Two Cheers for Zoom: Video Conferencing during COVID as a Gift without Presence

A shorter version of this blog appeared in The Christian Courier in August 2020.

My dog Blaze sits waiting while I do another Zoom meeting. He is patient. He wants to go for a walk.

Zoom means fast. Zoom is so fast it connects two distant points almost instantly. In fact, Zoom assumes social distance, and to some extent the whole modern world is zooming away during COVID: families, friends, churches, businesses, governments, and even doctors. Zoom allows us to see and hear each other without getting infected by what the other person’s presence might bring with it.

Zoom is especially wonderful for those who are isolated. Especially for the vulnerable during COVID, its truly a Godsend, a tool that softens the alienation that social distancing causes. We were lonely enough as it was in the modern West before COVID. But even then, if you lived in Nunavut, for example, you can take classes, visit with relatives, and conduct business meetings through video conferencing without the expensive plane flight and the time spent away. Zoom compresses time and space, offering a handicap that extends our reach. I use it almost everyday for my work with Global Scholars Canada, and its a tremendously powerful tool. It is amazingly efficient. You can even use it for free (or Goto Meetings or Google Meet or whatever platform you prefer). Its a gift.

Yet I’m only giving two cheers for Zoom and its competitors, because at the heart of my Christian faith is a love that is fully present. “Incarnation” means literally “in the flesh”, and our full healing and redemption comes because God made himself fully present in the roving teacher Jesus Christ. Love risks coming close, being vulnerable, and touching another person. Its not always romantic–you can hug someone and hold your nose. But being touched by someone else reminds us we are real embodied creatures and we matter; we are not mere angels or avatars, let alone binary code.

Zoom can make us present to others far away while making us far away to those present.

We are certainly more than our images, and more than our voice. We all have a spirit, a sort of non-physical energy that is intimately tied to our body and which is not perceived in the same way through wires and screens. A screen reveals, but the meaning of a screen is also something that conceals and partitions one thing from another. What does it “screen out”? Have you ever felt someone staring at you from behind? We have this sixth sense of a live agent in the room with us. Its mysterious and wonder-full.

Or think of this: we say some people have presence–something that makes you turn and look when they walk into a room. Some people are like fresh air–you breathe better as soon as they appear. Others we speak of as a toxic presence–their entry into our space causes us to cringe or even feel a little ill. Presence is not automatically a blessed thing; but it has an extra power that is not equalled by our digital avatar.

Zoom, we might say, is a form of discarnation–an “out of the flesh” experience. In fact, we see only the person’s head and shoulders, not the rest of their body and its communications. Hand gestures, body posture, nervous feet are not visible to us. Some people, we are told, Zoom in their underwear. In fact, even if a person is looking right at us on screen they may be actually doing their personal email instead of attending to our call. We don’t know, because they are not immediately present–we don’t see the full context of their interaction with us.

The famous Dr. Mehrabian says 93 percent of communication is non-verbal. If we take out what accounts for tone-of-voice (38 percent) and what parts of a person’s body are visible (say half of the 55 percent accounted for by the body), we are still missing about 27.5 percent of the communication. Round that up, and about one-third of the exchange is lost on Zoom.

Turkle studied how people actually interact with technology and other people, interviewing 450 people about their devices and their habits. She writes: “Suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves… there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind, and indeed, of all encounters, of any sort?” (12)

The Chronicle of Higher Education carried an article by education writer Becki Supiano that claims Zoom is draining, distracting, and dehumanizing. We don’t normally look directly at someone’s face so close up, and for teachers, there is no walking back and forth, and no way to really gauge the response from the class. In the midst of a global pandemic, a professor can’t really tell how his students are coping. The brain works overtime trying to fill in for missing cues that are normally there. Technological fatigue and compassion fatigue–and just pandemic fatigue–all combine to leave us worn and weary.

My son making himself at home while at school on-line last spring.

There has also been other research on the student side of the equation. The New York Times reports: “New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year’s worth of academic gains” (June 5, 2020). Its just not the same learning on a screen, by yourself, trying to motivate yourself to keep up, stick to the schedule, and just sit for hours on end in one place. Sitting is the new smoking we are told by the British Journal of General Practise. I wouldn’t say we are effectively handing children cigarettes, but children need to be outside and play beyond this electronic tether.

What I’m saying here is that all technological solutions have limits. They are trade-offs, exchanges of one list of benefits for a different list. We shape the technology, then it shapes us and our interactions in turn. No media is neutral–they all have a socialization bias.

Here is a foundational truth: human beings need to feel the presence and touch of others in ways that lets them know they are recognized, cared for, and valued. To exaggerate the issue, if 90% of Helping is Just Showing Up, then we are left with 10 percent help with video conferencing. I heard a woman on CBC radio talk about how much she misses a simple hug with her parents. She lives alone and said she sometimes sandwiches herself between two giant pillows to just simulate the experience of an embrace. Its a poor compensation, but its all she has right now.

Don’t break any COVID restriction policies on account of the limits of technology that I’m naming here. I am still offering two cheers for Zoom for bridging distances. Its two pillows for a lonely season on planet earth. Compared to the telegraph, let’s say, it is a rich, sophisticated, gift of communication. A hundred years ago we would be hand-writing letters to each other instead, and if we played by the rules, those letters would have to be quarantined for days before they could be opened. Thank God for Zoom.

But God did not just send us a letter to us, the Christian faith insists. And I wouldn’t say he went bigger and gave us a whole book. What God gave was himself, in the flesh, teaching and healing, sitting down beside the lonely outcast, and eating with them at a table. In the person of Jesus Christ, he let the little children come to him–probably climbing on his lap, clean or not. He walked small marathons to visit friends and the forlorn. Most vitally, he gave his whole body in suffering love for a broken humanity, for a nation infected by hate and violence, showing a way out, a way to rise again to a new kind of gentler humanity. The core experience of his fellowship for two thousand years has been a shared meal, some of his communities even drinking from the same cup!

Zoom is fast. Presence is slow. It takes time, extra effort, loving intention–if it is to be the kind of presence that is like fresh air. Such presence is not instantaneous. It comes to you at about 5 kilometres an hour–the speed at which a human being walks.

As someone who often lives in his head, I do try to get past the screen, move out of my chair and follow the Master’s model. I’ve tied the leash onto my dog, ambled around the block, and stopped in on a number of friends and neighbours. No hugs. Not even a handshake. But they can pet Blaze, a furry golden doodle, talk about the ups and downs of the day, and feel that someone cared enough to say hello and ask how they were doing. A small gesture. Yes, Zoom is a gift, but there is nothing like real, live presence, motivated by love. Dogs know that, and they teach us well, without any video conferencing.

“Absence sharpens love; presence strengthens it.”
– attributed to churchman Thomas Fuller (1608-1661)

Blaze the wonder dog knows how to be there for you. He can be fast, but he does not Zoom.

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