I don’t know why the thought crossed my mind the other day, other than I had given myself time to do nothing and let my thoughts run unleashed for a bit. What struck me is not original, I’m sure, but it felt significant; it was this: any technological advance carries with it a corresponding dehumanization.
Then I sat there trying to prove myself wrong. I’m not sure I am.
Advances in technology have brought ways for us to get from one place to another more quickly, ways to communicate across greater and greater distances, ways to grow more food with less effort, ways to make things or build things faster and larger. Many of those things are good things. And they also insulate, distance, and fragment us as humans. Technology turns us into workers, consumers, and avatars. We have become human resources rather than people.
Wait. Before you bail in the rest of this post, let me get to my point: I don’t like Zoom. It wears me out.
Somewhere recently I read something that talked about what made Zoom exhausting was that we could see ourselves the whole time, which is not the natural way we have conversations with people. We don’t see the expressions we make first hand. Zoom demands a self-consciousness that tires us.
In poet Kae Tempest’s new book, On Connection, they add another layer to the discussion.
The problem with reflection is that before looking in the mirror, we compose ourselves. So what we see is what we hope to see. Before the furtive glance into the dark glass of a parked car or shop window, we have already made the face of taken the posture that we like to see. We adapt for the shock of observation. To really see ourselves requires a different approach.
To really see those around us requires we lose ourselves as well. I have a hard time attending to a screen full of boxes that remind me of the Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares. Even with all of the faces, the voices are disembodied and I get a sense (or maybe it is self-protection projection) that we are all doing other things besides really tuning in.
Yes, we are able to have meetings and classes and even worship thanks to the technology. And it feels less than human to me. I have been talking to my cousin who is in ICU in Houston with COVID pneumonia. She is not on a ventilator and is able to text and talk. I find a deeper connection talking on the phone and having to listen to her voice for tone and feeling. Part of it is, I think, I can’t see me.
I talk to my friend Kenny in Texas several times a week. We could Zoom, but we never do. We just talk. I can hear more of my friend than I would be able to see on screen, I think because I know his voice. And I can also listen without watching myself listen and wondering, at some level, how I look while I’m listening.
In some of my notes that didn’t make my sermon last Sunday, I found this from Rabbi Johnathan Sacks; he was talking about prayer, but his words fit here as well.
If we could only stop asking the question, “How does this affect me?” we would see that we are surrounded by miracles.
Look–I have meandered from attempting to wax philosophical about technology to being surrounded by miracles. Most every one of those miracles have a name and a face and a voice and a laugh and a way they have left a mark on my life. I don’t want to see myself. I want to learn, again, how to look and listen–even in the face of technology.
you have an unselfconscious way of taking us back to the starting place!.
You have reminded me of this part of Heidi Neumark’s writing:
The Rev. Heidi Neumark served as a Lutheran pastor
in South Bronx. When she arrived, the church and community were in shambles. She worked tirelessly to rebuild the church and to reclaim the community. She was able to persevere in her ministry because she had learned an important lesson from an old woman she met when she took a year off from college to work on John’s Island, South Carolina.
Miss Ellie, who was nearly 100 years old, lived in a remote area of the island in a house without electricity. Miss Ellie often visited her close friend Miss Netta. The only way she had to reach her friend was to walk several miles through snake-infested overgrown fields and across a stream. Heidi felt sorry for Miss Ellie and wanted to make things easier for her. Heidi figured out a way to build a small bridge across the stream so that Miss Ellie wouldn’t have to make a wide detour. When the small foot bridge was finished, Heidi was very excited to show it to Miss Ellie so that she would have a shortcut to her friend’s house.
Heidi said, “[Miss Ellie] looked at me like I was the one that needed pity. And she started telling me about all the friends and people she’d visited and the friends she had made on her way to visit [Miss Netta]. And the person she’d given some quilts scraps to and someone that she brings… biscuits and they give her some raisin wine… And then she just looked at me and said, ‘Child, if you want friends in this world, if you want love, you know, there are no shortcuts. (Radio interview, August 14, 2006, http://www.dickstaub.com).’”
