I spent the first two days of the recent strike disconnected from the internet. I unplugged my router and let my phone run out of battery before placing them both in a locked filing cabinet. I then put the key in the back of a cupboard for good measure, intending to put as much cognitive distance as possible between an inclination to check my e-mail and the infrastructural restoration needed to make this possible. This might not seem like the most obvious action to take for an industrial dispute but in this blog post I want to argue that it’s something we should all consider.
The importance of the Digital Picket Line to withdrawing our (profoundly digitalised) labour has been widely recognised. Many academics now refuse to tweet about their work on strike days because they recognise social media as a site through which visibility and prestige are accumulated for our employers. In spite of this there has been little attention paid to the more private modes through which we relate to our digitalised work, as we spend much of our working lives in monadic or dyadic interactions which aren’t visible to the wider organisation. My suggestion is that withdrawing from the internet can be a productive political and therapeutic exercise, enabling us to use strike days to better recover from what Ros Gill famously described as the hidden injuries of the neoliberal academy. Much more importantly, it can help us develop a much deeper understanding of the role of digital labour in our own lives, with individual exploration providing the foundation for a collective conversation about how we can exercise control over the rapidly proliferating demands which the platform university imposes on the academics working within it.
This was an exercise I’d last attempted over ten years earlier. The fact that I then slept for 12 hours, as my exhausted mind finally found relief from what Mark Fisher once described as the ‘twitchy interpassivity’ of constant connectivity, underscored how much I had needed to disconnect. The fact that over a decade passed before I tried it again speaks volumes about the insidious lure of the internet, as well as my particular struggle to resist it. For this reason I began to switch off on the Sunday night before the strike began, letting people who might have potentially worried know that I wouldn’t be contactable again until Wednesday. I put my devices away in the manner described above and began the experiment. I spent the rest of the evening reading a biography of Foucault which had been sitting on my desk for some time, intellectually engrossing yet unrelated to my work, and exactly the kind of book I’m aware tended to be squeezed out by the internet. I was aware as the evening progressed that my reading was much less interrupted than would usually be the case, leading me to the disturbing realisation that it had been a long time since I had last casually immersed myself in something for a couple of hours without interruption. While I’ve often been disciplined about self-consciously doing deep work, this has been the exception rather than the rule, requiring careful preparation to ward off the distractedness which otherwise afflicts me.
I got up early the next day and went for a nice breakfast, carrying books and a notebook but no electronic devices. I spent the day much as I would any other if I had a day off on my own during the week, seeing a film in the morning before pottering around cafes and bookshops for the rest of the day. I was intensely aware that the flow of time felt different without the compulsive grasp towards the ever present smartphone which functions like a temporal punctuation dividing time into “jittery, schizoid intervals“. In the absence of its calls to attention I found myself wondering what might be happening which I was unaware of and that might require me to respond. The fact that I had withdrawn my labour meant I felt no obligation to be connected; but that didn’t stop me worrying at points in the day. I couldn’t conceive of a situation which might feasibly require a response from me, but the idea that something might be happening that I wouldn’t be aware of troubled me. This helped me see a mismatch between the connectedness I had normalised and the actual actions I might take, leaving me wondering why I felt the need to be ‘in the loop’ even if I was confident there was nothing I would have to do. It’s easy to feel you need to be connected if it’s a matter of action you might be expected to take, leading us to see it as an unwelcome fact of wage labour over which we have little control. However if the desire for connection exceeds what is practically necessary for work, it raises the question of how much we’re responding to real challenges as opposed to anticipating imagined ones. It’s clearly not a problem we’ve created but I wonder if we (or at least I) act in a way which makes it worse than it would otherwise be.
