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Being messy when everything is clean

Making real-world communities when everything is “digital-first”

A computer generated image of a group of animals from the game Animal Crossing standing in a field
A still from Animal Crossings: New Horizons

Habits seem to grow out of other habits far more directly than they do out of gadgets

George H. Daniels, “The Big Questions in the History of American Technology”, Technology and Culture, Vol. 11, №1 (Jan., 1970), pp. 1–21 (accessed here)

This blog post is a scrapbook of links and questions that explore how civil society might be in a digital world. The first part defines civil society, the middle sections set out some context for how communities are changing, and the last part asks how non-technical experts can get messy with technology.

1. Civil Society

Firstly, what do we mean by civil society? The inquiry into Future of Civil Society defines it like this:

Civil society involves all of us. When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society. When we bring together our friends or colleagues or neighbours to have fun or to defend our rights or to look after each other, we are civil society.

Whether we organise through informal friendship networks, Facebook groups, community events and protests; or formal committees, charities, faiths and trade unions, whether we block runways or co-ordinate coffee mornings, sweat round charity runs or make music for fun; when we organise ourselves outside the market and the state, we are all civil society.

The thread that runs through this definition is togetherness.

Glimmers is trying to understand how technology can help build a sense of togetherness while we are still physically far apart. To do this, Gill Wildman and I are interviewing people from across different formal and informal civil society organisations to understand what this means practically for them right now, but I thought it would also be useful to explore some wider context.

2. Context

Precarity and privilege

As of mid May, there are new guidelines in England outlining who we can see, and how we can do that. It is now permissible to meet a single person in the park and have a conversation across a distance of 2 metres; this is a totally new behaviour, invented and enabled by regulation, and it will be a strange and unsettling experience for lots of us to shout at friends and loved ones from a short distance away.

A black and yellow safety sticker showing 2 stick figures standing 2 metres apart
Let’s Keep Our Social Distance floor sticker, from Get Me Packaging

As I touched on in the previous post, digital tools like WhatsApp and Zoom are also being reused by communities in ways that many of us would have struggled to imagine a few months ago; these adaptations come more naturally to some people than others, and almost none of them take the shape that product designers ever imagined. This very touching tribute to Karina Kinnear includes an incidental insight into the kind of ersatz daisy chaining that happens when families need to come together quickly, under great stress. When no one is there to do tech support, people still find ways to be close — but this constant resourcefulness is also wearing us out. For similar reasons to shouting in the park, the new culture of constant video calling is getting tiring, and it is no substitute for skin.

Meanwhile, physical distance and anxiety about bodies and touch is creating new kinds of threat for communities that have fought to take up space in a predominantly white, male, straight culture over the last century. Activist and informal communities are at risk of both lessening their social bonds and becoming invisible to the mainstream gaze. As Marie E. Berry and Millie Blake write:

Physical closeness is valuable for more than just movement success–it is powerful for healing, and for fostering a politics of trust, empathy, love and care.

That is not the case for everyone though. While we are physically far apart, some people are sensing a greater togetherness. Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson wrote recently in The New Yorker that:

It’s a new feeling, this alienation and solidarity all in one. It’s the reality of the social; it’s seeing the tangible existence of a society of strangers, all of whom depend on one another to survive.

We will never know for sure, of course, how benevolent we have all been, because there is also a very human tension at play — a push and pull between fear and generosity.

An ongoing study by the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, shows that our sense of social responsibility in the UK may have peaked during the early stages of lockdown. Between 9 and 11 April, almost 35% of people surveyed were in favour of acting for the benefit of society at a cost to the individual; this dropped by half to around 17% by 7 May — a lower level than before lockdown, even though overall levels of worry about Covid-19 remain fairly constant.

Chart showing “how much do you think people should do things for the benefit of society”, organised by propensity
Graph from the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication

As with so many things, benefitting from a feeling of solidarity is a privilege that is not evenly distributed. Many frontline workers, including people who work in care homes, are paid below the living wage and do not have access to personal protective equipment. Care workers, for instance, still have to go back to their homes and families at the end of the day, and as this Unison member said, ““I feel guilty that I’ll be the one who puts [my daughter’s] life at risk, every time I go to look after someone else’s parent.”

