In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have requested their citizens to radically reorganize their lives in order to protect them — from practicing social distancing, to working remotely, while caring for families and friends in domestic and virtual spaces. While these unprecedented measures are put in place to prevent or slow down the contagion of populations, work ethos oriented towards productivity has, in many cases, intensified. In other words, forms of burn-out and the ongoing exploitation of bodies become even more pressing.
The presence of multi-scalar, exploitative structures is pervasive. In confinement, immaterial labor (emotional, affective, domestic, digital, creative) has increased exponentially. Many times, any resistance or reluctance towards performing these types of immaterial labor is met with claims of lack of empathy or solidarity. Indeed, solidarity and empathy are particularly needed today. Yet, in times of crisis, as the questioning and contesting of the structures of power remain a secondary concern, the domestic and informal systems of support and care are even more vulnerable for exploitation.
For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on certain workers – nurses, doctors, security forces – who can’t work from home and are mobilized to provide care and support to the rest of the population. These communities, who are highly gendered, racialized, and ethnicized, are exposed to the risk of either contracting the virus through their jobs or of being laid off.
Although manifestations and effects of exploitative and extractive structures are becoming more visible and pressing, the COVID-19 pandemic has also given renewed perspectives on small-scale logistical networks and structures of care as local communities find ways to support each other through offering everyday services and connecting on ‘community organization apps’ like Nextdoor. Some shift from supermarket chains to local neighborhood shops or harvest their community gardens instead.
Yet, as the social distancing policies, lockdowns and travel bans could, in the medium and long-term, unleash the criminalization and marginalization of the stranger and with that the raising nationalisms and xenophobia, renewed attention is needed towards safeguarding public spaces and infrastructures for collective gathering, communication and solidarity. For instance, the strategies to control the pandemic have rendered visible the importance of infrastructures such as the internet network to our daily lives and social, cultural, and economic activities. Yet, internet access is an unevenly distributed resource and its distribution is also subject to increasing surveillance tactics. The current situation, therefore, also exacerbates inequalities – often related to class, gender and ability – among populations and territories1.
In addition, these digital platforms, assuring the continuation of public life, gathering and communication in times of pandemic, are often centralized and privately owned. Should vital digital technologies remain private, for-profit services, or could the often-monopolistic platforms be opened up and transformed to become basic public services?
In the current context not only the publicness of the infrastructures is at stake, also their impact on the environment. The remote and digital work performed by those working from home have stretched the performance of digital infrastructures and generated an increasing amount of traffic on networks around the world. With every click, every virtual meeting, message, meme, with every hour (and there are many) spent at home, in front of our devices, sharing, communicating, reading the news, watching series and movies, or attending online concerts, debates, museum tours, humans are contributing to one of the greatest rates of production and circulation of data in history.
After the first home-office-week last March, many companies reported an increase of their services usage. In America and Europe alone, for example, Microsoft announced that its platform, Microsoft Teams, has risen from 32 million daily active users to 44 million, who in turn generated over 900 million meetings and calling minutes each day. Facebook confirmed that traffic for video calling and messaging had exploded. In Italy, quarantined youngsters playing PC games increased traffic over Telecom Italia SpA by 90 percent compared with the previous month. While in other parts of Europe, traffic to WebEx, a Cisco video conferencing service, soared as much as 80 percent in one week. Between February 20 and March 15, 2020, downloads of Netflix’s app jumped 66 percent in Italy. In Spain, they rose 35 percent.
The growth of current data production not only means increased profits for a few companies, it also carries environmental risks. Data has a material dimension, a physical presence, it occupies space and comes with a large environmental footprint. Data centers and cloud computing depend on high consumption of renewable and non-renewable energy and produce waste and greenhouse gas emissions. While during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many praised the positive impact of the crisis on the environment triggered by the reduction of emissions in sectors such as industry and transportation, the information about the direct electricity consumption of data centers, data infrastructures, and households remained undisclosed.
The increasing pressure on planetary bodies of an expanding digital reality and its associated escalating energy consumption as well as the impact of the production, usage and disposal of computers and other devices have to be taken into consideration as well. In addition, the current crisis also threatens the efforts to meet the climate commitments that have already been made by local and global governments, as they come under pressure to put climate initiatives on hold.
In this precise moment, there is a need to conceive and activate alternative forms of collective organization and action, as well as renewed notions of publicness and its associated spatial practices. This issue of ARDETH invites architects, designers, historians, researchers, and theorists to take current conditions of burn-out and exhaustion as a generative point of departure to reimagine forms of organization, governance and action. Authors can take burn-out as a condition from which to rethink the role of institutions and infrastructures in sustaining and enhancing public life, promoting action and catalyzing change towards new structures and relations:
- In which ways have terms and practices of social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine historically shaped the construction and understanding of public space, and how do we mitigate their effects on the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic?
- How can existing structures and infrastructures be reshaped to support new notions and spatial practices of care?
- Essays could reconsider and explore alternatives for contemporary modes of production designed for the wellbeing and care of bodies from a local to a planetary scale. How can we activate forms of collective responsibility and organization, and relational networks of solidarity?
- How do practices of privatization, surveillance and control—that ensure productivity by the rearrangement of time—profoundly alter ideas of publicness and conceptions of public and private spaces?
- With the current virtualization of life, what new strategies could be implemented to claim digital infrastructures as collectively owned, public platforms?
- When infrastructures on a variety of scales render various bodies trackable, how do we reinstate moments of civil disobedience? And, as it has become clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on public and private life, how to assess new and reinforced temporalities of instability and insecurity?
- In both recent and less recent pasts, instances of public health emergencies and successive chains of economic and governmental crises have seen the emergence of both monopolizing corporations and alternative organizational structures. How can we learn from previous comparable occurrences? What are examples of alternative organizational structures that emerged in response to similar historical and more recent crises such as epidemics like the Spanish flu, Ebola, SARS and its often associated financial depressions.
Entries could address imaginaries, protocols, epistemologies, new vocabularies, spatial relations, forms of action, and historical examples that aim to catalyze change towards non-exploitative spaces and relations. Learning from decolonial, post-Anthropocentric, queering epistemologies, proposals could envision more equitable and inclusive social, political, technical, biological and institutional ecologies.
About the guest editors and this call
In accepting to guest edit this call, Het Nieuwe Instituut’s intention is far from instrumentalizing the dramatic situation the world is currently living and that is taking so many lives. Our thoughts go to all those affected by the COVID-19 virus and their families, as well as those working in hospitals and the care sector across the globe.
Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified conditions of exhaustion and personal and institutional burn-out that were already very present in society, the aim of this call is to address the present not as an exception, but rather as part of a systemic and larger condition.
As such, this call is part of an ongoing investigation on burn-out by Het Nieuwe Instituut’s research department and associated research fellows. In 2018, the institute’s annual call for research fellows—guest curated by 2017 Research Fellow Ramon Amaro—focused on burn-out as a malady of contemporary labor ethos and structures, and as a symptom of the exploitation of human and non-human bodies. Applicants were invited to propose unconventional approaches and to challenge the inevitability of burn-out. In 2019, the research trajectory aimed to instigate forms of coexistence, sensibility and care for multispecies, collective bodies in times of planetary burn-out. In 2020, The Call for Fellows will focus on the role of institutions on sustaining or mitigating burn-out conditions, as well on the conception of alternative forms of governance, organization and institutional collective practices. As one of these institutions, Het Nieuwe Instituut takes this task as its own.