Patrick Lichty: Zoom Burnout, Teletopics and the Age of Covid

Agony and the Ecstasy: Zoom Burnout, Teletopics and the Age of Covid by Patrick Lichty

The era of Covid lockdown is Zoom-time. Although at the time of this writing, the crest of the wave is starting to pass, its impact is evident. In over three months of lockdown, stay at home, 24/7 Zoom culture has come to dominate global telepresent communications, standing in for ever-present cyber-vernissages, online conferences, talks and visits. The need to work, communicate, and even socially function has necessitated the rise of platforms like Zoom and Adobe Connect[1], and what I have come to understand as platform politics and their neoliberal connotations.  Although places like The Well was founded and John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” [2] was created under the notion of cyberfreedom and fluid congregation outside of the agendas of capital, the Covid pandemic has created a scenario where the private sector has found tenterhooks into the foundations of institutional communications. This is not to say that Social Media (sic) does not do this, but one of the differences I want to allude to is the institution-in-itself (e.g. Facebook) as opposed to platform as channel of communication for institutions themselves.

Unlike a public utility, Zoom, as well as others like Adobe Connect and Facebook Rooms, are portals in which institutions found a necessity for network that was not facilitated by a commons, but by corporations, and by agendas of maximizing connections and communications. These two effects (institutional adoption of private protocols)[3] and the necessity of a will-to-connect)  are the poles in which capital has pushed further into the control regimes of markets, networks, and political engineering as to where private interests further govern sociocultural concerns. It even got the UAE to release its national ban on VoIP communications, which is usually fairly rigid[4], as it provides a significant revenue stream. Such a comment isn’t so much about any particular country, but the effect that Zoom has had on global communication under the Covid crisis.


Fig. 1 – The next Zoom Generation (Stock Photo, Shutterstock)

The idea of having online platforms be the lens for focusing social interaction isn’t new. Second Life, with its inherently capitalist foundations tried to tout itself as the 3D World Wide Web, almost like an analogy to the 3D Internet analogue in the Robert Longo movie, “Johnny Mnemonic”[5].  With the neoliberal dream of the Linden Dollar superceding John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, FOMO-driven corporations from Domino’s Pizza to American Apparel flooded into the platform.  Christian von Borries’ documentary, “The Dubai in Me,[6] imperfectly compares financial speculative evangelism between Second Life and the ‘Dubai Miracle’, much of which operated on the notion of rotating real estate speculation. For some time, this was reflected in Second Life, when the mythology of Chinese real estate trader Anshe Cheung  (FIG.1) announced that she had made her first million dollars on virtual real estate[7].

However, the differences between a foundation based on a technology (HTTP) and that based on a single-provider platform that clusters technologies under a single provider (Second Life), in that a provider (Linden Labs) takes a majority of the profit, and that the upsurge of traffic caused multiple technical issues, caused most of those glittering dreams to collapse within 2-3 years. Corporation after corporation pulled out of SL, and or years articles announced its demise.[8] With the Covid crisis, Second Life is in a resurgence, but this is driven by its community; not corporate buy-in. Another difference is that while the interaction with the World Wide Web is relatively simple, Second Life required a relatively powerful machine and at least a couple days learning SL’s rather cumbersome interface. In interaction and commerce design, the rule is that the least friction yields the greatest returns.

Fig. 1. Anshe Chung – First Millionaire in Second Life (Image published under Fair Use)

The socio(economic) frictionlessness is actually one of the more problematic points with platforms like Zoom, or Adobe Connect, and so on.  In the artworld, the friction that artists thought had to happen was a value proposition based on an exclusivity or access to an event or an object.  In cities large enough to have a community that harbors a consistent local art “scene” (e.g. Dubai, Istanbul, Tehrran, even Chelsea NYC), there are effects that come along with this social cohesion. Taking this in mind, with accessibility comes the expectation to attend.  Once you are there and become part of the scene, there are expectations to be met, places to go and to be seen. This is a crucial point – the demand to see and be seen. If a community like the art world, that in part is dependent on personal engagement, having access implies a demand to engage. Further linkage to privilege in the case of Zoom is multilayered, from communities that wish to engage, and from the company, wishing to focus social capital through its portal.  These sites of privilege include the access to equipment itself, and the fact that in order to have longer than 40-minute meeting access, one has to pay a fee to Zoom. This imposes another financial protocological layer beyond the assumed internet utility charge.