According to Guardian coverage of ONS figures, men in low-paid jobs are “almost four times more likely to die from coronavirus than professionals, with 21.4 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 5.6 among white-collar male workers”. Low-paid workers are creating a kind of human shield; it may not be that society is being saved by solidarity, so much as market forces are asserting themselves to protect things that are financially valued.

Or, to put it another way, people whose working lives can be mediated through technology — conducted from bedrooms and kitchen tables via Teams or Slack, email and video calls — are at much less risk. In fact, our laptops and smartphones might almost be said to be saving our lives. This is an unintended consequence of remote working, but it is certainly a new reality that needs to be confronted and understood.

And many people who can work from a laptop are also less likely to lose their jobs than people who work in the service and hospitality industries, especially those who have well-developed professional networks and high social capital. According to The Economist, this group are having a much better lockdown than most — homeschooling notwithstanding. But then, they probably also had a more comfortable life beforehand.

Finding the fun

That same article proposes that, globally, we will be facing a “90% economy” once we recalibrate to the new normal — which means an economy with a 10% hole in it.

This missing 10% will include a lot of the spontaneous, informal and fun parts of life. Just as many jobs will go and businesses will shrink or disappear, the social experiences that those workers created and supported will also change and contract. Big events like Notting Hill Carnival won’t take place this year, and neither will smaller ones like wedding parties or music festivals. Co-working spaces and many coffee shops will close. Bumping into people is already a premium experience, and lingering chats over a pint are unimaginable. The Economist points out a second-order consequence of this:

The development of liberal capitalism over the past three centuries went hand in hand with a growth in the number of people exchanging ideas in public or quasi-public spaces. Access to the coffeehouse, the salon or the street protest was always a partial process, favouring some people over others. But a vibrant public sphere fosters creativity.

This kind of creativity sparks all kinds of things: it makes spaces for innovation and problem solving, and for activism and organising. Building new communities with corporate technology risks not only taking away the fun and the energy, but deepening existing social divisions and favouring professional people — who are comfortable with tools like Zoom and Slack — over everyone else.

The intangible benefit of the public sphere is similar to what Richard Sennett calls the cité in his book Building and Dwelling. He describes the cité as the feeling of a place, a consciousness— not the built environment but the character and mood of a neighbourhood that has until now been played out in playgrounds and cafes and pubs.

Some parts of this “place consciousness” might be moving to WhatsApp and NextDoor, where the voices are different, the words are typed and no one can see your face. It’s a different feeling, and there will no doubt be different organisers and actors; some of those will be people who were too shy to put up their hand in a community centre, others will be natural organisers, some will be put off by writing things down. But whoever is doing the typing, the community that is built will be and feel different to the ones we knew before, when we could speak quietly and see one another’s face. Serendipity happens differently online — often driven by data, and frequently unconnected to place.

Social infrastructure

Another shift is the move to extreme localness, which shines through this deep dive into recent high-street bank data. When people’s lives exist in a 30-minute walking distance from their home, physical proximity is vital. If you previously relied on people travelling more than a mile to get to you, you may no longer have a business. And this oddly contradictory life is one many people will recognise now: constrained within a mile or two, then having to stand 6 feet apart from anyone you see.

This may, of course, subside as longer journeys become permissible, but the pandemic has centred many people’s lives in their homes and immediate neighbourhoods. While the desire to travel and explore might still be there, it is anyone’s guess when that can and will happen. Combined with physical distancing and mask wearing, this will mean that even local conversations in parks or on high streets will be inhibited by physical distance; they may be more difficult to hear, more embarrassing to have; they will exclude some disabled people, exacerbate social biases and differences, and they will certainly be less intimate.

