The Unbearable Placelessness of Zoom

During 2020, Zoom (and its equivalents) has become for many people the dominant medium through which human encounter and interaction is experienced.  This is especially true of the academy.  Despite its democratising potential, I have struggled to adapt to this new world of human interaction and frequently wonder about the reasons for my aversion.  This essay argues that by erasing the sense of place and embodiment in the human encounter, Zoom becomes a subtly dehumanising technology.

Earlier this term, a senior academic posted this declaration on a departmental discussion list to which I subscribe:

“Personally, I will be keeping all my interactions online,and I am determined to make it a better-than-normal experience for students, colleagues and everyone else involved.  And frankly, I’m never going to miss the big crowded social gatherings at which you have to shout and spit at each other just to be heard.  Yes, I love going to the pub as much as anyone, but I will not miss the sweaty crush of The Eagle.  And come to think of it, I don’t want everyone’s germs, whether it’s the 2019 coronavirus or something else.”

I was taken-aback by such a brazen celebration of academic life moved online.  Such bold advance into the virtual world of teaching, meetings and academic discourse is seemingly pursued by some other colleagues, although usually expressed more subtly and in less celebratory form.  There is also the cautioning we receive from our managers that we must say nothing to imply to any of our students that on-line teaching is in any way inferior to teaching in-person.

Such a display of chutzpah from a fellow academic deepened my sense of anxiety about this brave new virtual world.  And it made me question my struggle with the online world I have been forced to inhabit since March.  Why could I not have sent that email?  Yes, I can see that virtualising academic life can have advantages of access and inclusion.  But my experience of having Zoom, Whereby and MS Teams mediate my professional academic life has been distressing and disorienting.

It is not just my state of mind that has suffered, but the state of my body too.  I find myself zoning-out of on-line meetings.  I tire after an hour of a Zoom conference.  I retreat to the security of ‘Video Off’ and ‘Mute On’.  My speech stutters and stammers when trying to deliver pre-recorded lectures into a black screen.  A colleague elsewhere shared with me his experience of gut-wrenching anxiety – literal physical wrenches of his gut – when confronted with yet another Zoom class of 50 disembodied students.

Why does Zoom have this unbearable effect on me?

We are conditioned from the earliest age through bodily encounters with other human beings, encounters rich in touch, sight, sound, smell, even taste.  As we grow older, the degree and nature of bodily intimacy changes, but it is still there.  And how we experience those encounters is conditioned by the material and aesthetic configuration of the places in which they occur.

I recall some of my most significant academic conversations and discussions as much through the places in which they occurred as by their content: the train journey where we talked for two hours about the power of narrative, the cathedral venue in which I debated with climate change activists, the staged platform in a hockey arena on which I spoke in front of an audience of 4000, the close intimacy of a darkened radio studio for the head-to-head interview, the walk by the river with three PhD students discussing Heidegger, the late night pub meal during which my Japanese colleague and I compared the moral foundations of our contrasting ethics.  And many more.

The vitality and significance of these exchanges comprised more than the mere utterance of speech.  Crucial for facilitating, sustaining and deepening these interactions were the distinctive material architectures of my surroundings – in other words, a sense of place.  Also, the energy imparted by the physical proximity of another – or many other – bodies, even sweaty ones.

Of course, one might say that all of these conversations could have occurred on Zoom.  Indeed, some will say that this very possibility is the reason why this platform technology is so impressive.  It offers a ‘levelling-up’ and is therefore emancipatory.

In one sense, maybe.  But could these conversations really have happened through Zoom?  Could these discursive encounters have occurred with the same intensity, fluidity and creativity?  And would such placeless interactions have left the same deep and resonant impressions on my learning and memory?

I don’t think so.  Over these last 9 months I have had a multitude of interactions on Zoom.  But what lasting impact have they had on me?  How do I differentiate between them?  On each occasion the material configuration of my space and my body’s location within it has been identical: I sit on the same overworn, blue swivel chair in the same four-walled office at the same functional desk with the same stilted array of boxed faces – and often not even faces, just empty black boxes.  Plus of course the fake emplacement offered by Zoom through the option to upload exotic backdrops to glamourise one’s setting.

In his reflection on Zoom technology, the broadcaster and priest Giles Fraser describes his discomfort thus: “…  Zoom space, was not a physical space.  It was a space that is not a space.  There is both a curious intimacy to the face-to-face encounter, but also a sense that something is not quite right.”  Exactly.  There is a sense of something missing.  It is as though an entire dimension of our experience of being in the world has been eliminated, and our sense of reality shrinks with it.  We are living in Edwin Abbot’s ‘Flatland’.

Fraser expresses his unease at transferring his encounters onto this digital platform: “… there is something subtly dehumanising about it.  Perhaps that’s why Zoom is so draining, why it makes us so tired using it.  It’s like a voodoo doll.  We pay the price for our global connections with something that is slowly sucking away at our souls.”

So why was I so shocked at my colleague’s declaratory circular?  What is the problem with Zoom?  For me, it is the lack of physical presence, the lack of placefulness, that shrinks my mental horizon and drains my physical energy.  So I retreat.  I become smaller. 

Contrary to my colleague, I do miss the “sweaty crush of The Eagle” and the “big crowded social gatherings”.  I miss the buzz of 100 students in a lecture hall and the energy they impart to me.  I miss the casual intimacy afforded by the seminar room with the haphazard juxtaposition of bodies that shapes the flow of discussion and debate.  I miss the walk across the courtyard to the canteen with my colleague dissecting the politics of a gruelling staff meeting.  I miss the visceral stimulation of arriving in a new venue, perhaps in a different city, to deliver a talk or to debate with an audience.

Zoom can enable functional transactions and can host perfunctory business-like conversation.  And it can ‘open the door’ for a wider range of participants to ‘be in the room when it happened’.  But I do not believe Zoom can substitute for authentic human-to-human interactions.  It cannot recreate the unique sensory experiences of light, sound, smell and touch, environed by material places, that mediate full-bodied human encounters.  And which animate, deepen and sustain intellectual exchange. 

I will not miss Zoom’s unbearable placelessness.

Mike Hulme, University of Cambridge, 12 December 2020