Coding Covid-19: The Rise of the App-Society
Digital Culture & Society, Vol. 8, Issue 1/2022
Coding Covid-19: The Rise of the App-Society
Julia Ramírez Blanco, Ramón Reichert, Francesco Spampinato (eds.)
This special issue of Digital Culture & Society deals with the concept of code in relation to the Covid-19 crisis. Code is intended both as a computer-based language to program software or apps and as a functional and visual language for organising administrative processes, visualising
information, performing behaviour control, and reinforcing shared imaginaries based on surveillance and dread. This issue departs from the idea that both forms of coding have become dramatically intertwined during the pandemic and are structuring a new way of being in and seeing
reality. This volume aims to explore the new forms of data-driven surveillance and representation of the pandemic evolution at the level of real-time epidemiology, sensor technologies, science policies, push media, and the heterogeneous counter-discourses that try to subvert them.
Is it the adoption of apps, social software and messenger services that emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic changing societies in the long term? With its feedback technologies, digital infrastructures, and online environments, this new set of media not only supports the government and health authorities in dealing with the epidemic but also multiplies social control in peer-to-peer networks. (Couch/Robinson/Komesaroff 2020). Social networking sites and their comment functions, hypertext systems, ranking, and voting processes ensure that our everyday life and behaviour have increasingly become the scene of mutual observation and an opportunity for data mining. The location-independent use in real-time transmission makes commercially managed apps a suitable tool for media self-guidance techniques in standby mode. Although the development we have described is not new, the editors want to raise the question of whether the acceleration induced by the pandemic will change computer-aided social systems and if so, in what way? (Keshet 2020).
In light of the health infosphere and quarantine policy of Covid-19, push media in particular play an increasingly important role today. (Goggin 2020). This refers to media formats in the form of apps, advertising, subscriptions, or newsletters that are sent to users without them requesting the content themselves. Push content and its parameters cannot be changed by the recipients, i.e. recipients cannot change the content themselves, but rather select it in a menu if necessary. The information from the sender to the recipient of the message is unidirectional and the recipient often has no means of giving the sender direct feedback about the content sent.
What other aspects of changing government regulation and commercial commercialization of surveillance and control can be explored in this context. In what way do these digital environments change social structures and lifestyles?
Bodies by Numbers
A decisive effect of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus is the transformation of digital lifestyle media into state-used recording, storage, and distribution media: “The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the use of digital technologies that are shaping people's lives and interaction with society. Policymakers around the world struggle to navigate uncharted territory while civil rights activists are alarmed by the ‘new normal’ under bio-surveillance and fear that apps built for one purpose might end up being used for others.” (Lewis 2020: 11).
With the pandemic spread of the virus, the tectonics of digital power may have shifted the way forward. (Dean/Hardeep 2020). Mobility tracking is regarded by health authorities and government officials as a reliable data basis for enforcing political decisions as legitimate. (Guasti 2020). Seen in this way, digital media take over the empirical basis of political action: “Digital epidemiologists design projects that utilise data from active and passive monitoring devices (such as smartwatches
and phones) and from any potential trace that people might leave through their online actions and interactions to infer, collect, and survey pathological information.” (Engelmann 2020: 223).
The disciplinary techniques of state surveillance and punishment are migrating into all areas of digital communication and affect mobile media (geo-tracking), stop corona apps (monitoring), social media (blaming), and selfies (self-evidence). The Internet-based biosurveillance represents a new paradigm of Covid-19 health governance. While traditional approaches to health prognosis operated with data collected in the clinical diagnosis, Covid-19 biosurveillance uses the methods and infrastructures of health informatics.
That means, more precisely, that they use unstructured data from different web-based sources and targets using the collected and processed data and information about changes in health-related behaviour. The two main tasks of the Covid-19 biosurveillance are (1) the early detection of epidemic developments and (2) the implementation of strategies and measures of sustainable governance in the target areas of health promotion and health education. With the development of apps, application software for mobile devices such as smartphones (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone) and tablet computers, the application culture of Covid-19 biosurveillance changed significantly since these apps are strongly influenced by the dynamics of bottom-up participation.
