Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 4: ‘Affording’ suffering under sanitary authoritarianism

Final blog summarising a Russian-language book chapter about Moscow as a not-so-smart city during Covid. You can read the first blog post here. Here is the book and pre-print chapter. We turn the final part of our chapter to the neologism ‘affordances’, as invented by James Gibson in the 1970s to described the possibilities that emerge from the contact of an organism with its environment – both positive and negative.

Donald Norman (1988) adapts the term to concentrate on “affordances as perceivable action possibilities – i.e., only actions which users consider possible. So, designers must create objects’ affordances to conform to users’ needs based on these users’ physical and perceptual capabilities, goals and past experiences.” An example of ‘negative affordances’ from technological ‘improvement’ are things like reading on a screen rather than paper (eyes get tired, making notes is more difficult). There’s a rich literature on negative affordances in higher education which we seem to have completely ignored in the now compulsory delivery of so much ‘content’ via learning portals.

Studies of the internet in everyday life have attempted to contextualise unforeseen positive and negative affordances by doing ethnographic work on how technology is really incorporated into the lives of people. I wrote about this long ago, predicting that social media use in Russia would develop differently to that in the ‘West’. There’s also an interesting phenomenological literature on affordances and technology – on how perception of virtual environments affects interpretation of utility and disutility (e.g. Facebook algos and the way I perceive it responding to my inputs in a feedback loop; the emotional relationship I develop with software and hardware).

In our work on Moscow Social Monitoring app, Galina Orlova and I observe how the responses of the people self-isolating to the app are often emotional, physical and therefore reflect the production of phenomenological affordance – or rather negative affordance. People go to sleep cradling their phones with the SM app, open in dread anticipation of being woken by its sadistic logic of enforced selfie roll-call. Further, as the users discover bug after bug, they perceive the app as a demonic, retarded, or sadistic being – an easier response than an interpretive rational one. Can it be that sadism is programmable into a push-notification system, some ask? Some users go further, pondering the effectiveness of the system in implementing the kind of sleep deprivation torture used during the Stalinist Terror, a system that was more routinely effective and efficient than physical beatings or threats in extracting confessions. Others reflect on how even ineffective digital governance both lines the pockets of those developing the app and gives City Hall a mine of biometrics on its subjects. A keyword here to describe the app, in opposition to ‘health’, is ‘vred’ – ‘harm, injury, detriment, damage’. Thus our chapter suggests the need to view the app as creating an affordance of suffering and disorientation. But perhaps they are essential to the logic of a future effective control society in the service of a sanitary authoritarianism.

The SM app was updated nine times in the summer of 2020 and many bugs were removed. However the main issues remained – frequency of push notifications, battery use, stability. Furthermore a key design flaw – the absence of confirmation of successful receipt of a selfie sent to a server (delivery confirmation) also remained. Again, one could ask the question – did this enforced helplessness of the app on the dividual, not enhance the effectiveness of control? Users continued to be fined for not responding to notifications which they never received; a record of notification was still not incorporated into the app’s functions. At the same time the City Hall technical lab (Department of IT) responsible declined to comment, even after a month of the app’s use. As an aside, the DIT could serve as an emblem of how Moscow City Hall operates as a mill in churning public money into rents. As an anonymous observer notes: “DIT: A bureaucratic filter for controlled siphoning off of budget money. Idiotic purchases of equipment, bureaucratic delays, systematic reworking of all and sundry for the sake of the ‘process’ itself. The Department has very few specialists, all projects are outsourced, facilitating further fraud.”

Characteristic was the eventual knee-jerk reaction of DIT: “There was no record of a single fine being imposed in error”. In July 2020, The State Duma essentially supported City Hall by declining the opportunity to implement an amnesty for the fines. Mayor Sobyanin continues his line about the technology “saving the lives of tens of thousands of Muscovites”. Only the Human Rights Council continued to raise the issue of “repressiveness”.

A less extreme emotional response to the app was one of ‘irritation’. We analyse the mild forms of ‘insurgent citizenship’ available to users as they en masse give the apps a zero rating on phone appstores and write detailed letters of complaint that, like so many app ratings, appear to disappear into the ether. Perhaps ‘irritation’ is a particularly metropolitan keyword for states of discomfort and dissatisfaction that serve as points of entry to the ‘political’ in the lives of pampered Muscovites. Certainly we can observe the genre of service quality assessment as part of consumer culture. What is important is avenues of activating ‘pretenziia’ – claim-making processes that are different from ‘complaints to the authorities’. Nonetheless there is also the activation of moral values of civic worth here too: human rights and freedoms, respect for people, and so on. We also observe a strong element of the emotional response to injustice: those fined by the app are indignant that they have to prove their innocence. There is no habeas corpus on offer here in an incorporeal dividual world. Evaluations of the circumstances of self-isolation range from ‘totalitarianism’, to ‘electronic concentration camps’. A civic, or pre-civic position is actualized through interaction with the unjust app: “is this what we pay taxes for?” “I will not vote for the current authorities!”

In the SM case, we also trace legalistic routes to get fines cancelled, including using the smart city’s other sources of data to justify the wrongly-fined person’s case: requests for access to entry-way camera data, for example. The emergence of a claim to a kind of digital citizenship is visible. While the class-action lawsuit against the fines doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere, there are cases of people avoiding SM by making use of data protection regulations. The Facebook group in ‘defence’ of SM victims has morphed into a social justice message about the miserly support for people from the Russian state during the pandemic. SM continues to be a requirement for those infected in Moscow and the ‘service’ is now outsourced, raising further ‘digital rights’ concerns. In late 2020 many fines were overturned by Moscow courts.

We end our chapter by reflecting on the smart city’s choice of technological control over society, in place of alternatives such as a collective solidarity approach or a state of emergency (the latter rejected because of the miserliness of the federal government). Our chapter ends in early 2021, with the routinization of remote working (for the middle classes), QR codes for entry to night clubs and the like – and now in late 2021 we are confronted with déjà vu. We focus on the positives – the response of Muscovites and their development of a more conscious critical and multifaceted strategy of co-existence with digital governance and also the transition to hybrid forms of action, civicness and solidarity.  

If you’re interested in the chapter and the wide range of other material in the book on Russia, smart cities and urbanism, please consider buying a copy via the link at the top of the post.

If you want to read a piece about what internet and social media use looked like ten years ago in Russia, here’s the first piece I wrote on VKontakte and tech in 2010-11.

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