[iDC] Downtime & Play

trebor at thing.net trebor at thing.net
Sat Nov 19 11:35:51 EST 2005

On my way to Zurich I just met a colleague at the airport. We both fly
routinely. "I can't do it anymore." he said. "All this air travel is just too
much downtime for me." I moved onward passing through airport lobbies in New
York City, London, and finally my Swiss destination. In these inbetween spaces
I was persistently confronted with big, fat back-lid ads. And they were all
about time. T-Mobile's slogan is "Upgrade your downtime." The airline Jetblue
draws attention to their wireless hotspots at John F. Kennedy with the
commanding "downtime-download." The mantra of the British Vodaphone is "The
power of now!" BT shows a jolly business man fly-jumping through what looks
like a landscape of Powerpoint charts: "The digital network economy. Where
business is done." In JFK, Sprint, the American cell phone tycoon, set up
yellow placards in the size of a house that say "yes to making just about any
place a work place." It made me stop. I was buffled. How dare they be so in my
face about what I perceive as the agony of immaterial labor?

Before moving to San Francisco I never heard terms like "quality time" or
"downtime." In East Germany, for me, time was just time indiscriminately. For a
wide variety of reasons there are many that pledge allegiance to everything
not-networked, offline, and non-digital. Who can blame them? Post-Fordist work
conditions turn the super-mobile manager into a networked lap dog. At six in
the morning those waiting in the airport gate area pull out their laptops.
Sneaking over their shoulders I see spread sheets. The networked early morning
work day starts with coffee and a cheese-and-egg-pizzas. Downtime now is
download time. Life is work. There is not enough time to rest, cook, reflect,
or walk in the woods. The insidious penetration of the Internet into our every
grain is hard to deny. Workers become part-of-the-solution-nodes rather than
full-time employees. Health insurance can be done away with. Wages in the
immaterial networked realm don't have to bear resemblance to the work that was
done. And, who ever mentioned pensions? Also Unions get whacked when the work
force is geographically pieced together. Then there is all that sense of place
stuff that Lucy Lippard was so adament about. But the uprooted lifestyle seems
like peanuts compared to what is happening now, -- the horror, the horror.
Passing through these airports, the net started to feel like an itch that we
can't scratch.

Much of the discussion about networking is focused entirely on business. Howard
Rheingold's essay "Technologies of Cooperation" is magnificent and inspired,
imho, but it is written in large part to help out the amazon-dot-coms of this
world. Doug Rushkoff comments on his blog that he hopes for the ideas in his
latest book to help businesses (and well, also a few others). Fair enough.
What's wrong with that you may ask? Well, let's just say that there is an
utilitarian impetus that rarifies play and experiment at least if they don't
link up with business interests sooner rather than later. Let's just say that I
hope for people with insight into network technologies and their human uses to
also take on projects that do not support those who already have plenty. Why
help eBay to make even more money? Who really needs our help?

Some cultural workers have much in common with managerial networked types. Brian
Holmes points to that. It's not just the rock stars of what Richard Florida
calls the creative class who sit on planes next to the smiley jet set manager.
Artists become entrepreneur of themselves. Self-worth is quantified in frequent
flyer miles and numbers of invitations. But the opportunistic, ego-tripping art
enterpriser is not all there is. Cultural practioners travel and perform their
ideas all over the world. They are gift-givers with all the problematic
hierarchies that this creates. On good days they enact their ideas with
passion, inspiration and substance. The Brooklyn-based artist Martha Rosler
documented her more than frequent passing through airports in many series of
photographs and critical writing. She describes her motivation for these works
related to her occupation. And in new media as much as in photography, the
international scenes are closely knit. Travel is a substantial part of the
lives of cultural producers. I can't point to the travelling managerial
networkers "over there." They are so distant and conveniently different from
me. I don't have all the ethical and political rightenousness on my side. I am
part of the picture. The network beast lives also inside me.

We move through space. "We" are all those cultural producers who fly thousands
of miles to talk to different audiences or present their artwork. We are quite
the experts when it comes to travel. We know it all. Airport, home, gallery,
and lecture hall are equally familiar venues for us. We have it down. We know
how to block off obnoxiously loud fellow travelers. We recognize how to remain
friendly (most of the time)- with borderline-abusive security personnel. We
inhale every magazine article about tricks of air travel. Our bodies are
transported through the air. We are just resting. Covered with masks, our eyes
are closed. We enter a think space. We know what to do about the lack of
humidity on planes. The increased elevation at take-off jazzes us up. We know
when to stretch and which way to rotate our ankles. We developed a continuity
of purpose that makes it secondary where our bodies are located. The scenarios
through we move don't distract us so much anymore.

We repurpose trains, and airport lobbies into offices. The person next to us
becomes unwillingly involved. We pull ourselves out of the public into the
private networked space. We shift through the walkways of airports, drive in
taxis and trains. Networked devices keep us always anchored, always in touch,
consistently connected to myriads of social networks. But the flickering
screens to which we are hooked is not just the bluetooth lifeline to the boss.
We have all those with whom we share our lives in reach nearly at all times. We
cannot feel the warmth of their face, we cannot touch. But in our "downtime" we
can talk or exchange text messages. And doing so may prevent us from talking to
the stranger right next to us.

We "grow" network tentacles (like air roots) that allow us to be always on.
There is the perpetual, invisible link between our body and the nearest cell
phone tower. We are always plugged in, interlinked at all times. In the city,
at the moment when the subway train comes out of a tunnel to go over a bridge
dozens of people who endured at least 15 minutes of out-of-reach time pull out
their devices to feel reassured that they did not miss something. The
technology is not plated into us. It is miniaturized. The only piece of
hardware that Lev Manovich mentions on his blog, for example, is the "I-Go," a
universal connecting plug for all kinds of devices. It allows him to leave the
cable clutter at home. Our nano-sized multi purpose-devices are not what
counts. What matters is the linkage that they establish. The wireless Internet
signals casually picked up by our laptops facilitate exploitation. We have to
look hard to see the emancipatory nature of socio-technical networks. But it's
on the edges of network culture where the sun sparkles. It's not in the center
of pesky business culture.

But network technologies cannot be reduced to instruments of oppression and
casualized labor that squeeze every last drop of genuine energy and creativity
out of the worker. Cooperation-enhancing technologies are not by default
networked assembly lines. The Treo is not the beast. Laptops are not merely
locative Wall Street furniture. Cell phones are not the pervasive enemy. Groups
of protesters at the Republican convention used them to escape police tactics.
But at the same token networked technologies are also not inherently linked to
a deviant life style or oppositional cultural practice. Technologies define us.
We are conditioned to relate to them in predefined ways. Using technologies
changes what we know and how we know it. But we do have a say in this. We can
shape the technologies that we are using.  Networked technologies do not have
to stand for servitude. We can imagine  human uses. We can support emerging
alternative socio-technical networks by reflecting on technologies without
utopia-glazed eyes. Critiquing the vicious nature of networked, neoliberal
managers is vitally important. But don't stop there. Don't leave the discourse
about human uses of cooperation-enhancing tools and networking to them (or to
them inside of us.)


You can read this text (with images) on my blog at:

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