The loneliness of knowledge production during a pandemic

Over the last year I’ve kept coming back to the idea that knowledge production has become lonely. What I mean by this is that a significant change has taken place in the lives of those who produce knowledge for a living. In many cases these changes, caused by the pandemic, have been an object of research but they’re also the context of research. In other words the life of a researcher has changed dramatically because of the pandemic and the lockdown and social distancing through which we have sought to control it. What is it like to do research under these conditions? How has it changed? I’m interested in what these changes mean for the kind of knowledge we produce and the process of producing it.

I come to these questions as someone who studies how academics work with digital platforms (from social media like Twitter to collaboration tools like Teams and video conferencing platforms like zoom) as well as how these are tied up in changes within the university system. This enforced reliance on digital platforms to maintain a connection at a distance has ensured that physical distancing hasn’t meant social distancing. It nonetheless presents us with the question of how the social has been changed by this reliance. There’s the risk of a naive response to this question that sees face-to-face interaction as ‘natural’ and digital mediation as ‘unnatural’. To see what’s wrong with this view, just consider the many ways in which the structure of a classroom changes the way interaction works within it. For example how many desks are there, how big are they, where are the windows, where is the projector.

Instead I’d argue that we treat physical and digital meetings in a symmetrical way, recognising they both constrain interaction in some ways and open it up in others. In that sense I’m not saying that knowledge production has become lonely because we’re all now using platforms like Zoom to interact and collaborate at a distance. In fact I’m not sure I’m saying that knowledge production is necessarily lonely at all but rather that this is an interesting frame through which to explore some of the deep shifts which have taken place in how we work together within research communities. If we take loneliness in the classical sense as a discrepancy between our desired and achieved levels of social relations then we can begin to ask interesting questions about knowledge production.

Do we experience our digitally mediated research community as lacking in some important sense? If so, can we say what it is lacking? I don’t think it’s convincing to say that face-to-face interaction is the answer to this question. As anyone who’s ever been an introvert at a major conference will know, it’s possible to feel professionally lonely when surrounded by people in a physical settings. What then is lacking about our knowledge production during a pandemic? Is it the limitations on small talk and chat in online meetings? The relative difficulty of meeting new people in virtual conferences? The fact that non-functional interactions with people who fall between the category of acquaintance and friend drop out to varying extents?

I think this is a surprisingly difficult thing to pin down and presumably the answer varies immensely between people. It mattes because it helps us make decisions about what how to choreograph our online interactions in ways that can be more inclusive and enjoyable, as well as productive and efficient. For example what’s different in our use of Gather Town for this event compared to if we had used Zoom? My sense as someone who’s worked on digital cultures within the academy for over a decade now is that we still lack literacy about these choices to a surprising degree and that can be seen in how the enforced digitalisation of the last year has played out. We tend to reproduce what we’ve always done, try and recreate it in new settings or continue to do the first thing that worked for us when we adapted to new circumstances.

What does this do to the knowledge we produce? This is an even more difficult thing to pin down but I’m happy to talk a bit more about this if anyone is interested because there are definite tendencies (e.g. the transition towards digital methods) which will have significant consequences for research culture. I think it’s a very productive question to explore though. Will lonely knowledge-production produce lonely research? There’s a wonderful line from Les Back about the challenge of ‘writing about the social world without assassinating the life within it’. Will this become more difficult when we produce knowledge in lonely ways? This is all very diffusive and speculative but I’m hoping I can turn these vague questions into more concrete propositions over the coming months.

We need to recognise the pandemic doesn’t have an ‘off’ switch, but rather will fade through a gradual process of normalising for increasingly large swathes of people alongside an ever present background of resurgent threat. This means that we won’t have a return to ‘normality’, but rather a slow, precarious and contested transition into a new reality. The flip side of this depressing diagnosis is that we have an opportunity to shape what this new normal will be within universities, as well as how we use digital platforms as part of it. Not everyone’s voice will be heard equally in this process and managerialism will dictate the parameters of the process but there is an opening for the research community to exercise a significant influence over this process. What would a non-lonely knowledge production look like? I’m suggesting that answering this question is a useful first step to trying to realise this possibility in the coming years.

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