Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Annelise Riles (Associate Provost for Global Affairs, Northwestern University, and executive director, Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs) spoke with Jonathan Hack (program officer, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy program) about the move to video-conferencing platforms in higher education and what it might mean for the future of the university and how we work together.

Image Source: Getty Images / Alistair Berg

Jonathan Hack (JH): Could you explain why you selected the image that you did?

Annelise Riles (AR): I’ve always been fascinated with time capsules. I remember I buried one in the backyard when I was eight years old—it was a thing in the 70s. I think I put in a can of soup and a record album. It was one of the first times that I reflected on the fact that something so mundane as to be invisible to us in our daily life could be really intriguing to someone else at some other time or in some other place. So I approached this by asking, what’s the soup can of this moment? What’s in that category of stuff that’s just so ubiquitous to us that we’re not paying attention to it, but someday will be really interesting? And I thought, the Zoom screen, which we’re using right now [for this interview].

When this all started in March, my university had not been at the forefront of using technology in teaching or in research. In fact, it was a conversation that I had been trying to have with folks—that we needed to do that more for other reasons, like the fact that people were stuck at the borders and unable to come to our campus and be part of conversations with us, and that if we wanted those voices heard, we were going to have to start using technology. At first there were a lot of awkward giggles and endless challenges that were the stuff of late night comedy. But now it’s become totally mundane. I think that by week three, the university had logged more than 250,000 Zoom calls. 

By now digital communication has become totally mundane and yet it is a huge change to organizational culture. It’s sort of like those ethno-methodological experiments they did in the 1960s, where everyone had to have dinner with their eyes closed or hop on one foot or something, in order to understand the unwritten social rules of the environment. We all have to do this weird thing, and it gives us this chance to ask, well, what is it we were doing in universities? What were the implicit practices? What were the norms? I thought it was interesting in that respect. 

Beyond the self-observation piece, my guess is that we’re going through a transformation—that Humpty Dumpty is not going to get put back together again. Somehow, something quite fundamental is changing at this moment. And technology seems like an important piece of that.

JH: Do you see this movement to video-conferencing platforms being a long-term change in society and the way organizations operate?

AR: Well, I think we first of all need to recognize that not everyone’s on Zoom. Using these technologies has become a new marker of privilege of a kind. It’s not the luxury of consuming expensive products that counts now, it’s the luxury of staying safe. I’m finishing a book about relationality and how we produce knowledge in conditions of uneven digitization around the world. And I do think that that digitization, and the unevenness of it, is with us to stay. 

I’m also fascinated by the fact that we immediately reinvented all of the old ways of doing harm to one another. We had an incident with Zoom-bombing within the first couple of weeks, during a major global conference on gender violence online, of all things. We had activists from around the world gathered for this conference, and lo and behold, some idiot decided to post child pornography on the site for all of these people to have to observe. It’s amazing that we can terrorize each other just as effectively online as in person. And it took us all of ten days to figure that out. 

But there are some consequences to the fact that the public space of conversation is now owned by corporations. The consequences of an incident like the one we experienced are different than if we had had the conference in an open space in my town where we could turn to the government, which is elected, or even in a space on our campus, subject to university rules and norms. In that situation, we were at the mercy of Zoom’s policies and rules. So the privatization of the public space, I think, is one enduring challenge.

The other thing that’s really important about this moment is that being on Zoom is juxtaposed against the tremendous physicality of the crowds outside, whether it’s demonstrations and political rallies or crowds of military in our cities. These two things are happening together at this moment in a really intensified way.

JH: Given that these two things are happening at the same time—this movement online and these protests in the street—do you see some correlation between them? Is this a manifestation of being locked away from each other, for those of us who have been at home?

