Habits of Living: Being Human in a Networked Society

Recently, in Bangalore, a cluster of academics, researchers, artists, and practitioners, were supported by Brown University, to assemble in a Thinkathon (a thinking marathon, if you will) and explore how our new habits of everyday life need to be re-thought and refigured to produce new accounts of what it means to be human, to be friends, and to be connected in our networked societies.

There is no denying the fact that life on the interwebz is structured around various negotiations with information. Even as we go blue in the face, in the face of information overload, we have a sacred trust in the idea that information is the new currency of society. In our networked worlds, it is our role and function to transmit information to the nodes we are connected to. On a daily basis, we commit ourselves to the task of producing content, consuming information, relaying and sharing resources, saving and archiving material. We add, through our transactions and interactions, new data sets of information to the already burgeoning world of the web. These information practices, for those of us who are immersed in the info-networks, have become so naturalised, that we have become oblivious to the effort, care, time and resources that go into a sustained engagement with them. They have become a part of our everyday lives, creating structures of comfort and desire, so that the reward and gratification we experience masks the physical and affective energy we invest in sustaining these networks. The discussions at our Thinkathon, spread over four intense days, brought out some really interesting insights I want to map, in a series of posts, providing new ways of thinking about life as created through habits within a network.

Habits of Being Human

One of the most effective human turns the digital networks have produced is about connections. Beyond the interfaces, the platforms, the networks and the infrastructure of access, on the other end is a human being who emerges as a friend, mediated by the huge complex of hardware and software that facilitates this relationship. We have learned how to make these mediations invisible, talking about real-time, and instant messaging, and live-chats, concentrating only on the human actors that engage with us in this networked state of being. This making invisible of the network is not a natural thing. Even for digital natives who are supposed to be immersed in these environments like ‘fish taking to water’, there is a recognition that the network demands time, attention, financial and emotional investment in order to sustain the social relations web we create within these worlds. Wendy Chun from Brown University suggested we have converted these networks into habits – unthinking, visceral, prewired responses that gloss over the toll they take over us. Which is why, for instance, we habitually connect to our networks, and the human beings within that, and yet face information fatigue and network tiredness that takes us by surprise.

Renee Ridgeway (NEWS, Amsterdam) introduced us to the idea that networked habits stand-in for the transactions we make, ignoring the fact that they are largely a commodification of social relationships, making the labour of care invisible in the quantification through systems of Like, Share, Retweet, Follow, Ping, etc. It becomes important to unpack this idea of ‘labour of care’ because we generally think of care as an essentially human condition. Which is why, we connect, share information, help, offer sympathetic shoulders to cry on, for people who are separated from us through geographies and lifestyles. Care is the way in which we separate ourselves from the technological bots and algorithms which can often outstrip us in performing networked habits but cannot emotionally invest in the relations as we human beings can.

Radhika Gajjalla (Bowling Green State University) furthered this notion of care to look at crowdfunding platforms like Kiva and Kickstarter, which essentially bank on the lay-user’s idea of care, and helps them invest a small sum to better the living conditions of somebody in need. She showed us however, that care is not a ‘natural’ response. The interfaces, the representations of the people, the narrative structures of the stories told within these kind of microfinance websites, are all geared towards shaping a particular kind of first world guilt on the user, inviting them to quantify their ‘care’ towards those in the poorer worlds, in need of financial support. The ways in which networks shape our habits, make them natural and encourage us to believe in them as the preconditions of being digitally human, need to be given more attention.

These so-called habits have direct implications on how young people learn and engage with conditions of knowledge production. That which we think of as a natural response within the networked worlds is often a habit that disguises the complex mechanics of control, containment, societal pressures and expectations, and systems of reward and punishment which all get flattened as we rethink what it means to be human in the digital worlds. Looking at the infrastructure, the interface, the processes of training, the threshold of critical competence and the incessant personal investment that is actually labour but is disguised as a habit within the networks of learning, makes us more conscious of the fact that the young users are not ‘born digital’ and nor are they going to become experts left to their own devices. It brings back to the surface the question of the role of technology in education, and the form and function of new knowledge actors in our systems of learning.

Banner image credit: timparkinson http://www.flickr.com/photos/timparkinson/3788726140/