We have all been living La Vida Lockdown, but let’s face it, we have never seen more of our co-workers’ homes. Those who might never invite us in now have no choice, courtesy of online video conferencing. Voyeurs have now inspected your shelves, your cushions, your dishes, and your beloved art: Ikea is it? Because of covid-19, online communication has never been more important. However, you don’t just see the inside of each other’s homes, you get a window into their souls, and they get a window into yours.
Firstly, like our overpaid, underplayed sport heroes, each of us has our favourite online format. In fact, the mere suggestion that you prefer Zoom™ over Teams™, or vice-versa, is like insulting someone’s mum: you just don’t do that even if mine clearly is the best. A few of you even favour Skype, in the same way that, presumably, some people still like steam trains. Regardless, don’t forget to update that display name you chose as a student in 1998: right, funkystargirl?
The covid reality is that we have to get inline to get online. First, you download the software, and then “upload” your computer onto several sturdy books. Next, you establish a reliable signal and then you lose it and swear. Next you start with headphones, but end up bellowing into your computer’s built-in mic. This is followed by telling the kids to shut up, locking the dog in the pantry, and locating a shirt without a food stain; well, without a BIG stain at least.
After clearing your bookshelf of the Viz annuals and One Direction fanzines, you are ready for your digital summit. You click to start only to enter the purgatory of the online waiting room. After texting the host to let you in, you are finally admitted to “The Call”, and what an anthropologic treat it is. So, who are you colleagues? And who are you? And who belongs to which of the key (Microsoft) Teams™
For the first half of the call we only see the top of your head and your Italian ceiling tiles. Someone finally plucks up the courage to recommend a change of perspective. For a split second, your glorious face flashes into view. Alas, soon after we have to endure the pimples on each of your impressive chins.
In retrospect, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes followed by a pulled pork sandwich was not the best choice for your online snack. Muting your microphone did lower the group’s collective blood pressure, but the sight of congealed food on every tooth will stay with us forever. You know how there’s a video-off tab: feel free to give that a try.
The occasional glance at the camera doesn’t fool anyone. You are furiously typing an urgent email, while looking for Christmas gifts, and scanning the latest news. We know this because you nod your head and laugh even when nobody is saying a thing. We know this because we often do the same.
The laws of physics have passed you by. A well-lit room was a strong start, but raising the blinds means you are now, quite literally, a shadow of your former self. Perhaps a nice background picture: the Golden Gate Bridge? Or the earth from space? It doesn’t really matter as most people are not listening; they are merely waiting to interrupt your interruptions.
You have a busy day ahead: shopping, walk the dog, pick-up the kids. After all, why not if you’re only “working from home.” The issue is that you also couldn’t resist joining the call, after all, they need your inestimable wisdom. Starting in the kitchen, you kill the video and leave the house with earphones in. Shopping done, you’re thrilled to be getting away with it. It’s only as you bend down to pick up your dog’s poo that a question is lobbed your way. As you fumble to put the video back on, your secret life is revealed. The group is now really curious what is in that small plastic bag in your outstretched arm.
Team ear nose and throat
In your hurry to get online, the camera ended up pointing straight up your nose. Clearly those polyps should be investigated. Moreover, would it kill you to pluck a few of the longer hairs. Dear Lord, why did the screen have to freeze at that moment?
“Turn off the mute, turn off the mute, we can’t hear you.” Actually, on second thoughts, turn the mute back on. You said the same thing last week and it wasn’t relevant then either.
The serious point is that communication is central to the human experience. It is how we share meaning, and how we either forge ahead, or fall behind. Communication is experiencing a revolution and covid-19 fired the first shot. We need to work out how best to digitally leverage the online experience for education, for conferencing, for doctor’s visits, and for simply getting stuff done. This will need to be discussed if we want to be on the same team, and that discussion is as likely to occur in pixels as it is in person. The revolution is upon us, and you don’t even need to wear trousers.
Peter Brindley, Department of Critical Care Medicine, Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, and the Dosseter Ethics Centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Scholar, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. Twitter @docpgb
Matt Morgan, honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University, consultant in intensive care medicine, research and development lead in critical care at University Hospital of Wales, and an editor of BMJ OnExamination. Twitter: @dr_mattmorgan
Disclosures: MM has eaten Weetabix Crunch during a Zoom call, and nobody knows what PB does when he turns off the video.