AR: I think that it will take quite a few years for anthropologists and sociologists and psychologists to unpack what this did to us. But there’s no doubt that we’re seeing, in a kind of anecdotal way, the edginess that this creates. There are all kinds of little gestures and things that we do in ordinary space that are not possible anymore. I’m really fascinated by this phrase that everyone is talking about, “Zoom fatigue.” Is it just the physical effect of the screen light on our faces? I don’t think so. I think there’s something about the way we have to interact on a screen that is deadening to us on many levels. For example, when I teach online, all of my students are present, like a checkerboard. They can’t hide in the back of the classroom. And I think we all have that experience. In normal life, you put yourself to the forefront sometimes, and then you recede at others. And you can’t do that online—you have to be in the front row. That’s very fatiguing for people.

Another thing is what linguistic anthropologists call “uptake,” the way in which you hear someone else’s comment, the cues you project in the way you respond or don’t respond, and what the temporality of those silences mean. An online meeting with more than four or five people is really difficult. Why is that? Because there’s no possibility of uptake. There are things we can’t do in this space that from an anthropological view are very important. And I think that contributes to people’s edginess, their frustration, their anxiety, and even their anger. Along with all the other political and economic reasons that people are very legitimately edgy at this moment.

But the thing I really wanted to talk about is what this all means for the university. Because of course the SSRC is an organization of and for universities, to a large extent. I think that it’s really important that universities grasp the historic nature of this crisis and open themselves up to reimagining themselves. And the only thing that would really stand in the way of us doing that is not understanding how much is changing all around us until that change has already happened in one direction or another. 

To me, universities are places in which knowledge is created and knowledge is transmitted, both from teacher to student and from the university community to those in the world who can use it. They are nothing more than that. But we have so many layers of cultural sedimentation about what a university is. We always took for granted that a university was a placewith towers and offices and classrooms—where people behave in certain ways. But we’re in a moment right now where we don’t know what a university looks like. Is it the space? Is it not the space? How does a classroom work? How do people learn? How do people communicate? All of that is up for grabs, by virtue of the fact that we’re in this virtual experiment. And since we have to reimagine everything right now, why don’t we just go for it and reimagine it?

JH: What does the reimagined university look like to you?

AR: First of all, disciplinary divisions have served us well and continue to serve us well, but they have also created tremendous challenges for us. In order to solve the biggest global problems, whatever they are, we have to become much more skilled at working across disciplines than we are right now. Take the pandemic: It’s not just a biological problem. It’s an economic problem. It’s a political problem. It’s a sociological problem. And until those pieces can be put together in a meaningful way, we’re not going to solve it. 

It’s also a global problem. The best solutions are going to be produced by teams that are working together across the world, and we have to learn how to do that. And I, as a scholar, wasn’t really trained to work on a team. I was trained to be the best racehorse in my lane—to aspire to project individual genius, not collaborative genius. I think it’s a different way of thinking about what valuable knowledge looks like, where it comes from, and what skills you need to produce it. And the opportunity here is that we can begin to think about how to collaborate with people around the world much more effectively than before. 

Within the first three days of us going into lockdown at Northwestern, the Northwestern Buffett Institute, which I direct, decided to put our normal speaker series online as a webinar. With that very first seminar, we went from a typical audience of around 40 people to an audience of 600 people from around the world, including graduate students in Africa, in South Asia. That’s a really meaningful change for universities, which are desperate to find their audiences. 

I also saw how, when the pandemic happened, we suddenly had real problems—our university hospital didn’t have enough swabs or enough PPE. I was finding myself in conversations on Zoom with colleagues saying, “Wait, this can’t be. Our friend is going to have to go into the hospital without a mask? Are you kidding me?” And then suddenly saying, as scholars, let’s put aside whatever disciplines we’re in, and let’s pull together and figure it out: How do you make a mask? How do you invent a cotton swab? And then, what would work for our colleagues in Mexico? Is it the same technology or a different one? Who do we need to bring into this? We were suddenly solving all those problems and people told me, “Wow, this is what I really went into this business for, and now I see that we can contribute something.” Sometimes, a crisis can be a moment in which we actually learn to work together in a much, much more effective way, and learn to be more flexible, and I hope that that’s what survives this moment.

This conversation was conducted on July 21, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.