The way of on-life: Introducing the Digital Humanities Series

Voluntarily or not, social distancing in 2020 means relying on digital communication more than ever before. Which challenges and choices arise from the all-digital living lab? A new dedicated ESMH Digital Humanities series explores the developing on-life in the EU.

The on-life statement: What do we experience?

Five years ago, researchers gathered for the creation of a digital manifesto. The editor Luciano Floridi asks: “What does it mean to be human in a hyperconnected era?” In 2015, this question might have seemed very visionary. In 2020, social distancing became mandatory to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many rely on digital communication technology for work, education, private communication, and so on. This is why The Onlife Manifesto could not be more timely: Living an on-life (the new experience of a hyperconnected reality within which it is no longer sensible to ask whether one may be online or offline ) illustratively reflects how many activities of Europeans suddenly went digital. In addition, the shift toward an on-life even affects the social and part of the sentimental life, as this study of digital social participation finds: Visual content, images and memes partly substitute personal care and communication. At the same time, memes become the ‘moral police’ of the internet showing how people ought to behave during confinement.

Digital anthropologist Daniel Miller researches the on-life of communities worldwide. His project investigates the impact of smartphone use on ageing and health.

Daniel MillerProfessor Miller, University College of London (UCL): “Our current Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) project found much slower uptake of smartphones in a low-income area of Kampala, Uganda, than in an affluent middle-class town in Ireland. At the same time, the Ugandan population may find ingenious and creative ways to cut costs, such as downloading music from USB sticks or Bluetooth. There are also regional differences that have nothing to do with income: Older people in China embrace smartphones rapidly as good citizens with a duty to help modernise the country, while older people elsewhere tend to be conservative and see smartphones as addictive or corrupting the young. […] There is no overall pace of digitialisation, rather this brings out the different priorities of diverse populations.” Read Professor Miller’s full interview

The on-life awareness: what does it mean?

Because digital technology conveys information in a numerical way, activities take place with machine-like speed: More on-life means more and quicker communication. We are learning to adapt, to perceive and process enormous amounts of information. In the digital sphere, the different streams of information are ‘blended’: Work vs. private life, entertainment vs. learning, wellbeing vs. administrative life, and so on. More largely, reality and virtuality tend to become indifferent.

Digital anthropologist Philipp Budka already investigated the appropriation and utilisation of internet technologies during an ethnographic project in Ontario, Canada. Because of the remote region and long distances between households, people were socially isolated by default. A self-organised community connectivity infrastructure was already established in 2006.

Philipp BudkaDr. Philipp Budka, University of Vienna: Local people were using all sorts of digital media and technologies to connect to each other, to create online presences and digital identities, and to access globally distributed information. […] Online learning and video conferencing were – thanks to broadband connectivity – already embedded into local everyday life. I notice similar tendencies in Europe today, where people have been forced to isolate and distance themselves due to COVID–19; not only from family and friends, but also from colleagues at work and school. […] I understand the current health crisis as a phenomenon that has been speeding things up. Our lives have become more digital; faster than expected, but not necessarily different than without the virus.” Read Philipp Budka’s full interview

The on-life impact: What about the EU?

The way of living an on-life differs across the 27 EU countries. According to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark had the most advanced digital infrastructure, the highest digital education and skills levels, and digitalised public services were well advanced. However, almost half of all Europeans had insufficient digital skills, and 17% did not have digital skills at all (DESI 2017). Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Italy are particularly affected. These disadvantages are concerning because equal and non-discriminatory treatment of all Europeans is enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.

The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI)

The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) – source EC.EUROPA.EU

Digital anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen analyses different EU on-life developments.

Thomas Hylland EriksenProfessor Thomas Hylland Eriksen, University of Oslo: “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.”Read Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s full interview

Designing an inherently European on-life means to consider future choices to enable a just, equal and empowering digital infrastructures. Which additional rights and obligations need to be put into place to keep our digital on-life safe, free and liveable? Civil society organisations emphasise the need for digital rights, safeguarding data protection and fundamental rights, and propose to establish a digital constitution. For example, the Manifest-No refuses harmful data regimes and commits to better data futures with public value.

The EU Digital Services Act and the AI White Paper are the next legislative steps to enable a more inclusive, diverse and just online sphere. Because “the digital transformation can only work if it works for all and not for only a few”, the commitment to a Digital Europe is more important than ever.

The ESMH Digital Humanities article series

Throughout a dedicated set of articles, the European Science-Media Hub asks how does Europe experience the on-life? The Digital Humanities series introduces different aspects and explains consequences from the sudden digitalisation in so many areas of life outlining the different components such as digital education, teleworking, digital health, digital wellbeing, digital entertainment and more.

The potential of digital well-being in times of physical social distancing
Digital entertainment in lockdown: the new life of culture online
Covid-19: Harnessing the power of digital technologies and data sharing

Useful links:
Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI): The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) is a composite index that summarises relevant indicators on Europe’s digital performance and tracks the evolution of EU Member States in digital competitiveness.
The Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA): The ASSA project employs a team of 11 anthropologists conducting simultaneous 16-month ethnographies in Ireland, Italy, Cameroon, Uganda, Brazil, Chile, Al-Quds, China, and Japan. Launched in October 2017, with fieldwork beginning in February 2018, this collaborative five-year project aims to conduct a comparative analysis of the impact of the smartphone on the experience of mid-life around the world and consider the implications for mHealth.
Digitalisation: Economic and social impacts in rural areas: DESIRA aims to improve the capacity of society to respond to the challenges and opportunities of digitalisation in rural areas. Through a network of 20 Living Labs in the European rural areas, the project will assess the past, current and future socio-economic impacts of ICT-related innovation. DESIRA will also facilitate a Rural Digitisation Forum to discuss how policies could address the opportunities and challenges of digitalisation.

Related content:
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof Daniel Miller about the on-life
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Dr Philipp Budka about the on-life
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof Thomas Hylland Eriksen about the on-life

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