“The risks of social isolation depend not only on who you are, but also on where you live. Certain social environments foster social isolation, while others promote local contact and mutual support.” 1Eric Klinenberg, “Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Living Alone: Identifying the Risks for Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 5 (2016): 786–787.
The most successful strategy for the management of the Covid-19 pandemic has, interestingly enough, not been a medical or technical one, but a social one: isolation. Since March 2020, cities, states and nations around the world have gone into “lockdown,” utterly changing the way in which people live and work as individuals and how they connect as communities. Many “offline” social interactions have moved online, away from our traditional spaces for gathering and being together. Our physical public spaces are left deserted, and their desertedness policed.
But at the same time, a panoply of new public spaces—spaces that are open and accessible to all peoples—continue to emerge and are enacted and sustained by the vastness of new social practices that transcend the digital-physical divide, and that defy the risks of social isolation through networks of support and social interaction. We are seeing radically scaled experiments in virtual community-building, including everything from virtual kindergarten classes to choir practice, mutual aid meetings, and raves.
But as this shift is happening, we are also seeing the escalated impact of well-known sociopolitical issues that exist within both physical and digital space—reliance on private infrastructure, the digital divide, harassment, disproportionately impacted communities, political polarization, misinformation, and so on—as well as the emergence of new variations, such as “Zoom bombing.”
Despite believing that mobile internet access had lessened the “digital divide,” the term’s significance is experiencing a renaissance. As educators, we are on the frontline of it: “remote instruction” has some students comfortably dial into lectures from their own room whilst others have to drive up to the parking lot of a Starbucks to get reliable Wi-Fi, wait until it is their turn to use the shared computer, or are too burdened by domestic responsibilities or having to generate an income to meaningfully participate in the learning experience for which they enrolled.“Populations affected by the geography of the digital divide tend to map onto communities who may be unable to afford the participation of the new ‘digital public spaces,’ or at least participate in very different ways.”
When we talk about the emergence of “digital public spaces” in the pandemic, therefore, we are talking about a pulsing field of tension. This field of tension illustrates that a pandemic is as much a social phenomenon as it is a medical one:2New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016More Info → Populations affected by the geography of the digital divide tend to map onto communities who may be unable to afford the participation of the new “digital public spaces,” or at least participate in very different ways. These overlays are not an accident, but the result of powerful, and historic, social imaginaries—those shared understandings of our collective social life that enable the practices of a society—about who is deserving of seemingly scarce resources, and who isn’t.3New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019More Info →
Solidified in public policies (e.g., with regards to the “fair” distribution of public benefit) and corporate practice (e.g., racialized and gendered pay gaps), these social imaginaries have amplified the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, and other disasters, on historically oppressed communities in the United States, particularly African American and Latinx populations. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in his analysis of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, has described how the isolation that led to the heat death in so many of the city’s poor neighborhoods is a social breakdown by political choice—instigated and fueled by extreme inequality, spatial segregation, and privatization of government services.“In the context of the pandemic, this means that the maintenance of private infrastructures systematically puts these communities more at risk as part of capitalist extraction.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has particularly underlined the latter: the infrastructures that enable a continuation of social life and work under lockdown are privately owned: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and so on, but also food delivery services and other “essential” services, such as hospitals. These privately owned sociotechnical systems depend on what Alexandra Mateescu and Madeleine Clare Elish call “human infrastructure,” the—typically precarious—human labor that is needed to make systems and infrastructures function (such as maintenance, delivery, warehouse, kitchen, and care workers), and that is often recruited from vulnerable communities.4Alexandra Mateescu and Madeleine Clare Elish, AI in Context: The Labor of Integrating New Technologies (Data & Society, January 2019). In the context of the pandemic, this means that the maintenance of private infrastructures systematically puts these communities more at risk as part of capitalist extraction. This ranges from extracting labor from the warehouse and delivery workers that upkeep Amazon’s online retail empire, to the data extraction that occurs simply through the use of online platforms, from Zoom, to Gmail, to WhatsApp, TikTok, MeetUp, or Twitter for the sake of then using this data to be able to “trade in behavioral futures.”5New York: Public Affairs, 2019More Info →
How can we understand the emergence of “digital public space” in the Covid-19 pandemic against that backdrop? And, what can we learn?
A useful start may be shifting the emphasis from public space—often framed exclusively as an achievement of design—to publicness—as a sociopolitical practice. How do people “do” public space online, and under what conditions? Who dictates these conditions, and to what ends? What kinds of digital spaces feel “public” to their occupants? What are the thresholds of participation? Who is in, who is out, and who is somewhere in between?
Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods powerfully remind us of the inextricable link between place, segregation, and oppressive inequality, particularly when it comes to race.6Toronto: Between the Lines, 2007More Info → Ruha Benjamin notes that technology’s (re-)production of racism is just one side of the coin, and that race itself is a technology in the sense that it, too, is productive.7Cambridge: Polity, 2019More Info → Our reading of the “practice of publicness in digital space,” therefore, is incomplete—if not itself complicit with injustice—without centering the productive forces of inequality and oppression, and racial oppression specifically. These forces work on a macro-level, but the pandemic has shown how localized they are.“Unsurprisingly, this ‘digital divide’ often maps onto poverty rates within the city, and the gap between wealthy and poor boroughs, which tend to have fewer accessible conduit or utility poles.”
The relationship between place, inequality, and the upholding of racial hierarchies becomes most apparent through the infrastructure disparities behind the “digital divide” which materializes in inequitable infrastructure provisions for broadband service and maintenance. In New York City, for example, this happens along the well-known fault lines of race and spatial segregation. As of 2017, 30 percent of Hispanic and Black New Yorkers did not have broadband internet access, while 20 percent of White and 22 percent of Asian New Yorkers did not have broadband internet access.8Scott M. Stringer, Census and The City: Overcoming NYC’s Digital Divide in the 2020 Census (New York: NYC Bureau of Budget, NYC Bureau of Policy and Research, July 2019). Unsurprisingly, this “digital divide” often maps onto poverty rates within the city, and the gap between wealthy and poor boroughs, which tend to have fewer accessible conduit or utility poles.9This, however, is increasingly recognized as a policy area that is in urgent need for an intervention. In July 2020, the Mayor’s Office of New York City announced that the city will invest $157 million into improving the internet connection of 600,000 New Yorkers, prioritizing 200,000 residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for high-speed internet rollout. NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, The New York City Internet Master Plan (New York: January 2020).
If we look at the countless social practices that constitute digital publicness in New York City under lockdown, however, a more complex picture emerges. This picture underlines that we are not necessarily witnessing the often quoted blurring of virtual and actual spaces that can undo some of the social inequalities that characterize actual space. To the contrary, virtual and actual spaces both emerge from the broader social conditions that frame a community, a society. But at the same time, virtual and actual space are sustained in relation to one another. Local running clubs in Brooklyn maintain their training sessions in Zoom meetings; a Pokémon Go community who regularly met in Bryant Park is continuing their game interactions on Discord; a cluster of churches in the Bronx is maintaining services and community over a whole ecosystem of platforms, ranging from Zoom to Facebook and WhatsApp; a local walking group in Staten Island continues to share walking experiences via Meetup; and a reformed temple in Queens provides services through Zoom, carefully balancing a sense of privateness and publicness through the chat function. We see a digital continuation of prepandemic practices and spaces, but this digital continuation shapes how we make sense of these spaces now and ascribe meaning to them.
At the same time, the communities and their practices predate the pandemic, and they are closely tied to their location and its entanglement with inequality. Thus, socioeconomic disparities and cultural distinctions are embedded in “digital public space.” These dynamics are well-known and documented in physical public space whereby not only infrastructure and maintenance are important issues to unpack, but also power and whiteness, discomfort and suboptimization, as well as contestation, policing, and continuous negotiations around membership. The emergence of digital (public) space, therefore, is not some form of tabula rasa that can eradicate inequality, it is part of it.“The stakes of disaggregating and complicating key terminologies are high.”
Examining how these issues and dynamics may play out in a pandemic is an urgent mission for social research, particularly qualitative social research. The stakes of disaggregating and complicating key terminologies are high. Take, for example, “community”: who counts as a “community” and can push for resource allocation and political change, and who doesn’t, maps onto the ways in which power structures are distributed and maintained, spatially and otherwise. While privileged communities may easily mount pressures on local authorities due to their social and economic capital, communities who are less privileged, but just as strong, healthy, and mutually supportive, are burdened with having to prove their legitimacy and value as communities in order to push for the resources they need and deserve (such as better lighting infrastructure), or push against changes that harm them (such as the installment of surveillance technology).
In the context of the pandemic, this means—yet again—that the distribution of the risks of social isolation, which stem from social environments that do not promote local contact and mutual support,10Klinenberg, “Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Living Alone.” are a political choice.
Can digital technology challenge this dynamic? Noortje Marres reminds us that “the digital makes possible new ways of conducting and knowing social life.”11Cambridge: Polity, 2018More Info → Perhaps, then, the “digital pandemic” offers a window into re-examining, and quite literally re-evaluating, the complex, porous, and contested notions of both community and publicness with a view toward how we can equitably create and maintain digital and physical environments.
This essay is based on research by Terra Incognita research project, funded by Civic Signals, that examines the emergence of digital public space in New York City under lockdown.
Grand Central, NYC, in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Emanuel Moss.