COVID-19, Toxic Productivity & Technology Overload: Our New Visceral Digital Life

Rachael Kent on cultivating healthy tech habits during lockdown 2.0

Whether you are a regular user of social media, an educator, or internet and technology researcher, it was widely understood that the ubiquity of our digital life with our offline selves had become a pervasive dynamic relationship to navigate in our daily lives. If we thought that the datafication of life was firmly in progress with the increasing embedding of everyday digital devices – COVID-19 has accelerated that practical and affective trajectory to a visceral space. As a technology researcher, I was impelled to examine this phenomenological shift where individuals for the first time transitioned into and mediated much of their lives outside of the home via a digital screen. My empirical research interviewed participants between the age of 26 to 54 years of age, located across the UK and Australia during the early lockdown phase of the global COVID-19 pandemic (ref: MRA-19/20-18193). Social and family life, work, self-care, exercise, food delivery, retail; the digital platforms we turned towards to manage our lives, became extensions of our physical self, mediating communications and interactions, both personally and professionally. In turn, they became increasingly pervasive and habitual daily practices in isolation. Key findings from this research trace the developing hybridity of this new visceral digital life.

Toxic Productivity

One of the most challenging and converged hybrid behaviours to emerge out of (particularly early) lockdown was the cultural shift from the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) being replaced by a ‘fear of not being [or perceived as] productive’. This started on social media, with sharing etiquettes, particularly on western platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, reflecting a discourse of increased intimacy and bringing one’s network into the home, and daily isolation practices. In a short space of time, content shifted from being supportive and empathetic of the mutual challenges everyone was facing (albeit under very different circumstances), which quickly mutated into sharing ‘personal growth’ isolation content on social media. Learning a new language, renovating one’s home, or becoming an artisan baker was presented as an overnight achievable #lifegoal. This toxic productivity was so widely celebrated online it crossed platform, genre and industry sector boundaries, as productive lockdowns signified success, happiness and personal transformation despite the tragedy unfolding around the world.

Like the true neoliberal entrepreneurial subjects we are, we promoted toxic productivity to the stage of true embodiment; in time (and not a very long space of time) we felt guilt and judgement over not being perceived both online and to our personal and professional networks as ‘productive’, ‘healthy’, and performing of being a ‘moral self-regulating citizen’. This manifested as peer policing in some circles; participants spoke of friends calling out their behaviours if social media content signalled their visible frequency outside of the home. Similarly, content deemed to showcase ‘poor health management’; ‘laziness’, drinking ‘too much’ alcohol or eating ‘unhealthy foods received similar hyper surveillant social backlash both on news and social media. In time, and like many pandemics before it, stigma became associated with contracting COVID-19 or presenting as symptomatic. Some participants concealed diagnoses, and symptoms to those outside of their home for fear of judgement of personal irresponsibility enabling viral contraction. A centuries’ old religious discourse which discursively ties together poor health with sinful behaviour. We appear to pendulum between these two spectrums; at the one end using social media for creating new intimacies and connectivity, at the other, we embody persistent guilt and judgment over not being or perceived or acting as ‘productive’ and ‘healthy’, during and since UK COVID-19 lockdown 1.0.

Stigmatisation of COVID-19

This archaic way of conceptualising good and poor health is still rife today in COVID-19 life. It normalises judgements by other citizens appointing personal irresponsibility, a lack of self-regulation or moral code inevitably leading to the diseases’ justifiable role in a particular individual. Engaging with this discourse was performed and depicted with the creation of social media content (#stayathome), shaping understandings of how other citizens are (re)acting to individual versus public behaviours, which in turn becomes a mediated judgemental sphere influencing individuals’ (lack of) physical movement outside of the home. Additionally, there were very different perspectives of individual agency and freedom from a geographic context of rural versus city dwelling during the lockdown phase of the pandemic. Those living rurally felt a greater sense of freedom, agency, ‘de-sensitisation’, and were ‘shielded’ (ironically) from COVID-19. Those within cities felt heavily surveilled, in their home via online networks, and on the street via how fellow citizens navigated movement on city streets. Blame then, is ideologically assigned to others not following restrictions; participants perceived their own responses to COVID-19 related health guidance with strict adherence to lockdown measures, in line with discourses of being a moral, ‘upstanding’, and healthy citizen. This arguably relates to disparities between a perceived global wide common and unified understanding of what social distancing measures ‘needed’ to be enforced, as well as suspicion towards those who do conform to these measures, either depicted via lifestyle content on social media or physically embodied on public streets (invasion of the 2 metre rule, for example). Thus, these findings present, what we can conceive as a conceptual and physical ‘social distancing dance’ between both what is performed on social media and enacted physically offline between a commonality of public understanding of the pandemic, and suspicion and frustration towards those not following governmental guidance.

