Column Editor’s Note: In the distant future (just before we succumb to our robot overlords) the irony of starting out a column talking about a Netflix series during a time of severe “shelter in place” will be lost on readers. So, while this irony is currently fresh and relevant in your minds, I am going to roll with it. — JAS
In the future science fiction world of the Netflix series Altered Carbon, in which the virtual world is every bit as realistic as the real one, the characters distinguish between the two by referring to the real world as being in the real. During this time of pandemic exile, we have reached the point now where we too need to start distinguishing between working in virtual and working in the real.
Before this pandemic forced me to do so, I had very little idea of the whole video conferencing thing. I had been in Skype interviews and meetings before, but it was still in my peripheral vision as something the “with it folk” were into. But it did not figure prominently in my world. Golly, what a difference a pandemic makes.
Now everyone is a Zoom veteran. Indeed, I think that the iconic symbol of this pandemic, at least for the work-from-home crowd, will be Zoom. My dreams are even populated with images of people talking to me from multiple little boxes, Brady Bunch style, splayed across my dream vision screen.
As far as a way of having meetings, I actually kind of like it. In fact, in keeping (at least microscopically) with the theme of this column, I have created a kind of game for myself while in these virtual meetings in which I try to gauge the mood and motivations of the meeting participants while closely observing their expressions, dress and backgrounds. Zoom meetings seem especially conducive to this. For one thing it seems I can more easily gauge the mood of each person in the meeting by actually staring into each person’s face for extended periods of time, without them knowing it. Now, once you get beyond the creepy sound of that last sentence, there is a certain value in this. Work with me for a minute.
In a normal face-meeting one’s vision is of course focused on the speaker. Indeed, in these table meetings in the real, other than the purpose of giving another meeting member a knowing nod, it is socially forbidden to stare into the eyes of any other person for very long. It’s just weird, and besides, except for your colleagues sitting directly across the table from you, the only view you get of most people is some angle on the side of their head. Well, not anymore.
Now that we have the Brady Bunch style meetings, with everyone’s thumbnail video image stacked up and spread out across the screen, one can see each one of their colleagues face-on. Everyone is literally staring into each other’s eyes. Of course, this staring is not in the real, so though everyone sees each other, no one can see who is looking at who. This allows the interesting pastime of carefully studying each person in the meeting in detail, including their facial cues and fashion choices. In fact, one can often get insight as to whether the person in their little thumbnail video has really thought about how they are being perceived. Some people have their face right up into the camera, giving an almost fisheye look to their image. Such people are either keen to have their presence right in there, or they have trouble gauging camera distance. Then there are those who apparently do not particularly care if they are fully in the field of view. The most common symptom being the “eyes above the horizon” look, with the head stuck to the bottom of the frame and only visible from the chin or nose up. In a meeting in which you can see yourself for the whole meeting (literally like looking into a mirror) I do not understand why one would want to appear with only part of their head visible, like the top of a carrot sticking out of the ground. But perhaps they cannot be bothered by such vain considerations, no more than they think twice about their background.
Ah, the background. This is perhaps the most interesting component of these “virtual” meetings in that it affords the novelty of seeing all of your colleagues in their home world — usually their kitchen, living room and even bedroom. It is intriguing to get a glimpse of the home environment of people you have worked with for years and have never seen outside of the office. I spend entire meetings meticulously taking in the backgrounds of doors, windows, nik naks, paintings, photos, furniture and even children milling about. Of course, some folks short circuit my intense observations by placing themselves against a blank wall, giving them a neutral, sterile look that gives the appearance of broadcasting from a prison cell. Some just throw up a headshot picture and be done with it. Then there are those of a sweeping fantasy mind that do the green screen thing of giving themselves an exotic digital background of outer space or a tropical island. I am always looking for the imaginative person who gives themselves the digital background of a broom closet. How exotic would that be? Though no one combination of camera placement and background is superior, I like to think that each one says something about the personality of each person or at least how they are feeling.
As for me, I am never satisfied about how I look on camera. Like most people, I do not like the way I look on camera anyway, so I try to compensate by being particularly careful of my environment. Coming from a background in theater and video and possessing loads of self-conscious vanity (and with my mind always on posterity), I am deliberately cognizant of how I appear on camera. Though I cannot really do much about my appearance (my genetics, alas, are mostly unalterable, despite my best efforts), I can change my background with ease. I have thus carefully constructed a “set” with lights and a black hanging curtain backdrop that gives little or no indication of the actual interior of my house. I try to give myself that headshot, interview look with a professional background. This makes it appear that I might have something witty or important to say, even if my actual statements during a meeting belie that impression.
So, if this pandemic has taught me anything, beyond the joys of going to work in my underwear, it is a new appreciation of face meetings in the real. Sure, you don’t get all the personality telling Zoom features. But you do get… Wait a second. I just remembered that chat feature which allows you to pass detailed notes — undetected — during a meeting. Never mind. I think I do like Zoom meetings after all. Isn’t this 21st century just the greatest?