Why I will never love Zoom or any other virtual meeting platform
- Virtual meetings ‘euthanise’ away the off-screen opportunities of normal interaction, compromising the effectiveness of vital meetings such as Apec and risking dangerous misunderstanding
I may have no choice but to live with Zoom and virtual everything, but whatever the converts and enthusiasts say, I will never love it. Like the stuff astronauts eat when they are floating for six months in the International Space Station, it may provide essential nutrition, but let us not pretend it is real food.
At first, virtual meetings were a novelty and mildly amusing. Wardrobe malfunctions and the Instagrammable distractions provided by children or pets were sometimes genuinely funny. But the weirdly shifting manufactured backdrops and the up-nostril perspective offered by so many have always been irritating.
Even after 10 months of uncountable Zoom discussions, I find genuinely frustrating that we are still wrestling with flustered delays as people struggle to upload and share PowerPoint presentations, or the energetic but unheard offerings of contributors who have failed to unmute. Or the opposite – the accidental failure to mute, which at best clutters a meeting with distracting background noise, and at worst exposes us to personal, sometimes embarrassing, family conversations.
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And then there is what I see as the “euthanising” impact of discussion across a screen of 20 Zooming faces. Janan Ganesh captured the phenomenon well when he mourned the loss of the “jousting crosstalk” that electrifies those meetings we most enjoy, and enriches the conversations from which we learn most. He mourns the loss of the power to interrupt – especially during a meandering or soft-headed Zoom presentation.
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Zoom discussions from the comfort of your study or office can only in the most superficial of ways compensate for the full three-dimensional chemistry of face-to-face meetings, with the body language and all those other tiny cues that tell you whether an audience agrees, or is even interested.
Around each Apec meeting’s formal “intercessions” – many of which are stiff and coded – those officials in the rows behind the head of delegation are busy crossing the room, taking other economies’ staffers aside, testing out ideas and possible compromises. In our new virtual world, all these opportunities are “euthanised” away. Such vitally important “off-screen” activity is entirely lost. And our meetings are the weaker for it.
Let us not even mention more subtle body language – the twinges of a brow or a sudden sharp lean forward over the table. Nor the informal “in the corridors” conversations over coffee or lunch, or even washing hands during a toilet break, where misunderstandings can be addressed, key issues embellished and mismatched priorities made clear.
So it is with misgivings that I prepare for a year of virtual estrangement as the ever-competent New Zealanders take over the role of chairing Apec. Yes, it will be cheaper. Yes, New Zealand’s officials will work unstintingly through formal meetings and along internet backchannels to provide as meaningful an agenda as possible. But let us not kid ourselves: Apec and its effectiveness have been compromised as virtual distance has been imposed, and the sooner real human contact can be resumed, the better.
And it is only as I have sat under a shamiana in the middle of the Baluchistan desert as Marri and Bugti tribes settle a 16-year blood feud that I have recognised the almost-unbridgeable distance between many of our cultures. For most of us, a good documentary may be the best we can hope for in our efforts to understand, but let us be in no doubt – a documentary or in-good-faith virtual discussion from our office desks can never substitute for the visceral insights that come from in-the-flesh meetings.
A virtual world is a half-lived world in which misunderstandings are dangerously possible. I accept that we must live with it for now, but the sooner we emerge from it, the better.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view