The Self as a QR Code

Recently at UCSB, every student who stayed back on campus was mandated to fill in a COVID-related questionnaire.  The questionnaire had a few questions: asking us whether we show symptoms of COVID or not, if we have a COVID test result pending, if we have been in contact with other infected people and so on. Like any self-declaration, it works on the basis of trust and manifests the presumed benevolence of the sovereign university system. The questionnaire was my only journal in the pandemic. If little else, it registered my wish to complete the survey. However, there was no ‘opt out’ scenario in this case. Completing the survey and acquiring the green QR-enabled clearance badge is essential for accessing our buildings, for staying on campus in toto. The badge signifies life in the pandemic. As machine-readable code which is just a ‘sea of data’ (black n’ white bits) to my eye, its visual form spans across the architectural, the digital and the medical. The architectural pertains to (physical, socio-economic) access to homes, buildings, closed spaces: to rules that govern our movements. The digital concerns the infrastructure of control (the badge, the QR scanner, the database, the server and so on). And the medical indexes the health of our bodies, by which each of us is made individually responsible for keeping ourselves not infected. The digital pandemic is the triangulation of architectural, digital and medical governance, a nexus made manifest in this little QR code which I got on completing the survey.

Imaging the Migrant Crisis

The singularly defining image of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has been that of  bands of migrants trudging across the length and breadth of the country to reach their homes in rural hinterlands. India’s migrants account for much of its urban population. They are that nameless body of people who earn less than 2 dollars a day, working in menial, often seasonal, jobs that are essential to the sustenance of its cities. While nameless for statistical agencies, they are largely populated by Dalits and Muslims, climate refugees, and displaced indigenous communities, who are stuffed into urban slums to eke out a precarious living. When the pandemic was acknowledged by the Indian government and total lockdown was enforced in a matter of hours, India was confronted on one hand with the government’s evident reluctance to provide food, shelter and relief to the migrants, and on the other by the reality of millions of migrant workers desperate to go back to their villages. Since all transportation was suspended, many decided to walk thousands of miles in India’s tropical heat (during its hottest months, April-May). An image that exhumed the Indian subcontinent’s traumatic partition – when millions were displaced overnight and encountered a similar fate. While these millions slogged back home with their meagre possessions and kids in tow, there was the recurring spectacle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appearing on TV, reassuring a middle-class population bound to their TV in the drawing room that India was ready for a relentless war against the virus. In Siddhesh Gautam/BakeryPrasad’s widely circulated illustration, these two realities are juxtaposed against each other with the caption “ignore the background.” For India’s mainstream media conglomerates close to the ruling BJP, it is as if the toiling millions walking for days on end (and often dying on the road) never existed. They dutifully parroted Modi’s rhetoric, steered public attention according to their political masters.

Fanview Co.

Apart from filling up empty stadiums with fan chants, cuts outs, etc. sports authorities are trying to simulate real fans and their behaviour during game time. Fanview, a company that specializes in game avatars, is trying to simulate a whole stadium full of fans. First, they are creating a virtual fan’s head, stitching it onto a body and then rendering a whole bunch of them to fill up a stadium. However what remains challenging is to render the body in motion, responding adequately to the game in action. While Fanview succeeds in relatively static simulations where fans follow a ball, there’s much to be done about the impulsive reactions to misses and goals. While simulating a whole panoply of reactions remains a work in progress, it has necessitated a new kind of engagement between sports authorities and fans. Traditionally sports companies have mobilized fan labour and affect to drive up their profits; now they seek to map, capture and mobilize fan gestures and habits to propfill up with their digital avatars own company’s images. Even if not by narrativizing their lives otherwise, fans are having their habits and movements captured by a different media machinery through the pandemic.

