Tag Archives: social media

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.

Russian activism through a micro-scale and social media lens

still from Vestnik Buri’s video on Sergei Guriev “An Apostle of the Free Market”

When I was writing recently here and here and here about Navalny, what was at the front of my mind, but mainly left unsaid in those pieces was the vibrant activism of the far less visible Left in Russia. So, to try to restore balance in this blog, I’ll say a little bit about my scholarly turn of attention to left-activism. After all, this blog is supposed to reflect my core research agenda – which is the micro-scale and the ‘everyday’ experience in society that is often overlooked in work on Russia, but which, I would argue is a good barometer of social change itself.  

The Belarus protests are a good example of how we can focus too much on the visible elite actions (and here Navalny is an ‘elite’, if I may) and not enough on the interplay between, dare I say it, structure and ‘ordinary’ agency. I was also interested in the Belarus case because of the possibility of coalitions between different parts of Belarus society. The jury appears to still be out, but Volodia Artiukh’s piece from late last summer shows some potential futures and pathways. I engaged with Artiukh and others because my hunch is that like in Russia small successes of ‘political’ unions can have an outsize indirect effect on worker-militancy more widely and on ‘traditional’ unions themselves (who start feeling they have to up game). But I don’t really know much about Belarus. Update here from an interview with activist group ZabastovkaBY from March 2021 that mentions the importance of informal associations of workers.

Late summer 2020 I also started writing about left activists and the Moscow food courier strike. My main argument was that there is clear evidence of ‘learning’ by activists in ‘political’ unions that this learning can be transferred to completely new terrain (the gig/service economy). Not a very original argument, but again, not something many scholars are working in Russia, so why not build a case study around it. One of the left activists I studied for the courier protests got arrested around the time of the recent Navalny protests. However, this was a clear political punishment not related to Navalny, but because of the union organiser’s solidarity action in support of Azat Miftakhov – an anarchist student stitched up because of his expressive eyebrows.  Subsequently, the union organiser made a very detailed and evocative youtube interview on his experience in a ‘spetspriemnik’ (holding jail for administrative prisoners).

The effective use of social media resources – both for organising, but also then reflecting on the experience of arrest and providing practical advice to future arrestees – reflects another aspect of my interest in this case.  In parallel to the attention Navalny gets as a smooth media operator (perhaps too smooth), anticapitalist Russian YouTube has undergone a real breakthrough (as far as anticapitalist media can be said to breakthrough at all!). That’s not really the main subject of my writing, but in passing I reflect on the advantages of a loose affiliational model of activism sustained by ‘transverse’ online communication. That is to say – one way of hanging on in the hostile (to leftists) environment of social media/journalistic circles is the proliferation of different leftist mini-media projects that might look like isolated corals in a sea of liberal smirk, but which actually exchange direct (and offline) communication, personnel, and experience, online. This is based on the ‘streamer’ model – on platforms like Twitch gamers build (million-strong) subscriber bases for their live streams of video games by engaging in small yet constant acts of solidarity, mutual aid, cooperation, collaboration, and promotion of like-minded others. I hope to come back to this topic again, but in the meantime, spare a thought for the many, many activists (of different stripes) who take great personal risks, but get little attention.

Public intellectuals in a bathhouse full of spiders


An urban banya or bathhouse

We’re all public intellectuals now. I don’t mean the traditional idea of a public intellectual – like Bertrand Russell. Or Isaiah Berlin, whose death was reported on the front page of the New York Times. On the contrary, it’s a good thing that because of the democratisation of the ‘public sphere’, those who previously would have remained unchallenged having built ‘an entire career … on the trick of contrariness’, can instantly be called out.

Nor do I mean the idea of academics as necessarily critical (which is more than the ‘illiberal practicality’ of ‘impactful’ research), politically engaged in the ‘real world’ in an organic way (in a labour movement or immigrant rights organisation), as argued by Michael Burawoy.

What I’m talking about is the taped-down ‘transmit’ button of social media. [The irony of writing this in a blog post is not lost on me]. The problem is that while social media has enabled us all at the same time to broadcast, few are listening. Or rather, they are ‘hearing’ what they want, often from those least knowledgeable. Perhaps all this proves is the critique of Habermas’ public sphere – that such a ‘bourgeois’ idea of communication always excludes, and cements existing power-imbalances.

And these musings arise from three typical experiences of ‘doing academic social media’ in the last weeks.  Number One requires little explanation to those acquainted with Twitter. Since the Trump election meddling theories began, a number of ‘Russia experts’ have garnered huge Twitter followings and a lucrative career in op-eds. They have three things in common: simple ‘enemy’ message: ‘Trump is Russia’s weapon’, few Russian language skills, and, (this was what came up this week) no record of every having visited Russia. According to Sean Guillory’s definition, these pundits often qualify as Russophobes.

Hau about open access?

Number Two started with the resurgence of #hautalk. The return of a publically criticised academic to editing an important open access venture in anthropology provoked rage among understandably indignant precarious scholars on the same Twitter platform. The latest Hau episode reveals a ‘wood for the trees’ issue – alternatively known as ‘more heat than light’. While scholars highlighted how their precarious positions had enabled their alleged mistreatment by an editor, there is less attention to bigger structural inequalities. (For a more positive recent story about open access and ‘flipped’ peer review but with similar reservations about power imbalances in academia see this blog post – hint: it’s all about more transparency and accountability).