I sat feeling vaguely uncomfortable over lunch in a coffee shop I’d been visiting at least once a week since moving to Manchester, unsure why I felt so ill at ease. Then it struck me that I had on every single occasion had my laptop with me, taking it out in a more or less automatic way when I sat down. If the smartphone is a companion device, faithfully accompanying you through the day, the absent laptop in that moment felt like a shield which enabled me to bring the comfort of private life into public space. It’s not so much that I wanted to do something with the laptop but simply that I was starkly aware of its absence. I’ve been reading Peter Sloterdijk’s work on sphere theory recently and it was hard to avoid interpreting the experience in these terms, with the laptop feeling like part of me which had fallen off rather than an external artefact I had chosen not to bring with me. It left me with a sense of my devices as an environment I carry with me, like a snail in its shell (to use a metaphor beloved of Zygmunt Bauman, bringing a privatised web of connections and possibilities into the cafe I lounge in on my own. This is a troubling image in part because of the isolation it suggests, bringing to mind Sherry Turkle’s famous book Alone Together. But mostly because I’m aware how much of that portable private sphere is defined by my work, ranging from the reluctant necessities through to tasks like writing, which often bring me joy, but, nonetheless, remain firmly within the register of occupational requirements in terms of which I am formally assessed.
It reminded me of remarks by the artist Liam Gillick: “barely capable of distinguishing themselves from the consuming desire to work at all times”, “neurotic people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of the neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment”, “people who behave, communicate, and innovate in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment and exchange of daily life”. He was writing about artists but I’ve often thought those words could be equally applied to academics. I tended to see this in psychological terms as an over-identification with a job, leading to an excessive focus on narrow measures of achievement and self-worth. But thinking with Sloterdijk left me wondering if this is too individualised a reading. It fails to capture how we are bound up in an infrastructure of digital labour (e-mail, Zoom, Teams, Google Scholar etc) which ensures a constant stream of feedback which we are primed to take overly-seriously in an accelerated and anxious working environment. The social role of the ‘academic’ is profoundly greedy, as Margaret Archer puts it, in the sense of constantly escalating demands upon our time in tension with the other roles we occupy e.g. partner, parent, friend, neighbour or citizen.
I find Sloterdijk’s conceptual vocabulary of micro-spheres useful for thinking about the machinery which drives this intensification of work, through the mediation of the smartphone, tablet and laptop we increasingly carry everywhere. My laptop literally has the name of my employer branded on the front of it. The app I open most frequently on my phone is my email which is work dominated, as well as my organiser which is similarly oriented towards working tasks. My iPad is full of books and papers I guiltily register as intending to read, while only ever getting through the smallest fraction of them. The task I enjoy most, reflecting on what I’ve read, similarly falls under the sign of work even if it’s something I know I would do even if it had no significance for my employer. This suggests we might think of digital labour as something we carry with us rather than something we do, with our tactile relationship with these ready-to-hand devices leaving us trapped within a personalised machinery we urgently need to understand. The fact that our work is pervasively digitalised means it’s unfeasible to escape from within this personalised technosphere but there’s no reason to assume we can’t exercise at least some agency over it, in order to make it less pernicious and destructive. The assumption underlying my experiment is that temporary disconnection can be an effective way of analysing this problem and thinking about how we might address it.
There are obvious disclaimers here concerning my own situation. I have no caring responsibilities and I live alone, making it much easier not only to voluntarily disconnect in this way, but also to explore the cognitive space which doing so opens up. I’m not suggesting my experience in itself has wider significance for academics but rather using it to illustrate what this exercise looks like in practice. The justification for the exercise has its roots in what we know about the organisation of labour within a university which is both digitalised and marketised. We are expected to be a supportive and responsive presence in the lives of our consumer students, as well as a creative and entrepreneurial figure constantly on the move within professional networks. What both expectations have in common is the mediated character of these social relationships.
This is most obviously reflected in the volume of emails which the typical academic receives and which is often regarded, as Melissa Gregg has pointed out, in terms which deny its status as ‘real work’ despite it determining the rhythms of working life for many. Increasingly, these relationships are also prone to spill across social media platforms, blurring boundaries between personal and professional in ways which can be draining to negotiate, particularly when it involves informal interactions with students. The enforced digitalisation of the pandemic further complicated this landscape through the mainstream adoption of collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack and Discord. It’s difficult to see a major reversal of these trends, even if academic life is likely to include a greater amount of face-to-face interaction in the coming years than it has in the previous two. This suggests to me that digital wellbeing needs to be seen as a workplace issue even if current debates about digital literacy seem largely ill equipped to support this ambition. The platform university has its own distinctive injuries which we need to find a more visible place for in debates about the neoliberal academy and how we respond to it.