyberspace is still what it is: science-fiction. Why? Because, that very cyberspace is preventing the suspension needed to observe and analyze the situation, the interruption that we call thinking. On the contrary, we simply “adjust” to this alien situation, which means that we look at it through the rear-view mirror of the routine.

Where are the online swarms that block, hack, delete, take-over the virtual resources of the rich and powerful? Are the DDOS hordes just busy with the Italian Institute for Social Security? Is it the problem that they got sucked on Discord, or even on Slack, our rebels without a cause? What are we dreaming of here, anyway? Should we reclaim asynchronicity? Instead, we’re faced with various degrees of desperation and isolation, in which any form of wild and unexpected ‘computer-mediated communication’ is 100% not taking place. Instead, we’re trapped in the 24/7 virtual golden cages of the past, filter bubbles that rarely feel comforting.

Is it the real encounter we desire? How should we, European get there?

In solidarity, against sentimentalism.

Precarious, with worse to come.