Zoom (as well as Skype and FaceTime and Google Meets) has helped America through the pandemic by connecting people, both personally and professionally, who might otherwise have lost contact or lost the ability to collaborate on work. It’s an enormous contribution from technology at a time that contribution has been and is still sorely needed. Other companies, like www.Cinamaker.com, a private venture founded by technology pioneer Benjamin Nowak, promise to deliver dramatically enhanced features to video chat.
The tiny—or not so tiny—problem with Zoom is that it doesn’t keep people in touch, literally, and makes it somewhat less likely that they will be, again. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in his transformational book Understanding Media, “The medium is the message.” It is very difficult to overcome the fact that people “meeting” via video chat are “delivered” to one another via the same screen that delivers fiction and non-fiction, news and fake news, cartoon characters and real characters. Psychologically speaking, there is a risk that we become, one to another, as if actors and actresses, literally in two dimensions and possibly without a needed element of emotional depth. I would hazard to say that the empathetic response of a viewer to someone sharing deep feelings of grief via Zoom is less substantial than the response of that viewer if present physically in the room with the suffering person. A “presenter” on Zoom cannot escape the four corners of the screen. A presenter may, inherently, not only be constrained by the screen, but defined by it.
The use of “backgrounds” on Zoom only complicates matters. Now, we have to guess at whether the office space in the distance behind a friend or colleague is real or fake. And the subtle signs that reach us when those backdrops are fake include the video scatter at the edges of people as they move. That can lead to viewers psychologically associating presenters as made up of pixels, not flesh and blood, and no more worthy of loyalty or deep listening or genuine love.
We have paved the way for this problem with the fakery of “perfect” lives on Facebook and Instagram, where too many of us present mini made-for-TV-like versions of ourselves that aren’t really our SELVES at all. We have watched enough reality TV to lose track of reality. And to the extent that we human beings conclude that other human beings are synthetic, sterilized presentations, not real people, we will have less true regard for one another. Add in the psychological problem of masking the population, thereby further short-circuiting unspoken communication via facial expressions, and we have a potential prescription for disaster.
More than one of my mentors in television taught me to be more animated on television because the medium inherently reduces the emotional force of what flows through it. Talk at a normal volume on screen, without hand gestures, and you’ll fall flat with viewers.
We could ask ourselves: Are violent protests (i.e., riots) in the streets fueled, in part, by the spilling over of pent up, covered up, masked, emotions? And how much of the violence and chaos is actually “scripted” to play worldwide on screen?
If, as Shakespeare said, all the world is a stage, we had better figure out how to get back off of it, into the arms of those we love and the company of those we miss and the good graces of those we have lost to overwrought, ultimately dehumanizing dramas.
Dr. Keith Ablow
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