While the new iPhone used to be a trendy consumer item for unrestrained self-marketing, in Corona times it is more like a digital ankle cuff or a spy satellite. Digital connectivity based on smartphones and apps enables evidence-based politics today, virtually in real-time. For example, the evaluation of mobility data from telecommunications companies shows the statistical reaction to ordered curfews. Police, health authorities, and IT companies have set up access systems to personal data around the world to make collective movement patterns visible, to search for infected individuals individually, and to monitor quarantine regulations in private. The extent of civilian tracking is unprecedented.
Staging Science Policy: Storytelling in the Public
One of the main focuses of this special issue is the staging of scientific representation, specifically images of the virus as discursive, factual, or imaginary objects, as objects of research, and as sources of popular affection. (Simko 2021). “The COVID-19 crisis shows the potential of well-staged forms of alliance between science and policy” (Van Dooren/Noordegraaf 2020) and before this background, the pandemic is embedded in public communication strategies and scientific popularisation practises that are involved in the discursive and visual spread of the virus as a collective symbol (Link 1996) and a mandatory element of a collective visual memory (Vinitzky-Seroussi/ Maraschin 2021).
The visual representation of the virus is also at the centre of the microbiological discourses that are being conducted today about Covid-19. Against this background, the editors would like to encourage submissions that are examining the processes between scientific practice and the technical-medial and visual techniques of popularisation. (Vaughan-Lee2021). In this context, both the representational and narrative styles and characteristics, as well as the historical references to the staging of objects of knowledge, can be examined. Using the example of selected representations of the virus, we try to show how visual memory manifests itself in reception practises and how these visual representations distance themselves from their original reference object and are enriched by new contexts and manipulations. Investigating these processes of remediation, approval, and dissemination has enormous potential for uncovering the media construction of scientific knowledge.
Along with this, media technologies of data acquisition and processing and media that design knowledge in spaces of possibility move into the centre of knowledge production and social control in the field of health prevention and social epidemiology. In this sense, one can speak of a data-based and data-driven approach in health services research since the production of knowledge has become dependent on the availability of computer-technological infrastructures and the development of digital applications and methods.
In the era of big data, not only has the importance of social knowledge changed radically, but also that of scientific knowledge. Social media, mobile devices and technical assistance systems today function as gigantic data collectors and as relevant data sources for digital health care and Covid-19 pandemic management. From this point of view, digital media and their technical infrastructures always function as control environments and data-based surveillance tools, which have taken on a new role in the context of Covid-19, which requires closer examination.
In this context, our attention is focused on the critical reflection and revision of a computer-based epidemiology of the social that develops utopias of a new digital surveillance apparatus and attempts to colonise the reality of life in society: “Digital epidemiology is enabled by deep and digital phenotyping, the large-scale re-purposing of any data scraped from the digital exhaust of human behaviour and social interaction. This technological innovation needs critical examination, as it poses a significant epistemic shift to the production of pathological knowledge. Given the sweeping claims and the radical visions articulated in the field (…we can…) develop a tentative critique of what I call a fantasy of pathological omniscience; a vision of how data-driven engineering seeks to capture and resolve illness in the world, past, present, and future.” (Engelmann 2022).
Infographics: Between Dread and the Loss of Empathy
With the phrase “pictorial turn”, W.J.T. Mitchell has acknowledged a turning moment in recent history, from a text-driven to an image-based culture (Mitchell, 1994). Within our “culture galvanised by visual evidence and quantifiable solutions” (Easterling, 2021), infographics play an increasingly important role, as tools to which our understanding of otherwise complex phenomena is delegated. The origins of these approachable visual representations, aimed at informing clearly, go back to ancient civilizations, from cave painting to Egyptian hieroglyphs, from Middle Age illuminated manuscripts to graphical methods of statistics developed in the Modern Age. Today, infographics echo big data, they try to visualise “objectively” a reality that is more and more transfigured and dependent upon sets of information, whose large size is beyond our capabilities of navigation.
