Notes from digital self-contradiction
Pictographs from the website of the University of Berne
by JAN DISTELMEYER
Since mid-March, the new freedom of the state of emergency has been colonized by means of the digital. Whatever possible (i.e. according to the new given conditions), is to be done online. Obviously and quite welcome, the computer is proving to be the first and best machine for overcoming the boundary between work and leisure time that was once established for some. It goes as simple as this: existing Internet platforms prove their effectiveness as unchallenged centers of the social. Oldschool listservs are helping to organize solidarity. The new “home office” normality renders communication services such as Jitsi, Zoom, Skype, MS-Teams, Wire, BigBlueButton, etc. systemically relevant on a global scale. Friendships, love relationships and family ties are maintained or newly established by the very same tools. Schools, colleges and universities continue the daily business of teaching, learning, studying and teaching “by providing digital teaching and learning formats“.
This organization of “remote relations, cultures of distance” is the normality of the exception. The “live stream’s split screen” gains political dimensions in more than one respect. Also because of this: Whatever reality is now created and relayed by/via/as monitor and loudspeaker is created exclusively on the basis of computers. For all those who are not impartial towards the processes dubbed “digitalization” and who refuse to participate in them uncritically, the self-contradiction deepens.
More than ever before, I am part of and a driving force behind the networked spread and inherent dynamics of computer technology, from which I benefit and whose conditions, processes and effects are so urgent and difficult to describe precisely because of their comprehensive effectiveness. Whoever held seminars and discussed critical developments in a pre-Corona environment e.g. in media studies, software studies, cultural studies, platform studies, etc., has always been able to approach the topic of computerization by other than digital means. For the time being this can be called history: In the online semester and in the institutions’ emergency operations, everything concerning studying and teaching can (and ought to) be managed via the Internet. If computers (in whatever form) are now to be negotiated, computers are the only way and framework for doing so.
The (controlling) circuits are closing. Questions of data protection (especially delicate in the case of Corona’s superstar Zoom), licensing of (which?) software, availability of powerful computers for all students/learners, quality of internet connections, the possibility of discussions in online conferences – these and other questions about the new foundation not only have to be resolved within a few days; they have always been discussed on exactly the protocol-logical basis of Internet services and platforms that are at stake.
The decision for Zoom is reversed at a Zoom meeting. The difficulty of discussing “openly” in a videoconference is discussed as openly as it (cannot) be done in a videoconference. Suggestions for the “translation of teaching into online formats” as an “experiment in science policy that involves a number of institutional risks and also requires special attention from us as media scholars” reach and occupy me and many others online. Assessments (“Teaching cannot be simulated in environments built around projects, corporations, positivism, monitoring, and – crucially – loneliness and absence.”) and likewise calls for action (“Please do a bad job of putting your courses online”) reach me and many others online. At the same time – also in order to offer something to those who depend on it – the concrete planning of the online semester runs parallel to the commitment to take seriously this semester – not as a model but as a condition explicitly defined as a state of emergency.
This intensification of digital self-contradiction is affecting me strangely. It seems to me as if theoretical persuasions are now being confirmed not only in practice, but literally embodied. The basic conditions of digitality and computerization – the fact that processes of programmatic preparation, recording and filtering are happening that automatically exclude what is beyond the given conditions of the calculable – come to me as a bodily experience. After several days of continuous contact with the world via e-mails, chats and a lot of “telepresence”, I believe I can feel the exclusion. The “inexorable compression, compression, constriction of reality in (and through) the (handheld, desktop) screen” confronts me, at least I assume so, with fundamental issues. Rarely has it been so tangible to me that the Internet is not a network of people, but of computers – whatever great (and desolate) things people may do with it.
From here, out of the newly felt entanglement, the distance to what can be observed in more general developments decrease palpably. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the digital dynamics of the Corona crisis is that the wind has changed once again.
On March 3, 2019, Evgeny Morozov declared: “The observation that the ‘techlash’ – our rude awakening to the gigantic power of technology companies – is gaining strength from month to month is already a rush.” On April 3, 2020, Deepti Bharthur summarized:
“The year 2019 was the year of ‘the first great big techlash’, when regulators actively started to push back against Big Tech’s eat-the-planet tendencies and launched antitrust investigations; when users demanded greater accountability from social media platforms on their arbitrary content governance standards; when a US presidential candidate based, in large part, a campaign agenda on breaking up Facebook; and when surveillance capitalism became an ubiquitous term to be thrown around in common parlance. And then came the great sickness, which spread through all of the land and things took a different turn. […] The current global environment has made it possible for digital economy players to reshape themselves in a positive light and move away from the regulatory din that has surrounded them for some time. But more crucially, it has firmly reinforced their critical significance to the global economy. At the end of it all, their stranglehold over the world may be tighter than ever.“
The different procedures of and debates on corona apps, which make it difficult to distance oneself from the Chinese regime of capture (aka “totalitarianism in digital garb”, Kai Strittmatter), are among them. The fact that they come at a time when survival statistics bespeak such control procedures and the social immune system is currently being massively strengthened to fight any concerns regarding digitalisation does not make the situation any easier.
The “Corona data donation” (of the app of the same name from the Robert Koch Institute) may be given with more ease if the “corona crisis […] also makes the digital sceptics aware of the consequences of worldwide networking” (SZ); if “the digital, ostracized by cultural pessimists and progress sceptics as a refuge of human alienation, […] keeps work processes, the possibility of learning and social interaction alive” (Welt); when the German secretary for Digitisation describes the Covid 19 pandemic as “an initial spark” for “digitisation” – even if it is “a pity” “that it will take a crisis in our country too, so that we can rethink digitisation, abandon existing reservations and see in it the chances for improving life” (Spiegel).
Becoming aware of these discursive shifts and acting on them appears to be uncannily close. From one platform to another (Rosa Mercedes); this is how links work. This not new, but probably more intensive than ever. It is in this intensity that lies the chance to perceive the conditions of the present condition more clearly.
April 9th, 2020, 02 / Rosa Mercedes