3. Together Apart

This third story looks at the digital labour enacted under conditions of isolation in comparison with pre-pandemic conditions. ¶ A series of brief texts and images illustrating current video communication services was compiled via instagram (see below) to accompany the story. ¶ Written whilst in arbitrary detention (”Hotel quarantine”) in Melbourne, Australia

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May 9th, 2020

**The day started early**, around 6am with some casual live Snapchatting with friends, those that were in similar time zone, and could chat from bed, did. Πthought this was a good way to ease into the day. Sleepy chats were the most relaxing kind of video chats.

Œ then moved to Instagram to follow a live stream they had set a reminder for. The founder of a Slack-a-like platform and a representative from an open source video standard were interviewing each other. The conversation was stilted and a bit ‘bro-’y’. The guy in the panel below seemed concerned about the comments running over his face and looked like he was frowning at them every now and then. Only a handful of viewers were in attendance. It felt like an experiment neither operation would try again. Œ winced thinking about it, and distracted themselves by scrolling through the feed on their freelance Instagram account before switching over to their personal one. Œ made some time to check in with a couple of group chats on WhatsApp before it was time for breakfast and a shower.

Œ hated Microsoft Teams but this was where they would go to debrief about this morning’s Instagram Live event with clients and colleagues (same difference). This was necessary in order to maintain a resemblance of a job and continue to get paid those sweet freelance consultancy fees—which had not abated in recent times even when some of Œ’s friends were seeing their irregular incomes crumble to dust. The more clients sought out online facilities, the more they relied on consultants like Œ to interpret how they worked and what they were about. Slack meetings were had over breakfast before logging into Jamm for casual chats and catching up with Œ’s freelance network and ‘work friends’. This is when Œ felt the pressure to put a 'face on' start to build—the pressure to ‘present’. Coffee was helpful here.

Œ thought it wise to take a breath and collect their thoughts before diving into the day’s core round of meetings, presentations and related activities—maybe even eat something. It was past midday, afterall. Œ considered what type of food they had readily available that would provide the type of elongated energy needed to get through another round of screen-based activity. Maybe a proper sandwich… with tuna and capers… there was a bag of smoked almonds in the cupboard for continuous snacking when Œ’s energy dipped.

The early days of clusters (or ‘flusters’ as Œ liked to refer to them) of tediously overlong Zoom meetings, where everyone and anyone seemed to be invited to air whatever occurred to them at the time, had thankfully dissipated. When not presenting but having to attend the occasional Zoom meeting Œ would often employ an animated backdrop to suggest engagement when they needed a break from the heavy weight of expectation around contributing to these discussions. Fortunately, Œ found not every meeting had to be contributed to, sometimes it was enough to listen. Many ‘Zoomers’ used the sessions simply to vent, which is possibly why they had become less and less popular. A mix of various smaller services had filled this gap such as Whereby, Screen and Jitsi.

All this intense connectivity meant work tasks tended to evaporate by the afternoon. Leisure migrated online as ‘digital labour’. Œ liked this idea though, and took their time conducting personal research (into a vast array of random topics), making and sharing memes, gaming and streaming very seriously. Œ also tried to maintain some sort of time limit for these activities although gaming being what it was, this proved difficult sometimes.

Around 6pm (‘Netflix o’clock’ as Œ thought of it) it had become increasingly difficult to conjure up enough broadband for streaming via Twitch and chatting via Discord so Œ would switch networks for a little while using one of the dedicated gaming ISPs that were a product of the early days of metered broadband and could still be found if you looked around for them. This carried Œ relatively seamlessly across from day to evening. There was dinner to be made. Œ used meal times as markers or milestones to divide up time spent online during the day. This evening, there was some salmon and left over risotto in the kitchen that needed to be eaten. Weekends, it was more likely to be room temperature pizza or pasta left over from Friday’s Uber Eats binge.

The evening would then swing back towards social pursuits and the consuming and sharing of video content via YouTube mostly. Œ wasn’t a fan of streaming services and their recent steam rolling of issues around net neutrality. Œ preferred to pirate anyway, telling themselves it wasn’t about the fees but about the immediacy (and as a protest around the proliferation of DRM agencies).

It occurred to Œ that they hadn’t caught up with any relatives for a while. Since Œ and their parents had added each other to their ‘Find My’ app they could easily look up where Œ was and so were less inclined to call and ask. Œ opened FaceTime and called ‘Fam’. The video quality was not great. It was hard to hear what the two huddled faces were saying most of the time. This was typical of this time of evening. Shaping or throttling was meant to be illegal but just like her neighbours wifi booster in the basement car park, seemed to be quietly tolerated by regulators.

Œ tried calling an old friend directly afterwards… mostly on a whim after seeing their name underneath Œ’s parents in their Contact app. The connection was terrible. After a few minutes Œ gave up, texting them ‘Hello’ instead. Œ tried another contact who they knew kept similar hours. The call too was of a quality that rendered it useless. What was going on? Œ attempted watching a few videos online, switching between accounts. Equally terrible. Then before Œ could launch some sort of fractured attempt at resuscitating their diminishing wifi and mobile connection. Both of them just. Stopped.

Πpanicked for a moment, then a switch was flicked in their mind. This was the perfect excuse to properly log off, have a glass of water, put in some lubricating eye drops and see if their brain has been exhausted enough to sleep. Maybe it would be working again in the morning.

Res >^..^<