Net-munity, or The Space between Us … Will Open the Future

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

I write this during a time when we feel acutely the stakes and consequences of connection, polarization, infrastructures, models, and habits.  To many, it seems a world turned upside-down, in which the unimaginable has become possible: “socialism” and extensive surveillance within the US; the retraction of the Chinese economy and the negative price of oil; the invocation of Cold War shelter-in-place ordinances; and KKK masks worn as protective masks in California. This crisis has highlighted and augmented already existing divides: from white collar employees who seek the “perfect” gadget for working from home; to the mainly non-white and poor essential personnel who have had to balance daily financial and medical risks; from French dentists without proper protective equipment who posted naked pictures to protest back-to-work orders to Donald Trump supporters—compared to a “modern-day Rosa Parks”–who publicly demonstrate against orders by Democratic governors to stay at home.

It is a time of uncertainty and therefore responsibility—and something like community.  Scientific, economic, and political knowledge and models are constantly evolving.  Many of the first guidelines presumed similarities between SARS Cov-2 and SARS Cov-1, which were later proven to be untrue, such as the period during which a person is most infectious: in SARS Cov-1 it is when one is most symptomatic; for SARS Cov-2 it is just beforehand. Our current knowledge of Covid-19 is mainly correlational, with mechanistic-genetic explanations, as always, lagging behind observation and comparison. For example, SARS Cov-2 is widely assumed not to be airborne because it is far less contagious than airborne diseases such as measles. In desperation turned pharmaceutical opportunity, drugs are being approved, such as remdesivir, which were discontinued in early clinical trials due to debilitating side effects.  Most significantly, because of the lack and poor quality of existing tests and testing materials, the scope of the pandemic—necessary for modelling the basic reproduction number (R0)—is poorly known.  It is even unclear if “recovereds” are immune or for how long.

This uncertainty, however, does not undermine science or politics; it drives research and makes political decisions difficult and necessary. Intersecting this cloud of uncertainty are correlations and probabilities, which can guide our decisions, even if they cannot guarantee them, for the pandemic and its “cures” confront us with responsibility in the strongest sense of the word.  As Thomas Keenan has argued, we face responsibility not when we make decisions by following guidelines and rules but when we desperately want to but cannot: “when we do not know exactly what we should do, when the effects and conditions of our actions can no longer be calculated, and when we have nowhere else to turn, not even back onto our ‘self.’”[1] Not even back onto our self—because at these moments we realize that the individual is, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s evocative phrase, “the residue of the dissolution of community.”[2]

Tellingly, although ostensibly about the human death toll, calls for communal responsibility are mainly framed in terms of infrastructure: things that ground and touch us, even as we strive not to touch too many others. The April UK motto of “staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives” encapsulates this perfectly (fig. 1).  By caring for infrastructure, we care for ourselves and others. In countries with national health services, the fear is becoming another Italy. In other countries, such as the US, the motto would seem to be “work, save businesses, and save your grandchildren’s livelihoods (and your pension, if you have one) (fig. 2). Or, more positively, “stay home/distant, flatten the curve, and save lives and the city.”

Picture1

FIGURE 1

Picture2

FIGURE 2

The “cures” proposed, emergency powers granted, and sacrifices demanded reflect and reveal profoundly different national, regional, and local perceptions of which curve matters—the number of “infecteds,” the stock market, national employment figures, GDP, the mortality rate—and which ties bind most strongly—capital, public health, taxes, national deficits, public transportation, and others.  These cures acknowledge that exit is impossible, even for the most nonessential wealthy, whose New Zealand bunkers and seasteading dreams still rely on the value of capital and the lives of “essential workers.”

The proposed cures and sacrifices reveal different diagrams of the social.  If the nation is mainly viewed as a network , the goal is to produce “safe” exceptional neighborhoods: to create/augment clusters so that the “infected” are separated from the “recovereds” and “susceptibles” (fig. 3).

Picture3

FIGURE 3

Surveillance to track and manage contagion and contacts becomes the key to amplifying social distance.  In this worldview, community cases become mysteries to be solved via stalking and recording undocumented cases and silent spreaders.  Tracking “patient zero” becomes a national pastime, as does blaming other countries for viral spread.  Safety—resting as it does on inequality and dreams of emptying space—is precarious.  Think of everything that must be erased for an edge to represent a friendship: institutions, such as schools and bars; interactions with “nodding strangers” (which during pandemics turn out to be essential); social media prompts to say “happy birthday”; regular meetings and events. In order for there to be networks, there must be gaps. Networks hollow clouds of uncertainty—that is, infrastructure and in/difference—in order to foreground clean connections across empty space.[3]

