When the world officially went online — not just used the internet but realised that we will have to live on it, amid the shutdowns and lockups, something strange happened. Those of us privileged enough to be able to work remotely and continue to be productively engaged, thus hanging on to a semblance of normality in an uncertain world, started to recognise the fatigue of screen space. We were already struggling with the fact that we were living with screens — they were in our hands, pockets, bags; by our pillows, and, with us, on our toilet seats. And then came the video-conferencing explosion. All work got reduced to staring at the screen — suddenly making a lot of us realise that despite the presence of ubiquitous computation, our work and life had a lot of time for in-person and physical activities.
As we shifted, taking for granted access, affordability, and affordances, into this online world, we have all been exploring what it means to work in these distributed environments. There are long editorials about “Zoom fatigue”, “platform tiredness” and “camera craziness” as we feel exhausted trying to remain productive and connected on the flattened interfaces of our screens. There is also a growing realisation that while the digital world offers many advantages, it takes an immense amount of labour. This hidden labour and its costs, otherwise performed by invisible workers or insidious algorithms, are now in our faces, clearly showing us that digital shifts are not cheap and administrators using it as an excuse to reduce costs are merely burdening their employees with additional, invisible labour.
The struggle is real. It seems trivial when compared to those who cannot work, are trapped away from home and family, or are threatened with loss of job and income as we continue extending the measures to flatten the epidemiological curve. And yet, this is in many ways the future of what is to come when the world opens up. One of the things we have to prepare for is that this pandemic is an exercise in resource management and control. In the guise of the emergency, different administrators who were resisting the digital shift because of lack of knowledge or fear of loss of control are suddenly accelerating the shift, being facilitated almost entirely by for-profit corporate services instead of community-driven open-source environments that have been developing over the years. It is also a practice run for normalising digital labour as a part of our work, even as we continue to shoulder the full share of responsibilities that we always did.
When we get back, there is going to be a huge thrust to convince us that things are back to normal. The impulse for normalisation is not going to go back to the old baseline. The work that we put in, taking enormous responsibility for caregiving towards family and colleagues, working beyond the call of duty to make up for the lack of institutional and governmental resources, is going to become the new normal. The digital is going to become a lever by which people are going to be laid off, their jobs replaced by automation. It is going to come with the promise of efficiency and transformation — code for restructuring organisations for profit and transforming the nature of work and distribution of resources.
The digital shift is long in the making, but the sudden shift has given many leaders the opportunity to experiment with their employees in real-time, seeing how much more work can be piled on people, extorting them to perform more and sacrifice their free time and health to the betterment of an economy where they are going to be asked to work more for less even as the few people who control it will be the only ones that profit from it. In the past, technological shifts fueled by other crises — the rise of computation after the end of World War II, the increase in digital security after the Y2K scare, the naturalisation of surveillance technologies after 9/11, the introduction of no-privacy governance databases after charges of terrorism, all come to mind — have led to dramatic re-ordering of life and sociality.
This pandemic is not an exception. As all that we know is suspended, there is a startling shift into a universe without safeties and entitlements. The new normal is not going to be an older one — which, even as it was problematic, at least had the bounds of rights and safeties. It is going to be one where the crisis is going to be normalised and we are all going to be forced, in our digital environments, to be stuck, experiencing this crisis, in how we work and live, long after the crisis is over.
(Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru)
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