Zooming Through a Crisis

Zooming Through a Crisis

Nolen Gertz (University of Twente, The Netherlands)
Copyright: © 2022 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/IJT.309097
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The coronavirus pandemic has led the world not to shut down but to move from the physical to the virtual. Various technologies have been used to maintain a sense of normalcy during the pandemic, as we can now work online, shop online, and socialize online. The perceived success of this technological resiliency in the face of a global health crisis has given rise to questions about whether the move from the physical to the virtual should be maintained even after the pandemic. Given the possibility that this “new normal” could soon become simply what is considered as “normal,” this paper will investigate what it means that we have indeed been able to use technologies to maintain order in a time of global disorder. To answer this question, this paper will focus on the technology that has become most synonymous with the pandemic—Zoom—and use postphenomenology, critical theory of technology, and Arendt's political philosophy in order to investigate its use during the pandemic.
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1. Introduction

The coronavirus pandemic caused schools to close, businesses to close, and even borders to close. The world appeared to be heading for a standstill as people across the globe were told to stay home for as long as was necessary to try to get the spread of the deadly disease under control. And yet life did not come to a complete stop. For many in fact life did not even have a pause. The order to stay home was not, as may have been at first assumed, equivalent to an order to act as if one was at home. Instead, technology was used to bridge the gap between home and not-home. Teleconferencing programs allowed people to continue to meet from home. E-Commerce websites allowed people to continue to shop from home. Streaming services allowed people to continue to see movies from home. Photo- and video-sharing applications allowed people to continue to see the not-home from home.

Netflix, for example, had had a steady rise in subscriptions every year—with 19 million new subscribers in 2017, 25 million in 2018, and 27 million in 2019—but during the pandemic Netflix had a sudden spike in growth with over 40 million new subscribers (Iqbal 2021). This rapid rise in streaming subscriptions fits with the research conducted by Nielsen (the famous American media market analysis firm) that “found an average 61% increase in streaming video” during “major crises” (Spangler 2020). Similarly, Amazon—which operates both a streaming service and a home delivery service, among other pandemic-benefitting services—reported a “44 percent” rise in sales, a “220 percent” rise in profit, and a “51 percent” rise in workers during the pandemic, all of which “surpassed Wall Street’s expectations” (Weise 2021). And the technology that has become most famous during the pandemic, Zoom, saw “sales soar 326% to $2.6 billion in 2020” while “profits jumped from just $21.7 million in 2019 to $671.5 million” (BBC News 2021).

What I wish to examine in this essay however is not the question, the question that seems to have arisen daily since the coronavirus crisis began, of whether these technologies were adequate solutions to the lockdown-caused problems they were attempting to solve (e.g., Denning 2020; Newport 2020; Waller and Chakrabarti 2020). These technologies have allowed us to continue our normal lives during a pandemic, leading us each day to ask if these technologies are poor substitutes for what life was like before or instead if these technologies are in fact improvements over what life was like before. But the question that is less frequently asked, the question that I intend to investigate in this essay, is: what does it mean that we attempted and have indeed been able to use technologies to continue our normal lives during a pandemic?

In this essay, I will attempt to answer this question by, first, turning to the philosophy of technology known as postphenomenology. By using postphenomenological methods developed by Don Ihde to investigate the technology that has perhaps become most associated with the pandemic—Zoom—we can see how technologies have helped us during the pandemic to maintain normalcy. Though recent research has shown how the rise of Zoom has had an influence on various aspects of human experience, ranging from the classroom (Lowenthal et al 2020) to the courtroom (Puddister and Small 2020), through postphenomenology we can conduct a broader investigation of Zoom’s influence on human experience itself. Postphenomenology can illuminate both how Zoom has helped us during the pandemic, and how this help can at the same lead us to becoming blinded to how these technologies shape what we experience as normalcy.

Second, I will turn to the work of Heidegger as from the Heideggerian perspective on Zoom we can see the danger of transforming our homes into workplaces as it entails transforming ourselves into mere tools, tools who, thanks to Zoom, can be called upon and ordered to work as needed. Yet by turning back to Ihde, as well as to the critical theory of technology of Andrew Feenberg, we can see why such a Heideggerian critique of Zoom might be too deterministic and might be better aimed instead at Capitalism. For Feenberg it would be particularly important to recognize that Zoom, as an online platform, could provide users an opportunity for not just working from home, but for activism from home.

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