Out of Data

On Disconnection

Sam Hind: Going back to your talk, could you say a little on what the ‘right to disconnect’ entails? Is it similar to other universal rights or moral principles that are intended to govern life?

Pepita Hesselberth: I derive the notion of the ‘right to disconnect’ from Article 55 of the controversial new French Labor Law that went into effect as of January 1st, 2017, although similar terms were widely circulating in popular parlance and public discourse at the time, especially since the decision of a number of companies in Germany in the early 2010s to put a ban on the work-related use of communicative devices after working hours. Admittedly, in the overall project I do look at the gesture of disconnectivity from a more existential point of view. At this stage, however, I am less interested in the universal rights or moral principles that the notion speaks to, and more in the paradoxicality of the topic as such. To stick with our example, it has been noted, for instance, that the problem with Article 55 is, that it is likely to effectuate precisely the opposite of what it promises to achieve. The law commands employers and employees to reach an agreement about the latter’s ‘droit à la déconnexion,’ but this agreement then appears to be neither mandatory nor binding. Moreover, and more importantly, we should wonder why this ‘right’ is not, in principle, already on a par with the employee’s unpaid, or private time, and thus unnecessary to negotiate at all. Rather than working to secure people’s time off, then, it appears that, with the passing of this new law, each employee’s private time is turned into the time of (unwaged) labor, unless he or she negotiates otherwise. To me, this seems highly problematic.

SH: With your first reply in mind, are there m/any examples, historical or contemporary, that give us an insight into the im/possibility of disconnecting or ‘opting out’ to some extent? In what ways do they characterize that particular period of time; socially, culturally, politically or technologically?

PH: Apart from the one above you mean? There are many! An incredible photo series of people living off the grid circulating on the internet and exhibited, amongst others, at the Dutch Electronic Art Festival in 2014; an app named White Spots that enables its users to ‘escape the invisible digital networks’ by exposing the unaffected (white) spots within it; the many tweets and posts in which people conspicuously announce their further abstinence from social media; the productivity app that tracks the time you spend offline; the disconnected named after their unreserved immersion in their communicative devices; the digital detox site that encourages you to ‘disconnect to reconnect’ but whose bonfire (boot) camps many of us cannot afford. If there is one thing that becomes clear from these examples, it is that disconnectivity bespeaks connectivity, and vice versa; both can be seen to respond to, and eventually shape the technological milieu from which they emerge. While some may derive hope from the latter an observation in light of the more recent critical assessments of the cultural dominance of the logic of connectivity – the dramatic political, socio-economical, environmental and cultural impact of which we are only now starting to notice, and to which the discourses on disconnectivity may be seen to signal a countermovement – it nonetheless sits uncomfortably with the gesture of disconnectivity as such.


White Spots (2014)

Coming back to the historicity underpinning your question, thank you for bringing this up, for indeed, disconnectivity is hardly a new phenomenon. People disconnect from different things, in different ways, at different times. Practices like simple living and the slow movement find their roots in anarcho-primitivism and the back to the land movement that emerged in the aftermath of the second industrial revolution, after the first had given rise to the Luddites’ opposition to modern technology, which finds its contemporary in today’s neo-Luddite movement. And the list goes on. That we are able to establish such archaeological linkages requires hindsight, and does not mean that these movements are necessarily the same. Quite the contrary. But we can learn from them. In my project, I work from the understanding that each social order produces its own recluses and tendencies to disconnect, the common traits of which are specific to the historical moment and culture from which they arise. My goal is to ascertain the specificities of voluntary disconnectivity in the digital age, in part by exploring how it compares with other such practices of psychic, socio-economic and political withdrawal.

SH: Pivoting back towards this series’ theme of ‘Out of Data’ and playing on its deliberate ambiguity, what does constructing something ‘out of data’, or being ‘out of data’ mean to you, especially in regards to your own work? To what extent is it possible to ‘opt out of data’, specifically?

PH: It’s a brilliant theme, I love how it plays on both ‘running out on’ and thus ‘being in need of’ data, and ‘opting out of’ and thus ‘being unavailable to’ it, while at the same time, by way of wordplay, it can be seen to allude to the idea of being ‘out of date’.

In answer to your question, I would like to turn to the scholarly discourses on disconnectivity, in which, incidentally, some of the same paradoxes and ambiguities recur. There are various strands, but they have in common that each one of them to some extent mimics the object of their critique. To give one example that pertains most directly to the topic of ‘being out of data’. One of the more dominant strands within the scholarly discussions on disconnectivity has its roots in the social sciences, and consists mainly (though not exclusively) of empirical studies, both quantitative and qualitative, and focusses on the non-use of often specific media technologies by individual (non)users. However judicious and rational, in light of your seminar’s theme, to me, this strand of research seems vexed with ambiguity. For in the age of big data one cannot fail to note the uneasy relation between the use of their data-driven research methods, and the topic of our inquiry, that is, the gesture towards disconnectivity, or the being out of data. Their bias, we could say, is in their form. The ease with which this research feeds into logic of the datafication and the neoliberalist model of governmentality it taps into, to me at least, feels a little bit too close for comfort, despite some of the wonderful work done in this direction

As to your question if it is possible to ‘opt out of data’, that is another conundrum, even if not unrelated. For in light of the above, of course, we should say: that’s a negative. For, even if we opt out of data, we are or will be part of it; as the disconnectors, the etceteras, the others of use, the ones that (not who) are ‘in’ data as ‘opted out’, either a triviality, or a threat. This is the direct consequence of the totalizing, and we should add, computational, logic of connectivity, of datafication, the algorithm, and of its related forms of governmentality, which includes that wretched notion of participation and participatory culture. For the more we participate in digital culture, it seems, the less available some of the most basic securities have become, at least for the majority of people who lend their free labor to the cause. But perhaps one can (try to) be in data differently, as we have learned from for example Brunton and Nissenbaum’s work on obfuscation. This is also why we have to take the current discourses on disconnectivity so seriously. They signal a desire, or even need, vented across a wide variety of cultural, social, political, and scholarly realms, to think the paradigm differently, to unthink, or even undo it, however incredible, paradoxical, or convoluted such an attempt might seem.

SH: What opportunities (or, perhaps dangers) do you think interdisciplinary work brings to the subject of ‘constructing’ or ‘being’ (out of) data? For example, in how design, practice, theory and method/ology are, or can be, combined and considered variously?

PH: With the subject heralding attention from people working in design, programming, politics, legislation, organizational dynamics, popular culture, neuroscience, complexity theory, psychology, ethnography, critical geography, and so on, it seems, interdisciplinarity is the only way to go. What good is it to keep these fields separated in light of this shared concern? Practical collaborations and joint seminars; I have seen good things come out of them. But – in light of the more recent developments within the neoliberal university – we should not forget that interdisciplinarity requires disciplines to begin with. It is a good that people work on the same subject from within different fields of expertise, however broad in scope. We should not underestimate the importance of that. As to the dangers, a personal fear; that one day our critical observations and arguments will be decontextualized, instrumentalized and repurposed or simply used against their own intent. In the lecture I mentioned the example of the use of technology non-use research in computational design, but for me there are worse, less straightforward, scenario’s imaginable. It seems to me that to meet this challenge in the present age, we have to come up with ever more creative solutions. This goes for anyone doing interdisciplinary research.

The public lecture and interview were made possible with the support of the Danish Council for Independent Research, and part of Hesselberth’s ongoing project on Disconnectivity in the Digital Age.


  • Interview
  • 27 February 2017