I remember watching “Star Trek” when I was a kid and being really impressed with the technology. Imagine having a hand-held device with which to communicate. That would be cool. Imagine a computer that could talk to you. And you could carry it in your hand. How cool would that be?
Well, of course, now we have cell phones that do all that. While we are not quite at the level of waving a device over us to detect illness like Dr. McCoy, we can track our steps and our fitness levels. We can do complex calculations and look up any information in seconds.
The thing I remember most was being able to talk to people on screens instead of just audio. My mother, and virtually every woman I knew, always said the same thing, “Oh, I’d hate that. I’d always have to have my hair done and makeup on in case anyone calls.” I’m not particularly vain, so it didn’t seem like that big a deal.
And lo, it has come to pass. Between FaceTime, Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams and god-knows-how-many other apps, COVID-19 has fast-forwarded us into Captain Kirk’s future.
Side note: Have you noticed that every meeting is a “Zoom,” regardless of which app we are using? It’s like all cola is Coke and all paper tissues are Kleenex, regardless of brand. Well played Zoom, well played.
But guess what? The dressing up for a call got really old, real fast. It has been fascinating to see the cultural shift that has taken place in the age of video calls.
Remember the BBC interview where Professor Robert Kelly was interrupted by his kids? It went viral in 2017. Everybody thought it was very funny and stories were written about how he should have handled it, whether it was funny, how the patriarchy expected his poor wife to take care of the kids, etc., etc. That was only three years ago, but if it happened today, Kelly would probably have scooped his son up, plopped him on his lap and carried on as if nothing had happened.
This time last year, COVID-19 decided that everyone was going virtual, whether they were ready or not. Some did better than others, but we all had to face facts — classes, meetings and work was now virtual. I quickly shifted my classes online, with various degrees of success (college students have a lot of freedom, which many took to mean freedom not to come to class, but that’s a whole other issue). I recorded my classes, making sure I looked professional. I did the same thing with meetings, making sure I was in a suitable setting and reasonably dressed. But before long, everyone became comfortable — too comfortable?
My students generally were at least dressed (at least the ones with their screens on), although a colleague told me of a student who was not only in bed, having just woken up, but also his girlfriend, in a state of undress, lying next to him. I don’t expect people to be dressed up, but I don’t think it’s too authoritarian of me to expect some clothing as a basic requirement.
I have seen students in pajamas, shorts and undershirts, eating meals and wandering off during conversations to get something from another room. People come and go in the background, without even a by-your-leave. Pets jump around and kids constantly stick their faces in. And no one bats an eye anymore.
The relaxing of attitudes has allowed us to get glimpses of people’s lives that have hitherto been denied to us. I am fascinated by people who seem to have piles of dishes or laundry right behind them. That may sound like I’m judging them but I’m not. It’s just an observation. I am far more judgmental by people who don’t have any art on their walls or books on their shelves. But I am like that in the real world as well (and what’s with bookshelves with three books and a bunch of knick-knacks tastefully placed in the conspicuously empty spots? Where are all your books?).
I look at interviewees on news shows to see what they have on their shelves, and I know I’m not the only one. The New York Times has a Celebrity Bookshelf section highlighting books in the background of celebrity interviews and giving a brief synopsis. I have actually bought a couple that sounded interesting. There was even a story on The Ringer this morning ranking the celebrity backgrounds during the virtual Golden Globes.
I probably care too much about my background. If I am at home, I try to position myself in front of one of my paintings. When I am at work, I’m surrounded by books (and real books, not like the guy on CNN who had a virtual book background. You’re not fooling anybody, buddy. We can all see the virtual join). And I think about which books I want to show. General literature is always acceptable, but if I am doing anything theater related, why not sit in front of the script section of my shelves? When I did a thing recently for Student Press Freedom Day, my Associated Press Stylebook was prominently perched over my shoulder like a literate pirate’s parrot.
I know this makes me seem pretentious, but that isn’t news to anyone, certainly not me.
Personally, I’m fine with Zoom meetings. They seem to be shorter and I don’t have to waste an extra 30-40 minutes getting to and from the location. I get a reminder when the meeting is due (which I need for anything scheduled more than a couple of days out) and I can get some work done while I’m half-listening to someone talking about something that has nothing to do with me (we all do it, don’t bring your attitude here).
The more we Zoom, the more relaxed we will become. I’m waiting for the day when we see someone asleep in bed with a post-it saying, “Wake me when it’s my turn to present.” That may be a step too far — but I’ll be too busy looking at the books on the bedside table to notice.