Technology Overload

Out of lockdown 1.0, and for many of us (especially those who were still working from home) not much changed in terms of disengaging from our digital companions. Usage of our digital helpers accelerated in many life domains – and in areas we might not have turned to them before COVID-19. Research findings identified an inevitable escalation of screen time, and only now, nine months after UK lockdown 1.0, and into lockdown 2.0 are we now starting to understand just how much everyone who is reliant on digital devices are struggling to navigate balancing using technology every single day with technology overload and inevitable fatigue. Participants identified challenges with attempts to ‘digitally detox’ and to manage the digital melting pot of life almost entirely being managed within the home. Juggling these multiple domains, personal and professional commitments with technology, participants struggled with balance and division of labour roles both on and offline. There were, however, positives to be drawn; reflections from digital and social media engagement were increasing feelings of community support, increased ‘contact’ with loved ones (particularly via video calls), and inspiring new interests/hobbies, and extending communications outside of participants familiar networks to enable social interactions with old/new friends and acquaintances. In turn, these interactions interestingly additionally dissolved some work-place hierarchies between senior and junior staff members, creating what some participants referred to as a democratising and deformalizing of professional dynamics and exchanges.

At the UK lockdown 1.0 stage of the pandemic, with so many unknowns, participants focused increasing attention to COVID-19 health and lifestyle related content, in turn, algorithmic recommendations continually drove them back to seek more ‘guidance’, whilst having to simultaneously navigate a tsunami of misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories.  Can we trust, in particular, social media to help with one’s health management? This has been a very important question for many years now, and particularly so during COVID-19 as we navigate collective unfolding understandings of the disease. Wading through the wealth of health, wellness and COVID-19 guidance and tips on social media has turned most of us into medical lay-experts continually attempting to decipher between what is legitimate information and what is nonsense. With lockdown 2.0 and the increasing broader public adopting a medical gaze, we struggle to balance binging on health information with equipping ourselves with enough knowledge to live safely, whilst simultaneously battling the mental anxieties and stresses this inevitably fosters.

Managing our Daily Digital Practices

Today, this seems to be the daily challenge of living though a pandemic and now in the UK, a second lockdown. How do we learn to balance engaging with and mediating our lives via a screen we cannot simply cut out and remove? We need to objectively redefine for ourselves individually what our goals for our digital health, and what a detox will actually achieve, to ensure actionable and longer-term changes to our relationship with our technology. Consider what practices are damaging to your physical and mental health; social media lifestyle comparisons perhaps, or work emails which slip into personal or family time. As well as the aspects which nourish you; connectivity with those you cannot see every day or sating your curiosity of reading into a new disciplinary interest. By critically identifying what distracts and disturbs in opposition to what nourishes and enables in our digital lives, only then we can constructively reflect and reshape our daily digital practice. With lockdown 2.0 firmly in process in the UK, and similar lockdowns happening in many countries across the world, despite the challenges the new visceral digital life presents, it is firmly here to stay, let’s hope we can co-evolve with it, together, in a balanced,  healthy, and realistic way for the months to come.

Corresponding author:

Dr. Rachael Kent, Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS, UK. Email: rachael.c.kent@kcl.ac.uk

Twitter:@DrDigi_Health  Instagram: @DrDigitalHealth

Author biography

Dr. Rachael Kent is a Lecturer in Digital Economy & Society Education (Department of Digital Humanities) at King’s College London. Kent’s interdisciplinary research interests explores the relationship between digital media and communication, focusing specifically upon the intersections of technology and the body, health and surveillance.

Dr. Kent is currently writing her first book, The Health Self – Digital Performativity and Health Management in Everyday Life. Published by Bristol University Press as part of the Quantified Societies and Selves Series, this book explores the cultural significance and social implications of the pervasive adoption of self-tracking technologies and social media as tools of health performativity and management