Milton, I was with you even before you got to Zoom, which I find fatigues me as well. The most distancing aspect of technology, I find, is with the lack of a person at the end of a business or organization’s phone line, all the menus to listen to, buttons to push, waiting times, etc. It’s impersonal & complicated, requiring the caller to do a lot of work. Also, the ways we have to use the computer to check bills, make inquiries, and raise concerns keeps us beyond arm’s length from anyone who is responsible for what we want to know. And complaining? There’s hardly ever a button for that! I want to know why, if these devices are so “convenient” that it takes me longer to make my inquiries & often makes me agitated or very angry in the process. I long for the switchboard operator who was in the building where my father’s office was in Boston, taking every call with a pleasant greeting & directing the person to whom they wanted to speak. I love that rare occasion when I call a business or service and a live human being answers!
Totally agree with and understand what you are saying. And in the meantime…for the times you find yourself having to be a part of a gathering on zoom….you can hide your own image so you don’t see yourself. I just learned that the other day!! Click the little three dots at the top of your box and you’ll see the option.
Totally understand what you mean and where you’re coming from. I feel zoom fatigue everyday. I appreciate this reflection, as I always appreciate your reflections.
I did learn something recently that I wish I knew a long time ago. You can hide your own image so you don’t see yourself on zoom. Click the three dots at the top of your square and you’ll see the option to hide yourself. Just a tip to make it more bearable for when you find yourself needing to be on zoom for a gathering.
Milton, I am enough of a sci-fi buff to remember Isaac Asimov’s “The Caves of Steel” and “The Robots of Dawn,” where every human on certain planets were isolated and had absolutely no interaction in person, ever. In those stories, it was in-person visits which were considered bizarre and anti-social behavior, So many times in the last 9 months, I have wondered how close we are to becoming that kind of civilization – how easy it might be for some to slide over that thin line, and reject any in-person presence at all. Simon and Garfunkel’s old line about “I am a rock / I am an island / and the rock feels no pain / and the island never cries” must surely seem like nirvana to some in this world of isolation..
However, I am also an in person junkie. I am a hand-shaking, hugging dynamo whenever I can be. Yet my defining version of hell was that I spent 6 days in a medically-induced coma, 23 days in ICU, and 42 days total in two hospitals in 2019, and 10 days in hospital in 2020. I am a 63 year old diet-controlled diabetic with sleep apnea. My partner told me, when I got out of the hospital, that I only got to go to ICU every *other* year – and 2020 would be my “off” year…To make matters worse, I live in the Missouri Ozarks, a corner of Redneckistan where masking and social distancing are largely considered leftist scams or plots, and non-masking is both a sign of independence and conservative virtue.
(It’s not just the conservatives, though. A person whom I once considered a friend told me point-blank that if I had half the faith I claimed to have, I would just show up to in-person 12-step recovery meetings, and if God wanted me to die, I would die, and if God wanted me to live, I would live. “Why don’t you just trust God, Steve?” was his recurring accusatory question.)
Any real outbreak of covid would likely wipe out half our small congregation – which is almost evenly split under 40 and over 60. So virtual worship – and virtual 12-step recovery community meetings – are a lifeline for folks like me.
My experience is that when I’m on Zoom, I find I don’t spend my time looking at *me* in those gatherings. What I *hunger for* are for the *other* faces in “the Hollywood Squares”…the folks who I haven’t sat in worship or recovery meetings with since St. Patrick’s Day. In the post-worship Zoom meetings, where our members can gather and chat after the service is done, it almost brings me to tears to see my friends in real-time, to say hello, to see them smile and playing with their kids and being photo-bombed by their cats. I can see *me* any old time – it’s the virtual cloud of witnesses on which I’m focused. Their smiles, and their tears, are the gift I get from the technology.
I freely admit that we are likely coming from vastly different situations. And I fully agree that if I need to communicate with someone one-on-one, I would much rather talk on the phone than Zoom, FaceTime or FB messenger chat. But for many folks like me, much of what Zoom offers is enriching and life-giving, not a life-sucking thing. Until people like me can safely gather again in person, it is, as the old ad tag-line used to say, “the next best thing to being there.”