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Disconnectivity – while everyone is connecting everything. About an unusual research project

2020-05-04 Zoom meetings, digital work, phone calls with superiors, family and friends: The Corona pandemic is putting digital communication at the centre of everything. Sociologist Clara Wieghorst from the Center for Digital Cultures argues that we are nevertheless experiencing disconnectivity, as it does not necessarily mean turning away from digital media.

During the Corona pandemic it has become explicitly clear how fragile the digitally connected society is. "The uncontrollable spread of a virus can also be explained by the fact that we live in a globalised and constantly connected world," says Wieghorst. 

The DFG project "Disconnectivity. Imaginaries, Media Technologies, Politics" deals with the phenomenon of disconnecting from a cultural studies and sociology point of view. On the one hand, the project examines the practices and infrastructures of disconnecting, and on the other hand, the imaginaries of disconnectivity - i.e. the ideas that shape these practices, such as the notion that digital media should be used more consciously. The euphoria of the emancipatory promise that accompanied the spread of the Internet in the 1990s has faded in recent years. Critical voices on digital networking, which focus on problems such as surveillance, exhaustion and cyberbullying, are becoming more prominent. This has given rise to a whole range of imaginations and practices of disconnectivity.

For example, there is digital-detox tourism, which is intended to guide people to distance themselves from digital networking and to experience the "true", social connection. "This is a common image in disconnectivity discourses, a dichotomy between the 'good' offline contact and the 'bad' digital connection," Wieghorst explains. 

During the Corona pandemic, disconnectivity doesn’t primarily take place online but rather in physical communication - social distancing is one form of it. "Distance is also an important practice in other contexts, such as when you live in a big city. When we take the subway, we can't connect with all the people, so keeping distance is an important moment of social interaction," says Wieghorst, summarising a thesis by sociological classic Georg Simmel. Project manager Urs Stäheli advocates that such moments of keeping distance should be increasingly included in the thinking of society. But practices of disconnectivity are also taking place in relation to digital media during the Corona crisis - for example, through the more conscious non-consumption of news and live tickers. This is an individual disconnecting practice of people who feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Social Distancing, on the other hand, can be understood as a collective strategy that helps to regenerate the connected society that is threatened by the virus. In this respect, disconnectivity is not the opposite of connecting, but takes place within the latter.

The project "Disconnectivity. Imaginaries, Media Technologies, Politics" is funded by the German Research Foundation and takes place as a cooperation between Leuphana and the University of Hamburg under the direction of Prof. Dr. Timon Beyes and Prof. Dr. Urs Stäheli.