What is important about this will-to-access is not that it is from the community; it is resultant from the platform as well. These effects are the result of Galloway’s protocological layers in the sociotechnological network. The first layer of a demand-to-access is the expectation to attend by those in the mis-en-scene – but the other is that of the platform itself. In the end, the platform is a cybernetic system that is a control apparatus and a form of Deleuzian regime of control[9].  Although Adobe Connect has also been adopted widely (there is an understanding that it may go offline due to its dependence on Flash technology, which is being phased out by Apple), the frictionlessness of the Zoom platform has allowed it to be quickly adopted by the institutional community.  Again, without having a professional account, interactions are limited to 40 minutes.  This reiterates the socioeconomic limits to access to further neoliberalization of communications.  The emergence of a solution in a panic event-space mitigates an acritical adoption in light of necessity. The notion of panic adoption has resulted in the institutionalization of Zoom as one de facto standard without full best practices development.  There is a need, there has to be a solution, and the market supplies one, and it has to be adopted as soon as possible.  Just Do It.

The other challenge with post-COVID networked society is that the notion of access falls under the panoptic optical regime of neoliberal capitalism.  What this means is that, as Sara Cook noted in the discussions surrounding the Sleep Mode exhibition at Somerset House,[10] that internal documents by companies like Facebook consider sleep a challenge to their business model of attention optics. The show described sleep itself as a tactic against neoliberal infocapitalism’s need to consume and convert every possible resource into use-value. In another text, Event Horizons,[11] I describe that even if sleep were to be conquered, there would be the Malthusian limit of the sidereal day itself. How do you multiply the cognitive load of the attention span of one human being as convertible labor once the physical limits of the system are reached. Perhaps there are exotic solutions like parallel cognitive loading across multiple machines, monitor arrays like the bridge of the hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar from the 1999 movie, The Matrix.[12] Perhaps there are even more abstract metaphors likening the deterioration of attention to the evaporation of a black hole due to Hawking Radiation – but the reality is far more simple. A human being is simply not going to stay awake 24 hours a day to comment on your cat video, and taken to extremes, we simply cannot fulfill Zoom’s, Second Life’s, or whoever’s desire for us to be alone together constantly, forever public, forever panoptic.  It is an ontological equivalent to the 2008 financial collapse – expectations for access, like capital productivity, continue to balloon until all methods to appease the machines collapse, mitigating solutionism.[13]

It’s just not going to happen. Computers, and digital networks for that matter, are simply not sustainable technologies.

With the Covid crisis in the foreground, and the Climate crisis looming behind it, the sociocultural terrain has changed.  With the Coronavirus not going anywhere soon, and the automation of the labor-site, even if that labor is merely visibility, collapsing into the home, institutions see no need to be entirely physical anymore, and like the “gig” economy, investiture in the physical space is no longer entirely necessary.  Therefore look for a more “hybrid” ontology.

Relating to New Media Art of the 1990’s, There are some parallels largely minus the capital, when the network was the necessary channel for connection, then due to the small size of the community, now due to the necessity to distance.  But the frictions of infrastructural support are less with the privately funded model of Zoom.  In the neoliberal environment, when governments pull away from funding of infrastructures, favoring market politics, the ability to link capital to the network facilitates the platform. Period. Even incrementally, with minimal cost, this is a wringing out capital from the socioeconomic frame of need to solution, and Zoom life is the solution.

It’s a cost-benefit solution. Online portals like Zoom that create less frictioned telepresence give access to more programmes, create more opportunity to interact by the screen. But on the other hand, there is the pressure to take ten classes a month, be at twenty vernissages, call ten friends, up your productivity tenfold – from your home. A 2020 Washington Post article cites a National Bureau of Economic Research paper stating that the average American work week increased 48 minutes a day, and that meetings went up 13%.[14] And of course, this extra time behind screens will take mental and physical tolls in the techno-enabled world, like “Zoom anxiety”.[15]

It’s a win-win for neoliberal culture. Actually, it’s back to “The Matrix”, where we are tied into our scopophilic pods, viewing and being viewed. Zoom as new Panopticon, regulated by the frictions of the platform, epidemiology, and socioeconomic politics. As this writer sees the age of 60 on the horizon, speaking from a personal perspective, the cost-benefit of being increasingly online has not always realized itself, and in moving back to America in 2021 from the United Arab Emirates, there is a desire to be truly “hybrid”, that is to say, more engaged with the real, like more family time, friends, cooking, seeing nature, and being physically present.  This is also ironic in that VR artists are becoming more obsessed with realism through programs like Substance and ultra high rez scans, as can be seen on the Unreal Marketplace, an asset space for game-engine based media developers.[16] Reaching back into the real from the “Desert of the Real”.[17]

Fig. 3 “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”, Meme. (Author unknown, published under Fair Use guidelines)

But from this writer’s perspective, this is the frission that venturing closer to the event horizon of total access leads towards; the lure of connectedness while being paralyzed at the computer screen. In Virilio’s “The Third Interval”, from his volume. “Open Sky”,[18] he discusses the impact of networked presence on the body and the urban environment.  The notion of critical mass in the context of the lived environment is presented as analogy to develop the idea of critical space, in which the teletopia eliminated the body’s movement. He dates himself in centering on the megalopolis, where the Covid crisis points toward a return to the countryside, maybe not for the agricultural class, but the telematic class.