Since the pandemic outbreak, interactive world’s maps updated hourly became instantly available online, informing users of the evolution of confirmed cases, reported deaths, and other information on the virus’ spread. Infographics have become a crucial tool for documenting and communicating the evolution of the pandemic. These include bubble maps, line graphs, scrollable animations, hand-drawn charts, and pictorial configurations, some key examples being archived in the online platform COVIC http://covic-archive.org/. “Several of these concepts have significantly shaped the language we use to describe how we measure, experience, and fight the disease” (Kahn, 2021). While speaking a universal language, these graphic representations highlight the incommensurability of such a dramatic global emergency, that is the impossibility of making sense of it through words.
By reporting the magnitude of the pandemic without any commentary, these dashboards and charts also produce a sense of dread that is felt in the present and projected onto the future. This is why some designers develop projects that underline how reducing human lives to mere codes elicits a loss of empathy. A case in point is a gradient of tiny abstract units that progressively becomes a solid black block, which occupied half of the front page of the February 21, 2021, Sunday edition of the New York Times, documenting the dramatic increase of deaths in the United States. This Cfp also aims to stimulate reflections on the growth of information design during the COVID-19 pandemic and the artistic responses to it, identifying case studies and discussing how these infographics, with their rhetoric of objectivity, impact our very perception of life and what it entails to live under perpetual threat.
Activism and Counter-Narratives
The Covid-19 crisis unleashed at a moment in which there was a strong climate movement and groups such as Black Lives Matter were at a peak of visibility and organisation (Mirzoeff). However, with its lockdown periods, and limitations in the uses of public space, the pandemic has dramatically challenged many of activists' spatial practises, in a time where in-person actions have only been possible in a very restricted manner. The period has been marked by grassroots community organising for mutual aid in face of the illness and its consequences (Sitrin) which sometimes has been made illegal, or by riots that spread like a wildfire in Colombia, Spain, or the USA.
At the same time, immaterial initiatives born in unexpected sites and with unexpected tools also emerged, such as Gamestop, a campaign in which amateur investors bought temporarily destabilising the stock market. The question of dismantling the master's home with the master's tools emerges once and again in a period that is putting to test the hacktivist technopolitical hypothesis. To what extent can the internet be used as a political weapon after the advent of platform capitalism (Srnicek)? Can we hack the code? While Nation-states and big corporations have taken advantage of the situation with an exponential increase in monitoring and data mining, social movements are in a moment of reconfiguration. Increasing confusion, for some years now anarchist communication guerrilla tactics (a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe) are being increasingly used by the so-called alt-right. Fake news and far-fetched theories have taken centre stage in pandemic times, and it has also become convenient for governments to discredit any criticism by situating it in this realm. In this space of ambiguity, conspiracy narratives develop as a form of folklore and myth-making that attempts to make sense of the complexity of a situation that seems impossible to grasp.
In this landscape of turmoil, we call for contributions that, working from within and without activism, reflect on how to think of post-pandemic social movements – and the relationship between virtual and non-virtual presence – in an ever more digitalized world. Within this framework, we also welcome thoughts on the uncomfortable and complex relationship of activism with conspiracy theories, and the role of digital media in their narratives and dissemination.
Topics can include but are not limited to:
- Big Data and datafied society
- Real-time epidemiology: nowcasting
- Health informatics: active and passive monitoring devices
- The aesthetics of data visualisations
- Visualisations and collective memory
- The acceleration of digitalization
- The emergence of the app-society
- Infographics and visual information
- Artistic interpretations of pandemic algorithms
- Statistics’ rhetorics of objectivity
- Socio-economic inequalities and disaster capitalism
- The psychological impact of codification
- Technopolitics and digital disobedience
- Discrediting codes: conspiracy storytelling
When submitting an abstract, authors should specify to which of the following categories they would like to submit their paper:
- Field Research and Case Studies (full paper: 6000-8000 words). We invite articles that discuss empirical findings from studies that examine surveillance and political economies in digital visual culture. These may e.g. include studies that analyse particular image platforms; address nudging and incentive aesthetic strategies; scrutinise whether and how algorithmic personalization produces specific consumer subjects, etc.
- Methodological Reflection (full paper: 6000-8000 words). We invite contributions that reflect on the methodologies employed when researching data-driven and algorithmic surveillance and networked images. These may include, for example, critical evaluation of (resistance) discourses of transparency or obfuscation, algorithmic black boxing, and their implicit epistemologies of the visible; discussion of new or mixed methods, and reflections on experimental forms of research.
