Talking to Me?

Graphic by Yuri Bong

Clarity about origins and upshots is rare in the study of history. But communications revolutions—when a new device makes it easier for a society to talk to itself and others—offer some. The success of these revolutions becomes apparent when a language adapts to them. The printing press won the day once the verb “to print” became standard and meaningful, once its method became a mode. The pattern lives on in the durability of other verbs, like telegraph, radio, phone, televise, text, Google, ’Gram, Snap, stream. In their time, each of these innovations ruptured the basic tissue of society. And now we have Zoom. 

Zoom takes social rupture to a new height: eye level. By now, it’s far from original to observe that we’re constantly staring at ourselves on Zoom—that there is, as Sarah Dunphy-Lelii, chair of Bard’s Department of Psychology, wrote in an August 2020 article for Scientific American, something “exhausting but also compelling” about the act. There are abundant tutorials and tech out there to smooth surfaces: clamp-mounted selfie ring lights, clever camera angles, and digital filters can make the show more compelling still.

The kind of self-scrutiny Zoom encourages predates the Selfie Age’s gadgets and the current emergency. That self-scrutiny’s been accompanied by a lasting interest in mirrors, the apotheosis of which is the mirror selfie. Mirrors figure prominently in the media of the last century, from The Phantom of the Opera and Duck Soup to Taxi Driver and Us. Like all good motifs, their symbolism isn’t subtle. They universally mark a theme—of plumbing for an inner essence, and losing sight of it in ephemera.

Zoom is essentially a house of mirrors—reality filtered and refracted in deceptive but legible ways, all hard to look away from. And where old-school mirrors were passing things, taking up little of the day, Zoom is, for now, one of a few remaining conduits to the social world: an hourly encounter between the self and the outside.

Of course, the platform has kept us connected, kept organizations from collapsing, and left us with a general restlessness to be rid of it already. It’s managed to maintain the commercially uncomfortable status of better-than-nothing and, with that, become a household presence. But again, like mirrors, in between Zoom’s panels something deep is sought and something superficial is returned. Zoom preaches social warmth and conversation but makes monologists out of us all. Interjection is hard on Zoom, and so is reading cues that hinge on actual nearness, like body language. Eye contact, another fundamental part of communication, is nearly impossible. Especially when speaking in a meeting with many “participants,” the chance of your eyes aligning at the same moment with someone else’s is vanishingly small. Out of simplicity, curiosity, vanity, insecurity, we stare into our own.

The trouble with simulacra like Zoom is that they try feverishly to be something they never can, and in that aim, they risk replacing what was with what’s worse. Revolutionary devices don’t simply recede from view after becoming relevant by dint of need and wholesale acceptance. A new tool has to come around to make an old one extraneous, and rarely do older tools claw their way back to relevance. But in our case, soon enough, old ways of communicating and gathering will resume. In the meantime, we can begin peeling back those mirrors—or at least peeling ourselves from them—even though they’re everywhere. 

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