By Valentin Golev and Lesia Prokopenko
The little jobs
A microtasking app allows you to hire someone to draw a big white cross on the wall of a hospital for a handful of dollars. Perhaps you need it for an art project, or to improve the view; you don’t have to explain. Apparently, the Russian army started to purchase little services like this in Ukrainian cities right before the invasion—likely to help with targeting air and artillery attacks. A number of workers were caught completing such tasks, denying any ability to ascribe meaning to their little jobs.
Those jobs were quite intentionally presented as “meaningless,” offering no explanation except for a negative legitimization: “It’s not explosives, it’s not drugs, it’s all legal,” notes one job description that prompts applicants to “spread little boxes on big patches of even ground.” This ostensible meaninglessness was a very important feature of the job: it is there to create plausible deniability. “I didn’t know it was something bad!”— this argument didn’t seem to save anyone from a summary hearing in the martial court, but it does seem to work for one’s own conscience. To look at one’s job as meaningless allows one to ignore the fact that these jobs often have a very clear meaning. Not seeing one’s place within a structure constructs an alluring comfort zone, making this sedative alienation a desirable state.
The real lack of knowledge about the meaning of one’s microtask couldn’t last longer than a day or two. Where is the logic in the nihilistic delirium that comes after that? This delirium isn’t the prerogative of the marginalized (or not-so-marginalized) task performers. Could it be similar to a paralyzing state that makes people ignore bomb shelters or any safety measures during shelling or, on the contrary, makes them flee relatively safe areas, leaving their pets locked inside apartments? Could it be similar to the state of the Leibnizian damned, whose souls deny everything except for their hatred of God? According to Gilles Deleuze, the only thing the damned can do to cease their incessant suffering is to stop vomiting up the world. Perhaps phosphorescent marks on residential buildings, “little boxes,” and big cruise missiles are just parts of the vomit of the damned.
Not seeing one’s place within a structure constructs an alluring comfort zone, making this sedative alienation a desirable state.
The spatial logic of the war and the usage of the microtasking app in Ukraine reveals their contradiction. If we see presence in a place as one’s capability to be affected by what happens there, then those workers are simultaneously present and absent. They are present, physically; they are there, they sustain themselves there, and their existence will also be disrupted by the war. Yet the labor they perform is absent both economically (the payment comes from the outside, not as part of the normal economic relationships of the Ukrainian city) and in terms of its effects (the worker rejects the possibility to be affected by what their own work facilitates, as they think it’s nothing). Technology induces these workers to pretend they are absent from the city, to treat it as something they don’t actually inhabit and are able to affect without being affected. Just as an alibi is the proof of one’s absence, plausible deniability is an ability not to affirm one’s presence—not to affirm one’s capability to be affected. It is an essential gift of technology, a necessary part of contemporary alienation: pretending to be absent to deny effects of one’s presence, actual and potential.
“When I see those photos, I don’t think—I just go and donate to Ukraine,” say both Russian and Ukrainian expats living in Berlin, far away from the two warring countries. To have left a place where presence means a lot may induce strong feelings of guilt. One’s absence suddenly becomes very pronounced, even if one has long stopped acknowledging their link to such a place of absence. It could have happened to me, I could be stuck there—or could still be stuck there—so, in this case, the physical absence is not enough for the body to continue reacting as if it were present, with much less intensity, of course. A lot of people who have left Ukraine since the spring still keep the air raid alert apps and community group chats on their phones. The phone frames and channels the anxiety through its little window, localising and limiting it without losing its depth. For some, it’s a meaningful choice—to stay present in the cities they left, to keep being affected. As opposed to plausible deniability, these are cases of implausible affirmability—of insistence on their capability to be affected and their power to affect.
