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As someone who has always preferred email and Slack to real-time conversations involving words spoken from my mouth, the most terrifying words in a workday used to be, “Want to hop on the phone?” But now they have been surpassed by “Want to hop on a Zoom?”
Early in the pandemic, the shift to all-video made sense: We went from seeing one another in person every day to living under a form of house arrest. But at least in spring 2020, different levels of comfort with Zoom meant that some participants would dial in only on audio, and others would leave their cameras off.
Somehow, even though everyone complains about Zoom all the time, that’s changed. The default real-time not-text mode for one-on-one or group meetings has become cameras-on. When I reach out to a new contact to ask for a conversation, the person will inevitably offer to send a Zoom invite for our call. The result: I can sometimes spend four or five hours in a day on Zoom meetings, where I stare at myself and try to make my jawline pop a little more without anyone noticing.
Yes, I know I can turn off my own video, but then I worry that if I don’t see myself, I’ll forget I’m on camera and scratch my nose in a particularly unattractive way or something. In an effort to demonstrate active listening, I turn into a bobble head, rigorously nodding up and down while I grin like a maniac. The more other people sit stone-faced, the more I turn into a clown, trying to wheedle just little bit of encouraging energy back from them. When I try to take notes or consult a meeting agenda, the reflection in my glasses makes it look like I’m not paying attention. And sometimes I do give in and check Slack or email when someone’s droning on, even though I know that, once again, my glasses might give me away.
All of this is neurotic, of course, but I’m not alone in finding Zoom absolutely draining. Intriguingly, one study from Stanford found that Zoom fatigue is worse among women. The research also suggested that younger people were more exhausted by Zoom than older people (which surprised me—I thought I was just being an old curmudgeon again) and that people of color experience some more Zoom fatigue than white people.
But a phone call? The thing that used to make me want to tear my hair out has become a little blissful. I can pop in my Airpods and putter around the house. A little movement actually helps me pay more attention than I do on Zoom, when I’m distracted by my jowls or by constant Slack notifications. Some light dusting, window cleaning, sweeping, even (after apologizing in advance for any noise) emptying the dishwasher or chopping vegetables—these meditative movements help me stay focused on the person talking, instead of the digital distractions that abound. When the weather’s nice, it’s even better to do a walk and talk, to get a little exercise in while sharing ideas with colleagues.
As we transition away from the acute phase of the pandemic, though, Zoom seems to keep sticking around. We’ve gotten used to these odd performances. And it’s true that there are some benefits to the format: If you notice someone who is more soft-spoken unmute, it’s a cue that they’re trying to get a word in. On a phone call, it’s a lot easier for the chattier among us to steam roll.
But that’s why I think we need to set up some rules for when something should be a phone call and when it should be a video meeting. Large group of people who don’t know each other? Obvious video call. One-on-one conversation or meeting of a small (say, fewer than five to seven people) group who work together frequently and know one another’s voices? Phone call. And if more than half of the group has their cameras off, maybe we agree that everyone should go cameras-off, to put everyone on an even playing field.
But also: Maybe more of these Zooms can just be emails.
Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.
Wish We’d Published This
“The U.S. Copyright Office Says an AI Can’t Copyright Its Art,” by Adi Robertson, the Verge
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While on a blissful beach vacation recently, I terrified myself by reading the novella Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant, a prequel to Into the Drowning Deep. Rolling in the Deep tells the story of a group that sets out to make a “documentary” about mermaids in the Mariana Trench—one of those fake documentaries that blend real science with mythology, leaving many viewers confused about what’s true. The group includes the ship’s crew, camera operators, some rather impressive mermaid performers, and a bunch of scientists who have all decided to go along with the ploy in the hopes of being able to conduct some real research along the way. But then, to everyone’s shock, they discover some actual mermaids. And they aren’t very Ariel-like. It’s an interesting look at misinformation and how science works, presented with a big dollop of horror.
Future Tense Fiction
Our latest story is JoeAnn Hart’s “Good Job, Robin,” a far-ish-future tale of a post-climate change world that has required people (well, most of them) to start eating insects. In the response essay, Christy Spackman, a scholar at Arizona State University, notes that in much of the world insects are already valued as an environmentally-friendly source of nutrition, and wonders whether consumer activism can overcome Western culinary exceptionalism to place crickets on our menus anytime soon.
What Next: TBD
On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, Wired’s Andy Greenberg, author of Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers, talks to Lizzie O’Leary about Ukraine, Russia, and cyberwar. Tomorrow, Lizzie will interview Max Chafkin about his book The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power. Last week, she talked to Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the AccessIBSA project and a fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation in Bangalore, about why a plan to provide COVID vaccines around the world failed, and to Bloomberg reporter Dana Hull about allegations of racism at Tesla.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.