In my capacity as a temporarily returned member of the Open University History Department, I have just taken part in an online research seminar. As with most of my many video meetings in the lockdown, it achieved its basic purpose. A group of interested scholars was gathered together. The two presenters were able to outline their work, switching between their spoken account and various illustrative documents. Questions were asked and answered. We ended the session knowing more about the potential of using search engines to conduct textual analysis – in this case the deployment of the word ‘nationality’ in Hansard in the nineteenth century. It turns out that the technical challenge of the process somewhat outweighs the insights yielded into the political history of the period.
I thought by now I was if not the master then at least a competent user of video technology. However in addition to Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, I was now faced with Adobe Connect. As has been the case in first encounters with each of the technologies, the ten minutes before the session began was a time of mounting panic, with emergency downloads of apps, repeated attempts to get them to work before, for no apparent reason, suddenly there was a connection and we were away. But Adobe Connect, at least in the version I had found, lacked the mute / unmute switch. So when the time came to ask my own penetrating question, I could neither be heard nor could I know that I was excluded from the conversation which was continuing without me. It was a kind of waking nightmare, when you know you are speaking, but not that no-one can hear you. Eventually one of the presenters noticed my gesticulating hands and, as the new language has it, let me in.
The world of virtual discussion has placed a new premium on listening. Physical face-to-face conversations have become a rare privilege, and those conducted electronically lack many of the visual clues by which we communicate meaning. In the case of an arcane branch of the digital humanities, this may not matter so much. But when it comes to medical consultations, it becomes much more important. I was talking yesterday to a nurse sent out from my surgery to conduct a routine blood test in my home. How are the practice staff managing with a limited number of physical consultations and the rest conducted on the phone or by video link? Not well she thought. You need to see someone, how they look, how they hold themselves, to understand what they are, and crucially, are not, telling you.
This applies particularly to the field of mental health, which as I discussed in the entry for June 30 is especially vulnerable in the pandemic lockdown. A newly qualified mental health social worker is interviewed in today’s paper. Thrown in at the deep end, he has had to refashion his newly-acquired diagnostic tools. He is compelled to meet his clients virtually. “The challenge,” he explains, “and the negative side of that, is that I am not going into people’s homes so I don’t get to see the full picture. You can get a real sense of somebody within seconds of seeing them. People might be able to present quite well on the phone but be feeling quite unwell.” The pandemic has caused him to hone and refocus his skills: “I have had to learn to practise with my ears open and really listen to people and hear what they are saying.”
We speak of love at first sight, not at first hearing. To get even someone you know, let alone a stranger, fully to express themselves in words, is hard. Harder still is the patience and the attention required to understand what they mean.