However, these very alerts curiously create a different relationship for those physically present in the war zone. Coming from a phone, an alert insists on immediately ignoring sensory data, the embodied local perception of the place, on reevaluating your home as a place of danger. Technology mediates absence, without necessarily being its cause or agent. Nothing is clear: if you hear a siren (local effect) but don’t see a group chat notification (mediated by the Internet), does that mean that it’s a more serious emergency? If you receive a siren alert but don’t hear a siren, does that mean that the app knows better than the local military? Or perhaps the siren was too quiet, too far away? If the group chat informs about sirens but there is no alert on your phone and no sound outside, is it still safe to take a bath? (In this case, the sound of sirens would usually come right after that thought occurred to you.) The sense of presence ends up distorted.
Missile strikes 30 kilometers away are close enough to be warned about them, just as shelling a few blocks away is distant enough for you to feel relatively safe, sitting in the hallway instead of hiding in the basement. Neither presence nor absence is entirely real until presence becomes so intense that it makes you completely absent, one way or another.
The phone frames and channels the anxiety through its little window, localising and limiting it without losing its depth.
Messages such as “I heard a shell hit [this or that object]” would be deleted immediately by the moderators of group chats and comments sections, as these could inform the enemy about the effects of their strike and help them adjust fire. You have to maintain plausible deniability—to avoid affirming that you are where you actually are, to avoid affirming that you can be affected.
In many areas, network connection could be lost for weeks, keeping people almost completely unaware of the comparative level of danger they were exposed to, but well-aware of their own elusive presence. Finding mobile service in remote places, the first and foremost thing one would use technology for, was to notify someone: I’m alive, I’m present. Companies created group chats where employees from different areas posted a “+” every couple of days to check if anyone was missing or in need of help, and people would make an effort, exposing themselves to potential danger, to go online and affirm their presence. The difficult conditions underscore how much we have come to depend on technology to affirm our presence; how a cessation of such constant affirmation might be taken as a sign of involuntary absence.
Later, it came out that the information officially shared in municipal and regional group chats was frequently intentionally edited and moderated to prevent panic and boost the morale of the population. The effects of raids and attacks would be somewhat downplayed to make sure people could go on maintaining at least a semblance of presence in their own lives. The presence of war is incompatible with the presence of people: it is only the diminishing of the former that allows to preserve the latter.
The War is present
The war’s presence in Europe—and Europe’s absence in this war—is relentlessly referred to by the politicians and the media. While the Gulf War was, for Europeans, a war “somewhere else,” this one is sold to the population as present “right here.” EU politicians seem to always be too absent from their actual power—their hands are supposedly tied—to answer any of our demands, yet the war is present enough to justify a lot of their own impositions. The suspect idea that Germany must be soon defended from someone is being used to justify its government’s initiative to give the Bundeswehr another €100 billion (around €1200 per inhabitant). The money is clearly not going to help Ukraine—or even the population of Germany—in any foreseeable future, but seems to be part of the excited preparations for some other coming war, one that seems to them more real and present than the multitude of current and actual crises exacerbating one another.
When technology enables presence to extend indefinitely, absence becomes essential to avoid the consequences of having this power.
At the same time, the so-called West’s presence in the war is shrouded in plausible deniability. For Putin or for NATO, it’s good that the West is absent. European-made Russian ammunition and German-trained Russian soldiers are not considered in any way to be a form of participation in the war. Nor are the Western money and gadgets donated to the army or mercenaries fighting for Ukraine. The plausible deniability of Western presence is absolutely sacred for both NATO and Putin, who threaten immediate escalation if NATO overtly joins. According to the commandment of either, it is only this deniability, only this pretend absence, that could save us from an all-out nuclear war—rather than, for example, some kind of sensible judgment or moral consideration.
Space here has a causal structure: things only immediately affect the things that are close to them. This spatial causality is a moral blessing: it limits our responsibility to only local effects. When technology enables presence to extend indefinitely, absence becomes essential to avoid the consequences of having this power. Deft technological use of the dialectics of presence and absence enables one to consider only the consequences one wants, even if to any absent or present observer, these actions can’t look any less than senseless, thoughtless, or insane.
The text was written at the invitation of Ira Konyukhova