For now, many of us will have to rely on the communities that live in our phones and on the streets that immediately surround us, while looking for escape in other kinds of entertainment. Netflix stock is up, the porn industry is booming, and delivery drivers have been described as the “fourth emergency service”. The market will provide more of the ease in people’s lives than ever before, but it will do so in our own homes — the ultimate space of informality.

Caroline Slocock’s analysis of strong social infrastructure — which, she says, “makes a place somewhere where people want to live, businesses want to trade and investors wish to invest” — sees an interplay between the built environment, services and organisations, and strong and healthy communities.

A green and white pie chart breaking down social infrastructure into buildings, services and strong and healthy communities
Social infrastructure broken down by type, from Early Action Task Force’s “Valuing Social Infrastructure”

This framework needs reconsidering for a life lived more digitally. For instance, is Facebook a building, a service or a community, or is it a little bit of all three? Is CBeebies childcare now, and YouTube a community centre? Or do those analogies not apply?

As Eric Klinenberg discusses in Palaces for the People, communities often form in informal meetings in informal places. Not just coffee shops and libraries, but stairwells in public buildings and regular walks to school or work. Physical distancing will rewire that impulse for many, while in many communities recession and job losses will make time, space and resources disappear. So what foundations can civil society organisation be putting in place now? What seeds can be planted for the next iterations? And can technology help?

3. Thinking about technology

In writing this, I went back to Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. When it was published in 2011, it was a wake-up call for a lot of people working in tech (myself included), but the world described there is now almost unknowable — a world in which our phones are getting in the way of physical relationships, not becoming a proxy for them. 2020 has turned the phrase “alone together” upside down, and given it a new meaning — perhaps closer to what Kim Stanley Robinson was referring to than Turkle’s original thesis.

However, one thing Turkle says in her TED talk struck me: “human relations are messy and demanding and we clean them up with technology”.

This idea of cleanliness takes on a new, quite literal sense in the coming time of contact tracing apps, when our viral status — some marker, perhaps, of “cleanliness” — will be relayed to friends, neighbours and NHS databases.

And it might even seem ironic that, in the time of the Great Handwashing, the main conduits for new human connection and discovery are technologies that clean up our experiences. (Phones which, themselves, may be covered in germs.)

But, this begs some questions: How can non-technologists get messy with technology? Where can people with low to normal levels of digital confidence create a digital cité and how — without spending thousands on VR headsets — can more people experience the press of the flesh, the endorphins created by human connection?

To work this out, we’re going to learn from people who have already worked out how to make technology work better for them.

How disabled people have been leading the field

As playwright Matila Ibini said in this Doteveryone report, “Every disabled person is an engineer”, and essential things that sick and disabled people have long asked for have suddenly become routine for everyone. In an interview with Art News, artist Ezra Benus said:

Suddenly, people are realizing that better hygiene and access to remote work and learning are societal obligations. Until something like the coronavirus affected the general population, these things were presented to disabled people as impossibilities.

How can civil society’s future use of technology be led by communities of disabled people — and how can this day-to-day need for ingenuity be centred and respected in the broader innovation community?

Learning from gaming

Playing Minecraft with my son these past few weeks has opened up worlds neither of us could otherwise see or experience. We’ve zoomed over pyramids, visited rhinos in zoos and wandered around ancient Greece. If you’re lucky enough to have a Switch in these times of global Nintendo shortages, you’ve probably been hanging out in Animal Crossing — perhaps even hiding from your friends because you’ve seen too much of them. Meanwhile Zombies Run has kept people running in a suitably socially distant release called The Home Front, and teenage boys all over the world have carried on talking to other in Fortnite, the same as always.

These games all bring a sense of freedom and fun and exhilaration that you probably won’t get on a Teams call — even with your best friend. Meanwhile the brilliant games curator Marie Foulston has been running a party in a Google doc that looks messy and fun and enviably good. Rather than looking to offices and workplace technology, what can civil society learn from people who know how to have fun?

Making technology messy again — decoupling it from productivity and getting things done — might be the key to liberating civil society’s use of technology. We’re going to explore both of these things more in the comings weeks and report back.

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