Sounds of Another Home: Telepresence, COVID-19 and a Bioscience Laboratory in Transition
It is a Friday in June, and the Principal Investigator (PI) of a small bioscience laboratory located near Tokyo is meeting with one of his postdocs. They have been back in the lab for two weeks after a seven-week-long emergency declaration in the spring of 2020. Issued in response to the rising number of COVID-19 infections in the city, the shut down of the lab sent them to relative isolation in their respective homes. Today, although they are both physically at the institute where they work, they are holding this weekly meeting online in an effort to limit the spread of infection. The postdoc is in the bacteria lab, his laptop on the bench where experiments are conducted, just down the hall from the office where the PI is seated at his own desk with his door closed. Although they are in separate rooms, both are wearing masks to support infection prevention and control. (I am joining them from home, taking notes of their conversation from my uncomfortable kitchen chair where I have been regularly seated since March for my own telework.) The postdoc is sharing a screen view of slides from a presentation he is preparing, an update on his progress including the recent experiments he has conducted upon returning to the lab. While he speaks, the sound of a crow, a dominating and sometimes eerie presence in Tokyo’s urban soundscape, continually intrudes on their conversation. It is an awkward punctuation, overriding the digital audio filters and making it hard for the PI to follow what the postdoc is saying.
Postdoc: Yeah, I think I am going to take the day to, at least, do some good progress on the presentation […] I don’t want to make you do a lot of feedback on the weekend. I am going to take part of my afternoon doing that … [a loud crow interrupts throughout]
PI: I am having trouble hearing you; it seems like there is a crow in my office [he laughs …] right outside my office.
Postdoc: [resuming] I will just check how the cells look and work on the progress report and …
PI: Send me your progress report today, and I will get back to you late tonight or sometime in the morning, so [… the crow, intruding again]
As part of his presentation, the postdoc’s slides included histograms detailing the growth of human cells he was culturing. As visual evidence of his experimental efforts – portrayed in colored graphics as quantifications of cell growth – the postdoc’s slides dominated my attention. These images were directly incorporated into the collaborative decision-making between the PI and the postdoc in this meeting, as a direct measure of research progress. They examined the images together to ask: what did the illustrated data tell them and what should be done next? If it wasn’t for the insistent call of a crow throughout, I may have overlooked entirely the role sound was playing in this otherwise relatively visually-oriented interaction.
Online meetings punctuated by reverb, dropouts in sound, and other intrusions like crows overwhelming audio signals, although now relatively mundane, echo a longer term impact of remote or tele-work. As scientists' homes, or really their laptops at home, consciously became “the lab” throughout the emergency declaration in Tokyo (and even after in the example above), sounds of physical presence became sharply deemphasized, filtered out as noise, in techno-mediated places such as online meetings. In this paper, I argue that the sonic presence of the home and other intimate or traditionally non-work spaces become positioned as an obstacle to work, redefined as noise to ensure the fidelity of work-based tele-presence. Suppressing the soundscape of the home in this way emerges from the normalization of work as the primary “means towards self-realization” (Donzelot 1991: 251); the modern imperative for individuals to find passion in work and the tendency to make workplace identities and productivities so central to sociality (Miller and Rose 1995: 428). While COVID-19 may normalize and routinize online meetings for many (in Japan, for the continued avoidance of the “Three C’s”: closed spaces, crowded places, close-contact settings), the ubiquitous use of online communication technologies during the pandemic accelerate a longer-term neoliberal project for the transformation of work well underway before the outbreak (Okura Gagné 2020). In fact, telepresence was already increasingly privileged in the laboratory. In this case, the transition to working from home was apparently well-managed by those in the lab, in part because they were already supplementing their daily face-to-face interactions with technologies such as online applications for data sharing, task organization, and communication. These types of interfaces allow individuals to remain remotely present in multiple and varied places – physically present in location while simultaneously telepresent in many other digitally augmented or “synthetic situations” (Knorr Cetina 2009; Ito and Okabe  call these “techno-social situations”). Karin Knorr Cetina defines these situations for market traders as consisting of “a foregrounded, attention-demanding electronic situation and, separately for each participant, a background section of the physical trading floor” – both to which they are simultaneously attuned (Knorr Cetina 2009: 65). Even before the closure of the lab, scientists had to simultaneously participate in ongoing discussions and activities in multiple online interfaces, oscillating between these foregrounds and backgrounds, in order to be counted as fully “present.”
This paper draws from ethnographic research that I began a year prior to the outbreak. Situated as an anthropologist in a largely English-speaking bioscience lab, I am conducting a larger research project focused on the globalization of bioscience in Japan. The realizations that inform this paper emerged as a result of the transition I made, along with the scientists (and many others), from in-person participant observation in the laboratory to online remote research, beginning in April 2020. The stark contrast of this experience, as well as the shift in the kind of data I had access to, brought the role of sound in the negotiation of presence to the forefront. For one, this change offered me a small window into the lab’s online activities that I scarcely knew about and did not have access to before remote attendance to meetings. Once online with them, I observed postdocs skipping across multiple online interfaces, pulling up documents, downloading texts, displaying shared images of data, referring to websites for protocols, texting lab members, and emailing other scientists across the institute where the lab is located. All these interactions may have taken on an added intensity while scientists were working at home, but none were entirely new. At the same time, along with the scientists and so many others, I also began working from home, teaching all my regular classes and attending faculty and student meetings all online. When I began my research on site in the laboratory the year before, I had been captivated by all the mechanical sounds at the bench that were so new to me. Gradually, I grew to find them comforting as I began to feel at home in the lab. However, plugged into headphones for hours, struggling with a situation that was – for me as well as for the scientists – rather makeshift, work and research extended more and more into the intimate spaces of privacy and the home.