How COVID-19 is activating the digital society
COVID-19 is teaching us how rapidly things can change. All of a sudden, we are living in a new stay-at-home culture. This entails new norms and cultural practices that show what else the internet could be. An article about the digital society in the time of corona.
Even before COVID-19, virology metaphors were often used to describe the internet. Videos went viral, and the worst-case scenario for any digital subject was the computer virus infecting your computer’s system – and thereby destroying your work or personal memories. Ironically, it is a virus that has suddenly given the digital society a substantial push. As a deeply biological and bodily phenomenon, COVID-19 is contributing to a fast-paced cultural change with digital technology at its core. It is not just that new tools and internet-based social practices are emerging; the ones that have been around longer are taking on a fundamentally new social role.
It is no surprise that the collective move to our home offices has meant an increase in video-based communication as well as in the use of platforms like slack and traditional emailing. The long nights in are becoming a field of spontaneous experimentation that reveals the creative potential of the digital self. From digital museum walks, streamed opera performances, collective wine drinking, workout sessions and digital DJ sets on Google Hangouts, to sharing new creative hobbies and 4-week challenges via social media – the internet is currently showing what’s possible in self-isolation. Our bodies have retreated to our apartments, but our digital selves are taking a stroll out there as they have never done before.
Cultural change takes time – usually
What has often been seen as “wasting time on the internet” (Goldsmiths, 2016) has suddenly become a socially accepted, even desirable social practice. FOMO – the widespread fear of missing out – is history because there is nothing to miss out on. Anyone who decides to go out in the analogue world is criticised as irresponsible. This reversal of norms has taken place from one day to another. Isn’t it surprising how fast culture can change?
Corona shows us that we are capable of changing our habits. We may thus wonder why we never did this before. It is a human experience to be faced with your own contradictions. In my case, despite having had a smartphone for five years, I had a virtual breakfast with my grandma and had my first video call with my family this week.
A rediscovery of the internet
Besides an unexpected cultural and sociological change, a political question arises: what if it is not too late for the internet to develop its political potential? In her article “Too much world: Is the internet dead?” (2015), the filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl wrote that the internet had “stopped being a possibility”. Her article referred to the unfulfilled promises of the internet, such as free and equal access to knowledge. What if Corona is an opportunity to reactivate this lost sense of possibility? Can we make the internet a more critical, democratic and empathetic space? Out of the many questions currently arising, this is the most consoling one. In an introductory speech as part of the spontaneously digitalised #SpyonMe festival at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin, artistic director Annemie Vanackere described the current situation as an opportunity for a new “viral solidarity for art and life”.
Indeed, many of the internet’s abandoned promises seem to be back in play. You don’t have to be a digital optimist to acknowledge the empowering effects and encouraging nature of many creative internet practices. If this were not enough, there has also been a rapid change in structures that seemed so rigid and unchangeable only last week. Paywalls – a phenomenon internet users have learned to accept or subvert – have suddenly been taken down on several news sites, scientific publishers have made available a great amount of open-access literature and attendance requirements have been put on hold in almost every aspect of public life.
Corona is a political incident because it teaches us the concept of contingency: there is nothing that can’t be changed. Norms, resources and modes of production are shifting at a thrilling pace. We are witnessing a period of forced yet thrillingly connective creativity, and we could come out of this as a better digital society.
Two drops of bitterness
Of course, Corona isn’t just radically changing the internet – and certainly not just for the better. It still remains a space that is mainly structured along the lines of consumerism. Social media are featuring an unprecedented number of ads for home workout, meditation and self-care apps. Amazon is hiring thousands of new employees. This list could go on.
Working and living on the internet is a challenge for people, and it creates new dependencies on a vulnerable infrastructure that still cannot be equally accessed by all. This multiplies the burden of social inequality and mixes up the public and private once and for all – realising all the pitfalls of Gilles Deleuze’s “society of control”. Rightly so, the sociologist Richard Sennett has therefore warned the public to be very critical of political measures that make surveillance the new normal in the name of public safety.
The internet’s human side
Still, if we look at internet practices these days, we can see a brighter outlook onto the future than many digital pessimists would admit. Especially at the local level, many people are using their social media profiles to call for social solidarity and support for local businesses. We are being forced to think about privilege and to act upon it. The internet is becoming a place of solidarity and fulfillment of social and cultural needs. People aren’t selling their readings, knowledge, watch- and playlists, recipes and new discoveries of all kinds; they are sharing them. People aren’t surrendering to the situation; they are re-organising themselves and thinking about how to carry on whatever they do in the digital sphere.
And yes, there are beneficiaries of our data and commercially motivated influencers who are capitalising on the attention they are attracting. But even their role is increasingly socially and politically relevant, in that many are showing responsible reactions to the virus. They provide practical examples of how to behave. While the German Chancellor Angela Merkel could appeal to the citizens to stay at home, an influencer can also visually demonstrate what to do. If Miley Cyrus stays in, maybe so should I. Never mind that she has a much bigger living room and a private gym.
The COVID-19 virus is mirroring and seemingly enhancing many of the ambivalences within our (digital) society, and we are experiencing this in real-time on the internet. Corona is teaching us contingency and digital agency. The new stay-at-home culture is paradoxical, yet it has a great social potential.
Marie Rosenkranz is a PhD candidate at Zeppelin University. Normally, she focuses on artistic strategies in creative strategies in political debates. But who can focus in corona times?
This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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