When Zoom Roomed the World

Global Performance Studies 4

with Joanna Mansbridge and Susan Sentler

Performing Network Culture’s Enclosures

The COVID-19 pandemic intervened at a moment that was nearly synchronous with protests in cities around the world. Diverse publics in Hong Kong, Santiago, Beirut, Barcelona, Baghdad, London, and across the United States demanded policing reforms, climate action and the safeguarding of democratic governance. Lockdowns, social distancing, and quarantining were not in themselves responses to these movements, but they conveniently dampened unrest, highlighting the volatility of bodies gathering in public space and technology’s role in governing individual subjects. As governments struggled to respond to virus trend lines, millions found themselves jobless, the stock market soared, Google search terms mapped viral spread, and scientists analyzed data samples.

The spread of the virus also redrew ambiguous boundaries between material and immaterial labor into starker distinctions between essential and non-essential workers. Non-essential workers took refuge at home, while essential labor continued in-person work as the “living infrastructure” (Jackson) of a globalized economy. The upheaval highlighted the instability — and interdependence — of social, technological, and economic networks, as well as the global economy’s reliance on their uninterrupted functioning. As (some) humans sought to protect themselves from a biological threat, digital communication technologies came into full view as a lifeline keeping people safe, connected, and productive. With so many relying on stable internet connections and personal computers for their lives and livelihoods, the virus showed how uneven access to digital infrastructures was a question of economic and political equity.