Are we any better for a year of Zoom meetings?

The pain of my Zoom learning curve still inflicts sporadic, cruel stings on others

Zoom is now so ubiquitous that, just like ‘to google’ and ‘to hoover’, it has been verbed into lower case. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty

Zoom is now so ubiquitous that, just like ‘to google’ and ‘to hoover’, it has been verbed into lower case. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty

 

In this crazy year, which cannot stagger to its impending close fast enough, no aspect of technology has been more dominant in my life than communications. I’ve phoned, emailed and iMessaged. I’ve FaceTimed, WhatsApped and Messengered. I’ve Signalled, Webexed, Teamed and Meeted (Met? – who could have guessed we’d be connecting up virtually so frequently that we’d need past-tense formats for online platforms).

And, like most of us, I’ve Zoomed. Oh, how I’ve Zoomed. In February, I had never heard of the video meeting platform. By the end of March, I had an annual subscription. Zoom is now so ubiquitous that, just like “to google” and “to hoover”, it has been verbed into lower case. Now, “to zoom” encompasses the action – “action”? Never has a word so poorly encompassed the actuality – of all other virtual meeting platforms.

The pain of my Zoom learning curve still inflicts sporadic, cruel stings on others (due to my ignorance) or on me (ditto). I have left everyone locked in their own separate, tedious Zoom “waiting room” limbo while I casually cooled my slippers (no need for heels when no one sees your feet) and wondered why everyone else was so late in joining.

I’ve zapped an entire meeting into oblivion when I thought I was just closing down an unused window but shut down the app instead.

Wall of toilet paper

I’ve tried out the Zoom “backgrounds” feature on a day when I had nothing better to do (I lie, I was avoiding doing those better things). Then I forgot about my casual fiddling about until days later when, to my horror, I discovered I had entered a board meeting with my head and shoulders centred against a background picture of a wall of stacked toilet paper rolls, mirthfully uploaded in the national lockdown hoarding phase. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.

I’ve appraised all the possible Zoom locations in the house, seeking that elusive combination of good wifi signal, abundant natural light and a background scenario that does not include my nostril hairs, an overly-curated bookshelf or dirty laundry.

And I’ve developed a visceral loathing of that bing-bong American doorbell sound that announces one’s arrival into a Zoom meeting. Even when that tone of impending time-swallowing Zoom-doom comes from my house companion’s computer, I am immediately triggered. I’ll pause and run my hands over my head, a Pavlovian response to the assumption that, yet again, my pandemic hair will be looking mildly insane.

To be honest, I’m not sure all this immediate messaging, especially of the visual sort, is an improvement over much older technology.

Hands up everyone who has falsely pleaded “a poor internet connection” to attend a virtual meeting in audio-only, producing a blissful invisibility in which you can wear whatever you want, slumped on to the sofa as you enjoy coffee and biscuits in gluttonous, muted peace.

Obsessive surveillance

Recently, while doing some winter cleaning, I came across an old travel journal of mine which reminded me that, prior to the late 1990s mobile communications boom, you could voyage for days, weeks, even months without friends or family having any idea whatsoever of where or how you were.

In the 1980s, I spent three months Eurailing around the continent and my only form of communication with my parents was the occasional hurried postcard. Constant contact of today’s sort would have felt like obsessive surveillance.

Last weekend, hunting through one of my worn recipe notebooks for a family Christmas recipe from my Icelandic-descended grandmother, I came across two other items I had pasted into its pages. On pale green and white-striped Dot Matrix printer paper, I saved two recipes of my mother’s that my father had lovingly typed into a couple of his frequent emails to me.

Because my California-based father was an academic, he had an email address from the 1980s onwards, as did I as a graduate student across the globe at Trinity College. As reverse-charge phone calls from Ireland were expensive, we swiftly adopted this new email thing.

My mother wanted nothing to do with computers, thus my father became the main conduit of all the family gossip and – I had forgot this – transcriber for my occasional recipe requests.

Those funny, affectionate emails built a delightful bond, converting a man who hated phone conversations (“Hold on, I’ll get your mother”) into my primary family contact point, the carrier of news, teller of amusing anecdotes and sharer of snippets of dad wisdom.

He’s gone nearly a decade now (how can that be?). I suspect he’d have marvelled at family FaceTiming and Zooming. Yet, unlike these faded green and white email printouts from long ago, today’s ephemeral videos will not produce anything I could so joyfully rediscover and gently caress, decades later.

In my memory, I hear his beloved voice again as I read the words he once sent, via the magic of Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, just for me.

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