Interview with Prof. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, an anthropologist and writer based at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.
His work is motivated by a triple concern: to understand the present world, to understand what it means to be human, and to help bring about social and environmental change.
How do you evaluate the current push to ‘live’ our personal lives with and through digital technologies?
Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Many are concerned that the migration of work from the analog to the digital will have detrimental effects for workers, and Naomi Klein recently quipped that instead of a green new deal, we seem to be getting a screen new deal. However, things are more complicated than they may seem at a first glance.
From the perspective of employers, the digitalisation of certain kinds of work (typically office work of nearly all kinds) is tantalising: I hear reports from managers about increased productivity in the last few months since less time is spent on unproductive activities such as chatting amongst colleagues, and if working from home (or cafes, or trains, or other places) becomes the norm, there is a clear economic benefit as well, since much less office space will be needed.
Employees also see the benefits. They save time and money by not having to commute, and many appreciate the efficiency typical of meetings on Zoom or Teams, liberating time to do other things.
On the other hand, something important is lost if physical co-presence is abandoned. Work is not merely a means to produce value, but also serves social functions. Studies indicate that many women who enter the labour market do so not chiefly for the money, but for the companionship. Also, even productivity, narrowly defined, may be enhanced through informal encounters, chats over lunch, coffee breaks and so on. This is certainly an experience shared by many academics.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen: The Coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the importance of physical co-presence, that is, simply, being in the same room. Eye contact, nonverbal micro-communication and other aspects of human communication are lost in an increasingly digitalised world. This applies to other domains as well, not just work. Quite possibly, social gatherings of all kinds – from the football match or concert to the work lunch or dinner party – will be cherished more after this experience, since people will have first-hand experience of their absence. Some say that they miss hugging and kissing people; others miss the after-work pint in the pub, and yet others feel deprived of energy for lack of encounters with colleagues.
More generally, what does your ethnographic research reveal about social and cultural differences across the EU with regard to digitalisation?
Thomas Hylland Eriksen: There are differences within Europe, but perhaps more striking are the similarities. Governments have responded in comparable ways to the pandemic, and work has been reorganised everywhere, also in comparable ways. The differences may to some extent have a cultural dimension – in Southern Europe, informal socialising, not least in the extended family, tends to be more important than in the Protestant north – but the functioning of the economy is a more significant factor, at least in the realm of labour. The pandemic can be seen as a magnifying glass strengthening tendencies which were already apparent. For example, in Scandinavia, where cash payments were slowly being phased out even before the pandemic, cash is now nearly gone completely. In Estonia, where the drive to digitalise the economy and the public sector has been powerful for years, life has become even more digital. In general, in the countries where neoliberalism is pervasive, and where the population is online, the pandemic has strengthened the tendency to shift as much as possible towards standardised, efficient, digital solutions. New digital divides are nevertheless appearing across the continent but in localised ways, between people who were already active online citizens before the pandemic, and whose jobs can easily be shifted towards digitalisation, and those who were less integrated into the information economy. So the situation in Bulgaria would be quite different from that in Switzerland; although the same contrasts apply in both cases, they affect the total population differently.