LockdownMovement.in

For millions of migrant workers left jobless after the suddenly declared lockdown in India – who largely worked in big cities with no job security or labor laws – returning to their “home villages” was the only way to stave off death and starvation. As the government turned a blind eye to these stranded workers and their families, a few NGOs, activist organizations and civil society initiatives stepped in to mitigate this humanitarian-political crisis by supplying food, access to transportation and tickets. Some even moved the courts to effect some change at the state/policy level. Vipin Kaushik gathered his globally dispersed family on zoom to jumpstart lockdownmovement.in. Everyone chipped in to set up software, collect data, promote, design or lay out content. lockdownmovement.in became a digital repository where migrants could update their current conditions, their intended place and route of travel, and accompanying family members. For others chronicling lives on the internet, databases like lockdownmovement.in became ways to document the lives and existences of migrant workers who had fallen off the state’s radar. Perhaps, in lockdown grammar, one could say this was not contact tracing, but tracing the contacts of those without means of communication, travel and food, without smartphones and apps, without paper and document. It became a mode of documenting the undocumented, even if as the Kaushik family admits, the actual migration back to villages remained an unsurmountable task given the absolute apathy of the ruling political class.

Bang Bang Con

Recently the K-pop boy band Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS) garnered around 750k viewers for its online concert Bang Bang Con. Con stands for Concert, one Bang stands for the band’s name, while the other refers to room (in Korean, bang). All in all, a great concert to view from the comforts of your room. BBC’s programming takes the room as the default living/viewing space in the pandemic era as its foundation: architecturally (BTS’s big-scale concerts give way to small studio floors that resemble different rooms in the house), in its logo design (a multi-storied house with many rooms), and even thematically (the performances are interwoven with scenes of the band members, viewing the concert from the comforts of their own homes). BTS’s typical large-scale synoptic concert design which keeps all eyes glued to the stage gives way to the seemingly informal format of amateur performances, where members hold Samsung cameras and perform as if in a selfie or insta-live session. Yet when interpreted differently, the intimate, haptic images of these stars split across 8 screens resemble multiple CCTV feeds projected onto a large screen in one’s own personal bunker. To view these images from the comforts of a darkened space, to focus on images while stonewalling the world outside has been the oldest imaginations of visual culture and its surveillance dispositives. The bunker has always been a secluded crypt. But with the proliferation of digital media, the once-specialized viewing of CCTV images pervades all our lives and spaces of living. Every room is a bunker.

Zoom Backgrounds

Right after the Oscars when the pandemic took on a global scale, the Japanese twitter handle for Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019) released some stills of the film for people to use as zoom backgrounds. No other zoom background is more apt to index the social inequities laid bare by the pandemic than one borrowed from Parasite, whose own politics is inscribed in the sharp contrasts between the Park and Kim family’s homes. As all film scholars know, filmic backgrounds carry a wealth of meaning which greatly exceeds that revealed by the explicit dramaturgy or plot. This truism has been turned on its heads with the pandemic, where our homes have turned into workplaces. Under the benign surveillance of webcams, the corner of our house we work from has turned into mise-en-scenes that we must design and tend to: our material conditions and social station projected as an image for all to see. Even the refusal to turn the camera on or show one’s “true” living space implicitly betrays our material conditions. Zoom backgrounds intervene by swapping our real inhabited spaces for virtual cinematic screens to project our desires at large. These backgrounds speak of many things, but often run up against the limits of such a cheap quick-fix. As our digital body-images glitch or sometimes erroneously dissolve into our backgrounds, we are reminded that we as figures always inhabit a material space that grounds and anchors us. We come up against an old fallacy of western art history: the figure as an autonomous body, active and bearing the weight, distant and differentiated against a mute, unchanging background. Zoom backgrounds remind us yet again that the figure is always embedded in the milieu: shaped by larger forces that determine the possibility of action and degree of relative freedom.

The John Hopkins Heat Map

One of the most striking images to occupy our screens in the last few months is this global heat map of the COVID-19 pandemic made by researchers at John Hopkins. A heat map, says Wikipedia, is “a data visualization technique that shows the magnitude of a phenomenon as color in two dimensions. The variation in color may be by hue or intensity, giving obvious visual cues to the reader about how the phenomenon is clustered or varies over space.” This heat map has become popular and widely shared as a representation of the spatial spread and concentration of the pandemic: red marks out hotspots and black marks those zones that have escaped the worst depredations of the virus. It underlines the pandemic as a truly global event. Beside the map, a host of panels and numbers – on death, recovery and total cases – intimate the intensity of the pandemic. In modern western thought, numbers carry the authority of objectivity; they lay direct claims to truth. What grabs our attention most is a panel which lists total cases by country (and then by states and counties), indicating the distribution concentration of the virus. Despite its global spread, the country and region wise break up reminds us of our national, local specificities – fuels our immediate perception of risk. Such images and panels despite help mobilize nationalist affect despite its global nature. Countries were quickest to impose nation-specific travel bans, often with explicit racial undertones (such as the US travel ban on China). They made crossing national borders an even more surveilled and stringent exercise instead of shoring up healthcare facilities. The John Hopkins map repeats this as epistemic violence: it glosses over how community transmission happens, how national care infrastructures are to be mapped out, and how risks are unevenly distributed even within a nation/region due to historical inequities. 