While the motor created a general mobilization of the population, collapsing space[19], telematic communication only requires the individual to be mobile on the spot. “Interactive desktop home shopping today”, as was coopted from a British advertisement for this writer’s Haymarket Riot Web series of critical rock videos[20], echoes paleofuturist ideas of pushbutton living, or even the idea of Holodeck technology from television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation.[21] The conquest of real space by the motor, as Virilio states, is replaced by the control of real time with the frozen, instantaneous 24/7 access of the network.  Stephen Graham, in his introduction to Third Interval,[22] writes provocatively that the model for the future is that of the online disabled citizen; the paralyzed body that is saturated by endless telematic mobilities. While Virilio takes the critical stance toward this movement, contemporary Covid culture at least seems to be seeing the new teletopia with a more idealistic view.

The metaphor for the online disabled individual, constantly seen and viewed, frozen by the will to access, with neoliberal social media desiring the eyeball’ attention, leaves it to be constantly pointed at the screen, like a contemporary version of the scene from Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.[23] This leaves the McLuhanist individual of the electronic global village in a conundrum of the benefits of immobility, and the instrumentalization by neoliberal capitalism. Having everything you would want from your own Matrix pod is the existential paradox of Zoom-life. The teletopia is the new meme-dream, as long as one accepts its regimes of control and the technical, social and political blind spots that come with it. It is also a site of resistance, as it is neoliberal forces that encourage this effect, and as Sarah Cook suggested, perhaps sleep, managing willful disconnection and social intentionality are the things that will shape the post-Covid culture.  For the time being, the telematic necessity forces humanity’s lifeblood through the funnel of the online telecommunications portal, but the approach to the event horizon of the 86400 second a day attention span event horizon, reconsidering quality of life versus being servile to services begs questions in the time of Covid and the Zoom-time burnout.

References:

[1] Although at the writer’s institution Adobe Connect was discontinued; apparently this was just licensing, but as Adobe’s discontinuation of support for the Flash technology takes place at the end of 2020, the future of the platform is in question.

[2] J.P. Barlow, Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Davos: Electronic Frontier Foundation. 1996.

[3] Alexander R. Galloway. “Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization” Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004.

[4] Bernd Debusmann. VoIP Services Banned in UAE, Telecoms Warn. ArabianBusiness.com, ArabianBusiness.com, 31 Dec. 2017, www.arabianbusiness.com/technology/386703-voip-services-banned-in-uae-telecoms-warn.

[5] Longo, Robert, William Gibson, Peter M. Hoffman, Don Carmody, Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Bīto, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, Denis Akiyama, Henry Rollins, Tracy Tweed, Don Francks, Barbara Sukowa, and William Gibson. Johnny Mnemonic. Culver City, CA: Tri-Star Pictures, 2003.

[6] Christian Von Borries, THE DUBAI IN ME – Rendering the World. Masseundmacht, Film, 2010.

[7] Roger Parloff, Anshe Chung: First Virtual Millionaire. Fortune, Fortune, 27 Nov. 2006, fortune.com/2006/11/27/anshe-chung-first-virtual-millionaire/.

[8] Rather than include one of the endless articles that heralded one of the many gleeful announcements of Second Life’s “demise” (an effect that I attribute to the corporate sector’s bitterness on a failed ROI). included is an article on its persistence. Emanuel Maiberg, “Why Is ‘Second Life’ Still a Thing?, 2020, www.vice.com/en_us/article/z43mwj/why-is-second-life-still-a-thing-gaming-virtual-reality.

[9] Patrick Lichty.  Notes on Control by Patrick Lichty. Arebyte Gallery, 2018, www.arebyte.com/notes-on-control.

[10] Sarah Cook. Sleep Mode Broadcast. Somerset House – Sleep Mode Broadcast, Somerset House , 23 June 2020, www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/sleep-mode-broadcast.

