Agony and the Ecstasy: Net-hanging in the age of Covid
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, and what I have come to understand as platform politics and their neoliberal connotations. Although places like The Well and John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Cyberspace Independence call and were founded 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 does not do this, but one of the differences I want to allude to is the institution-in-itself (facebook) as opposed to platform as channel of communication for institutions. Unlike a public utility, Zoom, as well as others like Adobe Connect, and Facebook Rooms, and so on 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 [Galloway] 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. That isn;t so much about any particular country, but the effect that Zoom has had on global communication under the Covid crisis.
This isn’t the first time the idea of having online platforms be the lens for focusing social interaction. 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. With the neoliberal dream of the Linden Dollar superceding John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Cyberspace Independence, FOMO-driven corporations from Domino’s Pizza to Playboy flooded into the platform. christian von borries, documentary, The Dubai in Me, imperfectly compares financial speculative evangelicalism 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 Chung announced that she had made her first million dollars on virtual real estates. However the differences between a foundation based on a technology (HTTP) and that based on a single-provider platform (Second Life) in that a provider often 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. 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.
But then, the socio(economic) frictionlessness is one of the biggest problems with platforms like Zoom, or Adobe Connect, or whatever flavor you mention. In the artworld, I always saw the necessary friction that artists thought had to happen was exclusivity or access, to an event or an object. But then, I had not inhabited Istanbul or Dubai, which are big enough cities with capital to support a contemporary cultural community, (and even Chelsea is similar), but with accessibility comes the expectation to access. Once you are there and become part of the community, there are expectations to be met, places to be seen. And this is a crucial point – the demand to be seen. 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.
What is important about this will-to-access is not that it is resultant from the community, it is resultant from the platform. The first layer of a demand-to-access is expectations to attend, but the other is that of the platform, and in the end, the platform is a cybernetic system that os a control apparatus. Although Adobe Connect has also been adopted widely, the frictionlessness of the Zoom platform has allowed it to be quickly adopted by the institutional community, and without having a professional account, interactions are limited to 40 minutes. This has a number of effects from further 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. This means that Zoom, although possessing the least friction, is corporate, requires payment for the best experience, and still mitigates certain resources for optimum connection. And the notion of panic adoption has resulted in the institutionalization of Zoom as one de facto standard without full security or 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.
The other problem with post-COVID networked society is that the notion of access falls under the optical control regime of neoliberal capitalism. What this means is that, as Sara Cook noted in the discussions surrounding the Sleep Mode exhibition at Somerset House, 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, 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 once the physical limits of the system are met. Perhaps there are exotic solutions like parallel cognitive loading across multiple machines, or 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 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.
It’s just not going to happen.
Things have changed. With the Coronavirus not going anywhere soon, and the automation of the labor-site, even if that labor is visibility, collapses 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, 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 of the socioeconomic frame of need to solution, and Zoom life is the solution.
It’s a cost-benefit solution. Online portals like Zoom 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. It’s a win-win. Actually, it’s more like The Matrix, where we are tied into our scopophilic pods, viewing and being viewed. Zoom as new Panopticon, regulate by the frictions of the platform, epidemiology, and socioeconomic politics. As I see the age of 60 on the horizon, I realize that the cost-benefit of being increasingly online has not always realized itself, and when I move back to America in 2021, I want to be truly “hybrid”, that is, more engaged with the real, like time with my family cooking, seeing nature, and being physically present with friends. This is also ironic in that VR artists are becoming more obsessed with realism through programs like Substance and ultra high rez scans.
But from this writer’s perspective, this is the frission that venturing closer to the event horizon of total access leads; the lure of connectedness while being paralyzed at the computer screen. This is the paradox, and 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.