- Conceptual/Theoretical Reflection (full paper: 6000-8000 words). We encourage contributions that reflect on the conceptual and/or theoretical dimensions of surveillance, capitalism, and images. This may include, for example, the relationship between scopic and silent forms of power and control; critical evaluation of different concepts such as surveillance capitalism, platform capitalism, algorithmic governmentality, etc.; the tensions between the aestheticization of capitalism and anaesthetization of images in data-driven media environments (e.g. due to filtering, platform censorship, calm technologies, etc.).
- Entering the Field (2000-3000 words). This experimental section presents initial and ongoing empirical work. The editors have created this section to provide a platform for researchers who would like to initiate a discussion about their emerging (yet perhaps incomplete) research material and plans, as well as methodological insights.
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Couch, Danielle L., Priscilla Robinson, and Paul A. Komesaroff, “COVID-19—extending surveillance and the panopticon.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 17/4 (2020): pp. 809-814.
Dean F. Sittig/Singh Hardeep, “COVID-19 and the need for a national health information technology infrastructure.” Jama 323/23 (2020): pp. 2373-2374.
Easterling, Keller, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World. London and New York: Verso 2021.
Engelmann, Lukas, “Digital epidemiology, deep phenotyping and the enduring fantasy of pathological omniscience.” Big Data & Society 9/1 (2022): pp. 223-254.
Goggin, Gerard, “<? covid19?> COVID-19 apps in Singapore and Australia: reimagining healthy nations with digital technology.” Media International Australia 177.1 (2020): pp. 61-75.
Guasti, Petra, “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Central and Eastern Europe: The rise of autocracy and democratic resilience.” Democratic Theory 7/2 (2020): pp. 47-60.
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Kahn, Paul, “The pandemic that launched a thousand visualisations.” Eye, No. 101, Vol. 26, 2021. Available at https://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/the-pandemic-that-launched-a-thousand-visualisations
Keidl, Philipp Dominik, Laliv Melamed, Vinzenz Hedeger, Antonio Somaini, Pandemic Media: Preliminary Notes Toward an Inventory. Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2020. Available in OA at https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/9783957960092_Pandemic_Media.pdf
Keshet, Yael, “Fear of panoptic surveillance: using digital technology to control the COVID-19 epidemic.” Israel Journal of Health Policy Research 9.1 (2020): pp. 1-8.
Lewis, Dev, “The bio-surveillance state: an emerging new normal in Asia.” Heinrich Böll Stiftung (2020). Available in OA at https://us.boell.org/en/2020/05/08/bio-surveillance-state-emerging-new-normal-asia
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Simko, Christina, “Mourning and Memory in the Age of COVID-19.” Sociologica 15/1 (2021): pp. 109-124.
Spiegelhalter, David and Masters, Anthony, Covid by Numbers: Making Sense of the Pandemic With Data. London: Penguin, 2021.
Srnicek, Nick, Platform Capitalism. London: Polity Press, 2016.
Van Dooren, Wouter, and Mirko Noordegraaf, “Staging science: Authoritativeness and fragility of models and measurement in the COVID‐19 crisis.” Public Administration Review 80.4 (2020): 610-615.
Vaughan-Lee, Cleary, “Student Voice: Photography, COVID-19, and our collective memory.” Childhood Education 97/1 (2021): pp. 26-35.
Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered, and Mathias J. Maraschin, “Between remembrance and knowledge: The Spanish Flu, COVID-19, and the two poles of collective memory.” Memory Studies 14/6 (2021): pp. 1475-1488.
Žižek, Slavoj, Pandemic!: COVID-19 Shakes the World. Cambridge: Polity, 2020.
Deadlines and contact information
- Initial abstracts (max. 250 words) and a short biographical note (max. 100 words) are due by 15 March 2022.
- Authors will be notified by 30 March 2022 whether they have been invited to submit a full paper.
- Full papers are due by 15 June 2022.
- Notifications to authors of referee decisions: 30 July 2022.
- Final versions are due by 15 September 2022.
- Please send your abstract and a biographical note to: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com