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The Limits of Technology

I’ve been on just about a billion and one Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Google Meets over the past nine weeks. Among my new insights: I have learned not to sit with a window directly behind me; that if I put my camera in line with my face, I’m not so taken aback by my neck wrinkles; and that I touch my face unconsciously. All. The. Time.

On the plus side, I’ve had the pleasure of greater contact with my extended family, and my college friends. Recently, we were even able to lure a friend who has been living in New Zealand for the past 18 years to jump on our biweekly chat. She sipped her Sunday morning coffee (and recounted New Zealand’s stunning success in managing the virus) while we drank Saturday evening cocktails and bemoaned our own country’s response. My local friend group and book club have gathered on Zoom for several Sunday evening check-ins, though our book club meetings without the food and wine are vaguely unsatisfying. In addition to the missing meal, the rhythm of the conversation is off. It’s hard to read the cues of the conversation and know when to speak. With nine or ten of us around a table, we read each other easily. On Zoom, two or more of us begin sentences simultaneously then all back off and hesitate, not knowing who should start again. We tentatively raise our hands and glance about the Brady Bunch grid of faces to gauge who else is waiting to talk. It feels unnatural, and a bit exhausting.

Interestingly, I’ve been happily Zooming with my Astra colleagues for years now, but it felt different when it wasn’t the primary way I interacted with the world. Our typical Zooms are only three or four people, which is an easier number to track than the ten or twelve or twenty that I’ve experienced on pandemic Zooms. When Zoom was a small part of my diet, it felt like a marvelous treat.

My students are clearly feeling the same way. What began as a novelty, with students in good spirits and seeming to enjoy the experience has begun to noticeably shift. Kids who are usually super chatty have to be cajoled to speak at all. Many no longer turn on their cameras, making it even harder to “read the room.” (At my son’s high school, students are expressly not allowed to turn on their cameras due to privacy concerns. It makes for an experience that is one-directional only, the opposite of what classrooms usually strive for.) One of my students, who hasn’t been logging into the chat sessions much, told me she finds video meetings uncomfortable and weird.

I read an article in the New York Times recently – Why Zoom is Terrible - that helps explain why she feels that way.  The author explains:

The problem is that the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.

The author goes on to describe the nearly imperceptible but critical nuances of facial expressions and gestures we experience in face-to-face contacts. In normal interactions, we read each other’s expressions unconsciously and mirror their emotions. Not being able to make actual eye-contact inhibits trust. And video meeting goers’ concerns with their own appearances staring back at them adds yet another distraction – and another obstacle to authentic connection. (The telephone is better in this way; without the distraction of say, neck wrinkles and camera angles, we are able to tune into intonation and subtleties of language and the spaces between words - though the telephone with more than two participants has its own problems.)

As I wrote about previously, our team has been reading Self Reg by Stuart Shanker and talking about it together over the past several weeks. It strikes me that during video chats the all-important and ever-active interbrain connection that Shanker describes takes a real beating. When we speak with someone face to face, an endless stream of non-verbal communication flows between us, and energy is transferred. We are social beings and our energy fuel tanks are replenished through this unconscious dance of communication that evolved over millennia. It’s much harder to pick up on another’s energy when we are seeing each other only on a screen. What’s more, we’re left only with inadequate verbal communication, a bunch of Peanuts adults droning on from another room: wah wah wah wah wah. There’s no room for other kinds of communication or even the physical proximity without words that says, “I’m here.” No wonder my student feels the video chats are uncomfortable and weird. She’s right.

And yet.

Here we are. Most schools around the country have closed until fall, and in many places, even fall looks aspirational. There are so many pressing questions: How will we address the equity issues that Covid-19 has firmly and fully exposed? How will we support millions of students who have experienced these months as nothing short of a long, relentless trauma? And how, given the opportunities and limitations of technology, will we develop and maintain authentic and energizing connections with one another?

These are the questions we are pondering as we think about Radically Reimagined Relationships in a whole new context. If you are working in a school and have insights to share, we’d love to speak with you.

Via Zoom?


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