Remote Work? Demand Dial-Up

Precarious Practices #2. On a new netiquette, created by cultural workers.


Workwise, my smart lockdown had a hellish beginning. I couldn’t install Microsoft Teams, my camera wouldn’t activate, and, worst of all, the internet connection had hiccups. It was not like either up or down; every other half it just became super slow. I let you imagine my videocalls: all went smooth for the first five minutes and then decay took over: frozen faces, fractured voices, reboots and refreshes, impatience and discouragement. A short sentence would take minutes to unfold. It was like being thrown back to the times of dial-up connection, but with today’s online means of communication.

But, hey, the dial-up era wasn’t so frustrating, was it? A thought emerged and I couldn’t shake it off: during this sudden, massive shift to remote work, having dial-up connectivity would have been not so bad. So, I tried to picture what dial-up remote work would look like today.

Most of the communication channels we have nowadays, like chat or email, would still be available. One could still record a presentation and ask their peers to download it. There would be no smartphone as we understand it, and therefore no notifications at night or during the weekend. Sure, we couldn’t do many of the synchronous things we do today like collectively editing a document or designing a poster, but to what extent do we use them anyway? In any case, we would have been able to send files back and forth. If one needed to converse, they could still give a phone call.

The main missing thing would be the plethora of live meetings that are tiring both to attend and especially to moderate. Private spaces would be preserved: no need to kick your partner out of the room or make sure that your kids don’t yell while you’re talking. More emails, you say? I’m not sure: I still get a lot of emails — next to Teams alerts and Whatsapp messages. But at least you could go through the emails at your own pace.

Dial-up was expensive. But  broadband also costs money; it’s just that in most of the Global North we take it for granted, like electricity. Surprisingly, the ones that don’t take it for granted are big tech companies. A friend of mine who works at Google told me that big G pays half of his internet bill. That’s where you find contemporary notions of welfare: in the corporate world. In the dial-up scenario, the state would fund the internet connection and, since that would be expensive, people wouldn’t be asked to spend 8 or 10 hours hunched in front of the screen. Work hours would be reduced and God knows how much that is needed.

This is a crude and implausible sketch, I know. As I know that broadband, used for instance in the medical field, can save lives. Or that less than half of the world population has internet access. Don’t mind the humorous title: mine is not an anti-broadband degrowth argument – that would be ridiculous. My argument is not about technology or infrastructure per se, but about the social conventions and power imbalances that coalesce in and around technology. So, don’t call me Luddite. Actually, feel free to do so, as this was exactly what Luddites were dealing with. Things are changing fast: the pandemic interregnum will end soon and new conventions will settle. Companies and educational institutions are going remote for good: half of Facebook employees are expected to work remotely over the next decade. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that his employee will be able to work from home forever. At Cambridge University, all lectures will be online-only until [at least, nda] summer 2021. Right now, there is maybe still a bit of room to determine what this will mean for students and workers.

We must be alert, or alertness will subjugate us. We should question the technologies we use and even more the cultural norms crystallized around them. Yes, innovation can improve life and work conditions; but it can also create new life and work expectations. And those are not always favorable. The case of household appliances comes to mind. When originally introduced, their promise was to free up the time of housewives by making chores more quick and efficient, but, as historian Ruth Cowan demonstrated, they ended up raising the standards of cleanliness and hygiene, creating even more work for their end users.

Broadband is not just about the technical affordance of networked instantaneity and simultaneity. It contributed to the forming of expectations of availability and presence, making it once again hard for the workers to self-determine their rhythms and their appearance (now allegorized by the half-pijama-half-suit look). These days, telecommuting is presented as an inexpensive solution to make work more autonomous. But the current social-technical norms make it not as liberating as it could be.

What’s the role of cultural workers in all this? In many ways, their work has become as managerial as any other during the lockdown. Therefore, more than on the word ‘work’, I’d like to focus on the word ‘culture’. There is a whole new culture of online activity to be crafted. One that praises asynchronicity and modulation of interactivity. One that is attentive to the growing cognitive load of digital mediation. A netiquette of attention and presence, if you will.  This doesn’t need to be invented from scratch. After all, people have been talking about calm technology since 1996.

Curator and writer Michelle Kasprzak, a cultural worker herself, penned an amusing Anti-Video Chat Manifesto. She thunders: ‘DOWN with the tyranny of the lipstick and hairbrush ever beside the computer, to adjust your looks to fit expectations of looking “professional”‘. This shows how technological defaults combine perversely with social norms. It’s time to articulate – or better re-articulate – communicative self-determination in a broad, encompassing way, taking into account not just the ‘new normal’ but also the old normals we want to salvage or get rid of.

About Silvio Lorusso

Silvio Lorusso is a writer, artist and designer living in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In 2018 he published his first book entitled 'ENTREPRECARIAT: Everyone Is an Entrepreneur. Nobody Is Safe.' He holds a Ph.D. in Design Sciences from the Iuav University of Venice. Read more on www.silviolorusso.com.