Guest writer Samuel Johns considers what is lost when we communicate through Zoom. 26/07/2021
What is it that we hate about Zoom? We can connect with the world in a click. We can roll out of bed to make that Monday morning team meeting. We can keep inviting more and more heads to join the roundtable discussion. And yet there is something missing.
The very meeting space of Zoom can mess with your head. Where exactly are you meeting? Zoom meetings held in ‘virtual’ space offer us no clues, no anchors or ties, and no spatial references that normally help us navigate the world.
Our brains are hardwired for such cues. Around the solid oak conference table, executive meetings have a staid and clear hierarchy. Equally, in our local coffee shop, the buzz and hum of collaboration is as strong as the smell of coffee beans in the air. Online, we only hear a doorbell in the background – and no, it’s not a postwoman on her rounds, it’s simply a colleague joining the meeting late. Our brains are in overdrive in a maze of guesswork.
We are embodied creatures, bounded in space and time. Around 1pm our stomachs yearn for lunch, even on Zoom. We may reserve an evening for a trans–continental call, late on a Tuesday, yet our mood is decidedly different to those of our bright–eyed colleagues, in mid–morning flow on the West Coast. We are our bodies, psycho–somatic beings, limited in our being and living off ties – both weak (with acquaintances) and strong (with family, friends, spouses). We need anchors.
This formation of a non–space can, in time, lead to a sense of non–time. The philosopher Charles Taylor described this as a shift from ‘kairos’ time (which we associate with festivals, tradition, or a birthday) – imbued with meaning and resonance – to ‘chronos’ time (such as 06:10 AM on a Monday morning), vacated of all significance, with reference only to the ticking clock. Lewis Mumford proposed that “the clock, not the steam–engine, is the key–machine of the modern industrial age”, producing bundles of time in seconds and minutes to be organised and orchestrated. What is the equivalent that could be said of our video–conferencing era? Perhaps Zoom is the “key–machine of the (hyper or post) modern industrial age”, producing seamless, global interaction for those who can afford the hardware, have a steady WiFi connection, and are tapped into the right networks, whilst leaving behind the rest.
The contemporary cultural commentator, Andy Crouch, writes that “when you and I are together in person we are probably exchanging gigabits per second of information. Through multiple sensory channels – sight, hearing, and much more – we absorb and transmit what we are thinking and, more importantly, feeling” (in his article “After the K–shaped recovery”). The compression of all this, into 2D form, on our HD retina screens with Intel Iris Plus graphics leaves an immense bottleneck. Not only are data being reduced in the order of magnitude of thousands, to be transmitted and shared with the various participants of meetings, but also all of this is funnelled through a single–access pipeline: the screen before our eyes.
“During the pandemic [our] information stream narrowed dramatically. We went from gigabits in person to megabits on Zoom — a thousandfold reduction. Text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts are measured in kilobits—a further thousandfold compression. When we compress information, we lose context. We lose emotion. We can transmit the ‘facts’ but we lose the meaning”.
The example he gives is of trust – why is it that trust can be broken at a distance, but almost never repaired or restored at a distance? We long to look into the whites of the eyes of the person we are speaking with, to see the truth, see the glimmer of empathy (we hope), or at least of sympathy.
If we believe we are embodied, relational beings – persons in community – indivisible into atomic units or individual preferences, then post–pandemic we need to urge ourselves to get off Zoom (from URL to IRL?) and confront the messiness of life, once again. We’ll be back in the gigabits (not megabits), but that’s where empathy is found.
Perhaps the biologist E O Wilson is most instructive in all this. In a recent debate he said: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god–like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous”. He continued: “Until we answer those huge questions of philosophy that the philosophers abandoned a couple of generations ago — Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? — rationally, we’re on very thin ground”.
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