[11] At this time, Event Horizons is currently a set of notes in development on the limits of the leverage of human attention and strategies of resistance.

[12] The Matrix. Village Roadshow, Film, 1999.

[13] Robert Reich. director. Who Rigged the System, 27 June 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_sjfchNsiM.

[14] As an academic who had to adjust to Covid-19 situations abroad, McGregor’s appraisal seems extremely accurate, or even somewhat modest. McGregor, Jena. Remote Work Really Does Mean Longer Days – and More Meetings. The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Aug. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/08/04/remote-work-longer-days/.

[15] Constant online interaction has created new classes of pathology, like Isolation Sickness and Zoom Anxiety. Degges-White, Suzanne. Dealing With Zoom Anxiety. Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 13 Apr. 2020, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/202004/dealing-zoom-anxiety.

[16] The irony of this is that this quote came from one of the endless processions of online conferences that “Zoom-time” has facilitated, providing almost more insights and information than can be tracked.

[17] Although this quote, coined in the “Construct” scene of “The Matrix” is often attributed to Jean Baudillard in relation to his text, “Simulations and Simulacra”, it is actually the title of a title of Lacanian media theorist, Slavoj Zizek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso Books, 2013.

[18] Paul Virilio, “The Third Interval” The Cybercities Reader, by Stephen Graham, Routledge, 2004.

[19] The notion of spatial collapse through the technological acceleration of the body through the motor in the form of transportation technology the central theme of  Paul Virilio, “The Art of the Motor” University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

[20] While Haymarket Riot is a progressive Southern Rock band founded in the 1980’s by frequent creative partner, sociologist Jon Epstein, during the 1990’s, it changed to an Industrial genre trio with Sam Seawell, in which I created a series critical/tactical theory rock videos that were inserted into American graduate sociology programs as a early tactical media intervention. The quote was included in the first of the “Web” series, “The Voice of World Control” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CIvqdVUH34&list=PLFrQ2uiujisaR7OuJOenh-bU65CbdcOMW&index=6&t=142s

[21]  “Star Trek – The Next Generation, Episode 13: The Big Goodbye. Video, Paramount, January 11, 1988.

[22] Actually, Graham does “The Third Interval” a service in teasing out the notion of the online disabled individual in the introduction, which is only inferred in the original Virilio text.

[23] Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Burgess. A Clockwork Orange. Los Angeles: Warner Bros, 1971.

Bibliography:

J.P. Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. Davos: Electronic Frontier Foundation. 1996.

Sarah Cook, “Sleep Mode Broadcast.” Somerset House – Sleep Mode Broadcast, Somerset House , 23 June 2020, www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/sleep-mode-broadcast.

Bernd Debusmann, “VoIP Services Banned in UAE, Telecoms Warn.” ArabianBusiness.com, ArabianBusiness.com, 31 Dec. 2017, www.arabianbusiness.com/technology/386703-voip-services-banned-in-uae-telecoms-warn

Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004.

Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. Los Angeles: Warner Bros, 1971.

Patrick Lichty, “Text: Notes on Control by Patrick Lichty.” Arebyte Gallery, 2018, www.arebyte.com/notes-on-control.

Robert Longo, William Gibson, Peter M. Hoffman, Don Carmody, Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Bīto, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, Denis Akiyama, Henry Rollins, Tracy Tweed, Don Francks, Barbara Sukowa, and William Gibson. Johnny Mnemonic. Culver City, CA: Tri-Star Pictures, 2003.

Emanue Maiberg, Why Is ‘Second Life’ Still a Thing?, 2020, www.vice.com/en_us/article/z43mwj/why-is-second-life-still-a-thing-gamling-virtual-reality.

“The Matrix.” Village Roadshow, Film, 1999.

Jena McGregor. “Remote Work Really Does Mean Longer Days – and More Meetings.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 Aug. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/08/04/remote-work-longer-days/.

Roger Parloff,.“Anshe Chung: First Virtual Millionaire.” Fortune, Fortune, 27 Nov. 2006, fortune.com/2006/11/27/anshe-chung-first-virtual-millionaire/.

Robert Reich. Who Rigged the System. Who Rigged The System, 27 June 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_sjfchNsiM.

“Star Trek – The Next Generation, Episode 13: The Big Goodbye. Video, Paramount, January 11, 1988

Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Paul Virilio, Paul. “The Third Interval, .” The Cybercities Reader, by Stephen Graham, Routledge, 2004.

Christian Von Borries. director. THE DUBAI IN ME – Rendering the World. Masseundmacht, Film, 2010.

Slavoj Zizek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso Books, 2013.

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