The Zoom to Prison Pipeline

The Zoom to prison pipeline is an emergent internet term that talks o how Zoom (a stand in for larger the video conferencing turn with the pandemic) resuscitates older anxieties regarding policing in America which disproportionately targets black communities and the technologies that aid in this racialized violence. These anxieties have come to a head in the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the resulting police crackdowns. Recently, in El Paso, Texas, cops turned up at the house of a 12 yr old black student who was seen flaunting a toy gun in his zoom class. The teacher sent a video recording of the class to school authorities: who then called the cops on the black student, and suspended him from school. The records claimed that he brought along “a facsimile of a firearm to school” and thus demanded disciplinary action. While the world has been debating proximity and distance, materiality and immateriality for our digital eras, for black people, asking what constitutes an object, what its image, and what a toy becomes irrelevant. It also seems pointless to ask what is an actual material space, what a digital space, or what it means to do classes from one’s home. Even a fake gun in a digital classroom is threatening enough for the white population – it conjures horrific visions of gang violence, retribution or black rebellion. Aside from questions of Zoom classroom ethics, the zoom to prison pipeline compounds existing fears of surveillance and its targeting of black communities; it notes how the seemingly protected nurturing spaces of the class or home have come under constant scrutiny, ready to be served as incriminating evidence before a hostile policing system. 

Aarogya Setu

Platform cultures thrive not just by extracting and collecting data, but by discovering an operability, a pattern which might have a future use and value. This promise of future capitalization drives its totalizing art of capture. Every bit of data must be collected for its potential future value. Contact tracing apps thrive on this temporality. As platforms, they seek to anticipate the unknowability of our futures. The future, like the pandemic, is unknowable: marked with constant risks and the threat of exposures to harmful elements, against which immunity has to be developed. Contact tracing apps thus collect data to not only know and inform our presents but also to guard us against a threat from our future. This securitization is embodied in constantly recording contacts, movements, networks and trails, everything that might save us from the incursion of the absolute unknown. Contact tracing apps thus fold upon our present forms of habitation –  daily movements, social spaces, our very habits – an evolving set of future possibilities. GPS and Bluetooth map out infection rates and its probabilities, trace infected networks spatially – in terms of their spread, routes of travel and so on. Thereby, they shape and delimit our futures on the basis of our spatialized presents. 

Bluetooth for the pandemic

Once the most beloved of all messaging applications, bluetooth low energy transmission systems lead a quiet life now. Now mostly used to pair devices within a certain radius of about 100m,: it connects your phone doesn’t connect to your wireless headphones, or is used to share files refuse to share through airdrop. However, this nearly forgotten technology transmission mechanism is now being hailed as the best available de-facto method for contact tracing apps. Its proponents champion Bluetooth as a cybersecure option compared to location-based contact tracing apps that centrally store non-anonymized personal data. Most privacy-conscious contact tracing apps including the Apple/Google Exposure Notification System rely on Bluetooth these days. They use it to connect and share encryption data amongst devices, such as a TCN (Temporary Contact Number) that anonymizes individual data while retaining metadata on their respective mobilities. If someone updates their infection status, that data is shared (while anonymizing the specific user) with all the devices with which encryption data has been shared via Bluetooth. Bluetooth thus works on the promise of cyber-cryptography to anonymize data amongst users. However, bluetooth-based encrypted transmission does not by itself guarantee privacy. Company servers still retain encryption data on centralized databases to relay information to those logged into an user’s encryption histories or relay to third parties like government organizations. Despite its promise of reach, the bandwidth of devices covered, and anonymization, bluetooth-based contact tracing continues to have some of the same problems as centralized data collection. With the potential for trading with third parties like governments, employers and health insurance providers already quite potent, it leaves the question of data futures open and questionable.