500 Words: Wait, Wut? #2

Zoom Infinitum and People In Boxes

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 | The Art Institute of Chicago

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If we ever get used to wearing masks, I would worry about us as a species. There is missing information in masked faces.  And yet the primary means of my communication — Zoom — is also missing information. Zoom introduces a lag between the time someone talks and when their face moves. This creates a processing load in humans and breeds mistrust.

That might be why you feel weird doing Zooms all day. To conserve bandwidth, Zoom (and other platforms like Skype) smooth over facial expressions, dumb down the information, and introduce glitches and lag in your Zoom partner’s expressions. We may not be aware of this — it often sneaks below our perception say the experts — but we struggle to fill these gaps in expression. That extra work is why a day of video conferencing can feel more exhausting than a day of doing job interviews in person.

What do you say we stop complaining about this?

Look at the painting above of people not social distancing in a park. They look relaxed, together yet apart. But that’s not what I want you to see. You’re looking at those folks in a box. People complain about Zoom because it’s like “looking at my friend in a box,” or “looking at many of my friends stacked up in a bunch of boxes,” but we’ve been looking at people in boxes for a long time. Paintings in frames. Books are worlds in rectangles and squares. Radio came in a box. TV is a piece of talking furniture, a box with legs. A talking rectangle on the wall. Phones, computers, tablets — rectangular worlds that we peer into, a long lineage of frames. You’re reading this right now in a rectangle.

I find nothing strange about fussing for the little green light that means your webcam is on. This is not that much different from what I did for years, only the little light was red. The camera operator peered into a rectangle, framed the rectangular shot, the light came on, and the people came out the other side into a box called TV. All the world’s a stage said someone once and he had no idea that he meant all the time.

As humans now, we are committed to talking to people in boxes. There is no other way.

Wait, wut?

Well, wait, there is. You can stand on your porch, like my seven-year-old son does, and call down “Hello!” to every masked being who passes. You can discuss your Tatsoi crop, which is now sprouting. He describes everything that happens in our household, including whether I am drinking wine and how much. (Not much, not much.) There is something beautiful in his gregariousness, in the random connection he seeks. But that can’t happen now. Not much. And I seek purpose, not randomness. I am against entropy and that means talking to people in boxes.

Someday I will remember walking past unknown people in a park without thinking of their viral load. The people in boxes are safer. 

When we were throwing a Frisbee in the park the other day, the only park we found that was open, an errant toss landed the disk among a group of strangers. They were lounging in positions not unlike the people that Seurat painted point by point, but unlike those people, the people in our park jumped at the intruding Frisbee and cringed away. Nobody knew what to do. Maybe the Frisbee was a carrier of the virus.

“Should we kick it away?” one of them asked.

“Yes.”

We got it back and left them to disinfect and us to wash our hands when we returned to the asylum of our apartment. We moved away, the strangers becoming smaller and smaller in my sight. I drew a frame around them in my mind. I separated them from the background. They seemed better that way, less risky. They became people in a box.

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