2020's flickering connectivities

The end of the year

Shutting the laptop on another meeting. 2020 has been defined, largely, by virtual connections. Firmly established in routine practices and embedded into organisational structures, Zoom and other video meeting apps are likely to stay around, whatever happens in the future. Like many of the other technological changes that have been fuelled by the wider circumstances, some aspects may fall away but many will be retained. It's not yet clear what these new constellations will be, but enough time has already passed for some of these shifts to have become familiar and routine.

Interacting with pixilated images of people on my screen, I wonder if it might be thought of as a period encapsulated by Katherine Hayles’ concept of ‘flickering connectivites’. Writing in 2005, Hayles was reflecting on the incomplete and bitty nature of mediated social relations. Social life in 2020 seems subsumed by such connections.

Drawing upon Shelley Jackson’s story Patchwork girl as inspiration, Hayles writes of how ‘this wishing for wholeness continues in dynamic tension with the simultaneous realisation that she is always already fragmented, ruptured, discontinuous’. These flickering connectivities are defined by fragmentation and rupturing, they are automatically incomplete and discontinuous. Interaction in bits. The questioning of whether or not a meeting protagonist’s internet link has broken or inquiring if they have frozen-up comes to mind here. Flickering connectivities, Hayles suggests, are underpinned by a ‘wishing for wholeness’ that is in tension with its flickering presences. It never quite constitutes a full connection, however convincing it might appear.

For Hayles, what Jackson’s story ‘demonstrates on many levels and in diverse ways - in its aesthetic, its performance of subjectivity, and the multiple causalities that create its flickering connectivities - the importance of intermediation’. There is not just one source for this sense of flickering connectivity, yet the form of intermediation matters to its feel and direction. The performance of subjectivity, as Hayles phrases it, might be a useful way of describing the experience of sitting in a video meeting whilst having to imagine actually being present in the same room.

Instead of augmenting social spaces, much of social life has been flickering this year. Hayles’ phrase seems evocative also of the nature of the connections, which are fleeting and limited, and also of their materiality and feel - the slight delays in the feed, the loss of connection, the freezing up, as well as the constant nagging realisation that an image on the screen is only an avatar of that person. Flickering connectivities have been everywhere. 2020 has flickered by.

This is going to be my last post of 2020. The newsletter will be returning in the new year, hopefully. Thanks for subscribing and reading.

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