The fact that this individual had been ‘caught out’ merely underlines the inherent and toxic hierarchical power of academia. The case only came to light because the editor himself is clearly a marginal, perhaps desperate figure. He’s never held tenure (despite being middle-career). He’s not Anglo-Saxon. He’s clearly had to make his way as a journeyman researcher, serving at the favour of powerful intellectual patrons. What’s also missing from this story is the wholesale delegation of grunt journal work from the ‘Board’ to this individual. Now some senior figures involved are allegedly covering their tracks by deleting social media posts or retreating into privileged silence (with the exception of David Graeber, who supported the whistleblowers from the outset).

None of this excuses the allegations made. (See how even microscopically public-facing intellectuals are forced to caveat?) However, the free-riding on this project by senior scholars is another example of the pernicious free labour – ‘trickle up’ that we all provide to the more powerful. We often bemoan the assumption that we must perform free labour, like peer-review, but also we miss out that the main beneficiaries are not just publishers and universities, but our senior colleagues (often indirectly, like courtesy citation of a big name).  Also, as pointed out, the Hau project tended to reproduce academic hierarchies as much as existing journals.


some stats about Hau authors, from footnotesblog.com contributor Jules Weiss

The diminishing returns of Twitter dialogue

I found a reinforcement of the Hau  experience (more heat than light) closer to home (Russian studies). This week a thoughtful tweet was made about the racial profiling of Central Asians by the Russian police.  Thoughtful, because the author and others were reflecting on the selective solidarity and wilful blindness towards racism by the privileged, particularly academics. So far so good. However, anyone coming to this tweet-conversation might be forgiven for thinking that police stop Central Asians because Russians are ‘merely’ racist. They would not learn that this is due to a structural racism built into immigration laws that enables the extortion of money from Central Asians that serves as part of the scaffold of the corrupt law-enforcement system. I’m not convinced that the causes of this form of racial profiling makes the Russian police more racist in practice than their counterparts in the US or UK for that matter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learnt a huge amount from interacting on social media with academics and ‘public intellectuals’ since 2014, when I started using Twitter. However, I too am increasingly setting social media to ‘broadcast’ rather than receive.  Is this a metaphor for our times? Certainly, a fellow blogger thinks so: ‘the relentless jeering, preening and snark is evidence of the platform’s humanity.’


A common experience for Russian studies twitterers

Counter publics and proletarian public spheres?

When I was writing about how ordinary Russians use social media a few years ago, I engaged not only with Habermas, but also Negt and Kluge (on the proletarian public sphere) and Nancy Fraser’s counterpublics “where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs”. At some point I’d like to return to the PPS works, for the obvious parallels with the democratising and oppositional potential of social media. Negt and Kluge argue that the latter could potentially oppose the organized interests of the bourgeois public sphere through its organization of human needs and interests. On the other hand talk about the PPS is not million miles away from the banya full of spiders that is Twitter and other social media, in that they are evidence of “the “excluded”, vague, unarticulated impulses of resistance or resentment. The proletarian public sphere carries the subjective feelings, the egocentric malaise with the common public narrative, interests that are not socially valorized.” To my knowledge, Negt and Kluge’s ideas have not been applied to internet as a public sphere, (they wrote on public television and radio). Mark Poster’s piece still seems to be the main way-marker here.

So, what positives can we take forward? Well, strange as it may sound, I’m increasingly turning from Twitter to YouTube as a creaky, yet good-enough model for public intellectuals. And ironically, Russia leads the way here precisely due to academics’ exclusion. Deprived of airtime on traditional media, political oppositionists have long worked hard on building audiences in alternative media spaces. I’m still blown away by the slick, controlled operation that is Navalnyi. YouTube is a medium made for this. However, academics are catching up and using it for a unique ‘long-form’ dialogue. Because of the low ‘cost’ (I mean time and effort as much as financial) YouTube is ideally suitable for a real dialogue between people with an enthusiasm for and in-depth knowledge of a topic. Two almost random examples. The genuine public intellectual and recently sacked from MGIMO Valerii Solovei talks to Boris Kagarlitskii about the disintegration of the ‘ruling party’ system in the Russian regions and the bigger question of social or political ‘revolution’  in Russia. A little stilted, a little forced, but nonetheless some kind of dialogue between a ‘socialist’ and a ‘liberal’. Solovei already had a huge media following of course, so now he’s persona non grata it’s disappointing that he does not link back to the original version of the talk, hosted by Kagarlitskii. We still have academic hierarchies reproducing themselves. A less visible and possibly more rewarding example:  Alexander Dmitriev and Viacheslav Morozov in an accessible version of the their work on Russia as part of Europe, indigenous knowledge, postsocialist trauma and the ‘spritual bonds’ of Putin’s Russia. While this video was produced by Gleb Pavlovskii’s Gefter project, there’s nothing to stop scholars from more DIY collective approaches. Indeed, by involving students and colleagues they might get more traction than the under-appreciated Gefter videos.  I come back to the spiders in the bathhouse analogy (which is apt if we think of social media as an external punishment of confinement and the nearness of others). If spiders are inevitable company, any old bathhouse will do. They’re there in the corners, for eternity, but it’s who is sitting on the plank with us that matters.


The reopening of my local public bathhouse