Perversely, the logic of networks spreads the word neighbor everywhere, in order to impoverish it conceptually. Machine learning is filled with “neighborhood” methods used for pattern recognition and collaborative filtering, which create segregated clusters of agitated sameness. Networks presume and prescribe homophily—that birds of a feather flock together, that similarity breeds connection.  A banal and therefore dangerous notion of friend becomes a synonym for neighbor: segregation becomes naturalized and hatred becomes love.[4] How do you show you love the same? By fleeing when others show up. Hatred attracts and repels at the same time, creating angry clusters that need to hate:

if homophily == true

neighbor := self

self.love := other.hate

neighbor.love := self.love

ethics := narcissism

society := nul

endif

If the nation is mainly viewed as a community—what I’m calling “net-munity”—the onset of nontrackable cases demands treating everyone as “infected,” in order to suppress the disease (we have to remember that viruses, such as SARS Cov-1, have been eradicated without vaccines). The Vancouver Parks motto “the space between us will hold us together” encapsulates vision, for rather than treating the population as a series of nodes and edges, it attends to the spaces that enable community to emerge.  Community presumes community transmission—community is communication and space.  Once a virus is endemic to a community, neatly drawn graphs become impossible and the goal becomes widespread habitual changes to save others and public infrastructures: physical distancing, wearing facemasks, washing hands, avoiding mass gatherings, cleaning public spaces. Even as the disease and these changes affect “vulnerable” populations differently, there are no exceptions to the call for—if not the act of—sacrifice.  Friends and mobility become dangerous, and addressing the needs of those “at risk” populations becomes key.

At its best, net-munity follows the call made by the Combahee River Collective to treat everyone as “levelly human,” by engaging—rather than ignoring—identity politics and individual experience.[5] In British Columbia and elsewhere, houseless populations finally are being moved into safer shelters, such as hotel rooms and empty apartment buildings, after individual consultations.  Appallingly, Vancouver’s long-standing housing and drug crises are finally being addressed, not because of the dangerous living conditions of the houseless or the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women or the Overdose Crisis public health emergency declared in 2016, but because of the need to contain Covid-19 (tellingly, 113 people in BC died due to illicit drug toxicity in March 2020 ; in comparison, a total of 141 people have died of Covid-19 as of 15 May). This sheltering, however, can also destroy. The construction of spiked fencing to prevent tents from re-merging in Oppenheimer Park evokes other clearances: Japanese Canadians were removed from this area into Interior internment camps during World War II; Vancouver lies on the still unceded lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

We must engage neighbors and relations in all their rich ambivalence. Neighbors are not innocuous—the term neighbor literally recalls “boors.” They are nosy and noisy. They can provoke hostility, resentment and ambivalence. They intrude, even—and especially—when they are inert. They offer, however, a way to reside in/difference and to engage interactions that go beyond homophily: not just heterophily (heterosexuality, electromagnetism and other opposites that attract), but also ambivalence, compassion, and neutrality.

Neighbors space.[6] At their best they un-settle, for their spacing resonates with what Ariella Azoulay has called “potential history.”[7] Diverse worlds and lands persist despite being crossed out in official maps and graphs.[8] The task before us, as Kara Keeling has put it, is to “listen, with others, for the poetry, the refrains, and the noise a world is making.”[9]

So, let us shelter in space; let us care for the infrastructures that touch us, so that “we” might surface and endure, in/difference.

20 May 2020


Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is the Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University and leads the Digital Democracies Group. Dr. Chun is the author of Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (2016), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (2011), and Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (2006), as well as numerous articles and edited collections.  She has received fellowships from< various foundations and institutes, including the Guggenheim Foundation, ACLS, American Academy of Berlin, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She was Professor and Chair of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, where she worked for almost two decades. Currently, Dr. Chun works with the Digital Democracies Group to undertake the proliferation of misinformation, abusive language and discriminatory algorithms. Through the investigation of natural language processing (NLP), political theory and critical data studies, the group aims to develop methods for creating effective online counterspeech and alternative models for connection. Her work has appeared in Critical Inquiry.


I would like to thank Lynn Festa and Paul Moorcroft for their comments, suggestions, and conversations, and Hannah Holtzclaw for her editorial help. They have been invaluable.

[1] Thomas Keenan, Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (Stanford, Calif., 1997).

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor et al., ed. Connor (Minneapolis, 1991).

[3] Wendy Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, Mass., 2016).

[4] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh, 2014)

[5] Combahee River Collective, How We Get Free (Chicago, 2017).

[6] Kenneth Reinhard, “Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor,” in Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santner and Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago, 2005).

[7] Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (Brooklyn, N.Y., 2019).

[8] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3, no. 3 (2014): 1-25.

[9] Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York, 2019).

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