Is Zoom the way of the future? Or just another tech platform? Greg Bruce investigates.
We are a sad collection of grievances, aren't we? Always finding something new to whine about. This week it's Zoom, the app none of us had heard of five weeks ago, first learned to use four weeks ago, raved about three weeks ago and started falling out of love with two weeks ago.
A whole class of articles have sprung up across a bored and restless media, grousing about Zoom fatigue and exhaustion, and related pejoratives. I hate modern technology as much as the next person for the way it has hijacked the reward centres of our brains, hollowed out the media - and with it democracy - distorted the way we receive and process information, devalued deep thinking, and facilitated the growth of extremism, all while its owners have avoided paying the tax that might have at least helped to mitigate that damage. But just for a second we should pause and ask whether technology is the real villain here.
Zoom is not Facebook or Instagram or - God help us - Twitter. It's just a screen that enables you to see people you otherwise couldn't see, sometimes overwhelmingly large and terrifying numbers of people, all at the same time, shouting over the top of each other and ignoring the fact you put up your virtual hand minutes ago. Yes, of course all this sucks, but have you ever sat - or much, much worse, walked around several central city blocks - in a real-life meeting? Zoom is helping you! For God's sake, can't you see it's helping you?!
Yes, it's not ideal to have to talk to people on a screen where you can see only their faces and annoying shoulders; yes, it's frustrating not to be able to pat people condescendingly on the back, or go in for a kiss on the cheek only to accidentally kiss their ear; and yes, it would be nice to see people's pants and at least have the possibility of them sneezing a viral load on you.
But this isn't the real problem with Zoom. The real problem is contextual: Its emergence as the leading byword for remote communication has unfortunately coincided with the era of the apocalyptic remote communication: the urgent, all-staff meeting an hour from now at which you'll almost certainly be made redundant.
Twenty years ago, a remote all-staff redundancy meeting would have had to be done via ring around, the hatchet manager making one call at a time, getting regular engaged signals, having to make little notes on memo cubes to ring back employee X or Y, having to listen to endless "funny" answerphone messages, including a large number featuring the opening lines of De La Soul's 1991 hit Ring Ring Ring, having to decide whether to leave messages with the children of employees, knowing those messages will probably traumatise those children and never be passed on anyway. How did a company ever get rid of people in those days? By the time they finished firing, it would have been time to start hiring again!
Zoom is a libertarian platform. You have complete freedom over the way you use Zoom. You don't need to see people or let them see you, don't need to see yourself, don't need to alert the host that you're trying to surreptitiously record the call for a potential future personal grievance and certainly don't need to share the screen on which you had just been googling "Burt Reynolds fireman calendar" for an article you're working on.
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I first used Zoom a day or two after lockdown and since then I've been in Zoom meetings, Zoom social interactions and even a Zoom pub quiz. They were all fine enough and mostly pants-free. I'm pretty sure I never picked my nose, and who cares if I did? I almost certainly didn't eat it.
The Zoom backlash is all part of the cycle the media requires of any new phenomenon: the push and pull, the ebb and flow. We love it, we hate it - it is the circle of life, the narrative arc. There must be opposition and pushback, problems encountered and overcome. Would Shortland Street have ever captured the national consciousness had it been all Lionel and Kirsty? In order to love we must first hate - something along those lines.
We have opinions because they're fun, not because they're necessary. Zoom probably isn't going to change our lives very much, in either direction. It's not even especially significant, at least not in a world-historical sense. Within 20 years and probably 10, it will no doubt be usurped by the glitchy holograms we saw in Star Wars 40 years ago. It's easy to imagine: it's the year 2028, you're on a mass redundancy hologram call, marvelling at the human capability for advancement. You remark, "This is way better than Zoom!" But nobody hears you because everyone is laughing at James from HR who, once again, has forgotten to wear pants.