April 30. Like everyone else, the fixed points in my week are mostly through the medium of Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Team.
Those connected with my work are relatively stress free. There is widespread use of microphone cancelling to preserve the signal in multi-participator events, so every sound in the house does not have to be quietened. The Open University History Department meetings, involving over twenty people, have adopted the etiquette of turning off the video. This means that colleagues cannot see that you have temporarily ceased to pay rapt attention to the matter in hand, or are sneaking a look at emails on your phone, or briefly leaving the room to make a cup of coffee.
With calls to family and friends it is quite otherwise. There is no point at all in forbidding sight of children and grandchildren you would give so much to see in person. Or in turning the sound on and off when small parties are prone to make unscripted interventions. This makes the whole experience both pleasurable and surprisingly tiring. After an hour’s interaction, you feel drained of energy.
There are several reasons for this. The first is the technology. Smart though the competing sites are, the quality of the sound is often poor, and the picture of limited quality. In talking to each other we are all of us minutely attuned to tiny movements in facial expression. The video images, under stress with so much increased use, can be insufficiently sharp, or require intense concentration to decode. There is also the question of positioning the camera. My younger daughter, a BBC producer, is long used to this business. She strongly advises two techniques; always place the camera at head height so that the viewer is not focussing on the underside of your chin; and always sit back, so that your face does not dominate the screen.
The second is the intensity. In normal life we don’t often talk to someone without a break for a whole hour, and when we do there are pauses, moments when we are looking elsewhere, or have briefly diverted attention to our own thoughts. In my book I examine what I term ‘abstracted solitude’, the capacity to withdraw from pressing company. Daniel Defoe in his second sequel to Robinson Crusoe, caused his hero to write that, ‘all the Parts of a compleat Solitude are to be as effectually enjoy’d, if we please, and sufficient Grace assisting, even in the most populous Cities, among the Hurries of Conversation, and Gallantry of a Court, or the Noise and Business of a Camp, as in the Deserts of Arabia and Lybia, or in the desolate Life of an uninhabited Island.’ It is very difficult to be there but not there, if you are constantly on camera.
The third, unique to this medium, is the accompanying presence of your own image, particularly on ZOOM. The one thing you never do in ordinary conversation is look at yourself. I am not fond of my own image at the best of times, and now, two months and counting since my last haircut, I am beginning to look like Al Pacino in his later manifestations. To be faced with such a sight for so long is deeply dispiriting.
These limitations have caused some of my friends to revert to the older technology of the telephone, where you are free to concentrate on the conversation, without the distracting video technology.
But then again. A video call yesterday was held up when my five-year grandson discovered, to his great satisfaction, that if he put his bare foot up against the camera on the laptop, it would appear five times larger than the rest of him. Can’t do that on a telephone.