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When Zoom Becomes a Prison

We stream and broadcast our lives while lacking in human contact. What of the consequences to come?

There is nothing quite like watching on a computer screen as a group of men-real flesh and blood ones, not just pixelated formationsget obliterated by Hellfire missiles. It’s enough to make you wary of the potentially nefarious qualities of videoconferencing.

In the battlegroup headquarters where I was based in Afghanistan during a hot and harried summer, we lived a very screen-based, Zoom-esque existence. On our consoles, we followed remotely the downlinked images of myriad close air support attacks against the Taliban with drones, jets, and those hellfire missiles from attack helicopters.

As a result, ever since I’ve been wary of the lure of the screen and its offerings of remote interactions. So much so, I even struggled to use WhatsApp’s video function, as an American girlfriend wanted me to when I visited my family in the UK.

Hence, from the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve had my suspicions about Zoom. Clearly it has beneficial uses that we should be thankful for. It provides solace to those separated from loved ones, allowing grandparents to stay in touch with and “see” precious grandchildren.

Ultimately though, the video conference remains “a pale simulacrum of genuine interaction,” says Cristine Legare, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. And now more media are starting to notice.

The New York Times says it straight in a piece titled “Why Zoom is Terrible.” The article notes how the problems stem from the way the “video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized,” resulting in all kinds of problems such as freezing, blurring, jerkiness, and out-of-sync audio.

The efforts of our brains to process and make sense of all this, the article explains, can leave us “vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why,” and ultimately feeling even more isolated, anxious, and disconnected.

None of these warnings are new. In his 1977 science fiction short story The Intensive Care Unit, J.G. Ballard describes a world that is uncomfortably close to our present reality. Humans live their entire lives in comfortable isolation: all interaction with others, even their own immediate families, is done via cameras and screens.

“My own upbringing, my education and medical practice, my courtship of Margaret and our happy marriage, all occurred within the generous rectangle of the television screen,” the narrator contentedly tells us. When he and his family finally meet for the first time at the story’s conclusion, it all proves a bit too taxing: an orgy of psychopathic violence ensues.

In E.M. Forster’s 1909 novella The Machine Stops, a subterranean world is inhabited by people living in isolation in apartments that are “hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee,” kitted out with buttons and switches, and which they rarely leave.

“From there they are fed, clothed, medicated, entertained, titillated and professionally occupied,” Ben Wright, a historical researcher, curator, and writer based at the University of Texas at Austin, notes in an article analyzing Forster’s prescience. “One can easily draw comparisons between our current predicament and the dystopia conjured by Forster. Indeed, the echo of Amazon, Uber, Netflix and the all-conquering Zoom is uncanny.”

Wright describes how Forster depicts a world in which tactility is shunned, while “the clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned.” Travel outside requires permission from a technocratic elite. People interact from their rooms using “glowing plates,” while everything you need can be delivered through a swift “pneumatic post.”

Every aspect of life is experienced virtually, Wright explains, summoned and dismissed through gadgets and gizmos, all of which are linked to a master Machine.

Thankfully we haven’t gone that far yet. But in coming to terms with COVID-19 and how we exit the lockdown, Wright says we must “recalibrate our desire for protection as it relates to our need for connection,” taking heed of Forster’s lesson that we cannot fake the latter in order to ensure the former.

“He gives us a choice,” says Wright, who notes that all the coronavirus-induced indicators already point to a future even more dominated by big data, macro-surveillance, and micro-compliance. “Feed the machine and live life on the leash,” he says. “Or stop the machine—live a freer life in which death is a greater risk.”

Remote living does funny things to how you gauge life and death. When I went to Iraq as a tank commander in 2004, the fire orders I gave the gunner at least acknowledged some legitimacy of personhood: “Coax man, 100 meters, half right by corner of building.” Five years later in Afghanistan, the linguistic corruption and sophistry that attend war—and typically how we then appraise it—meant we’d refer to “hot spots,” “multiple pax on the ground” and “prosecuting a target,” or “maximizing the kill chain.”

I’m not suggesting that the use of Zoom will turn us against grandma or result in us loosing a metaphorical load of Hellfire missiles at each other. (Although so far, and well before COVID-19 came along, we weren’t exactly getting any nicer through social media use). But the psychological and emotional costs are already piling up.

“It shouldn’t be underestimated how desperate others are for proximity,” Legare says. She notes how she has been struck by the instances of indignant rage, especially on social media, directed at people for flaunting social distancing rules. She says this shows that those doing the lambasting don’t fully appreciate how being alone can generate so much suffering.

“There’s a big difference between people who are socially distancing with a family and a partner, when you can hold your children, or go to sleep at night next to someone, and those socially distancing alone,” she says.

Legare notes a recent phone call with her sister who had “tears in her voice” describing how she has not experienced any human touch for two months. “It’s not natural to have no physical contact, humans are deeply social animals,” Legare says. Solitary confinement, she adds, can be worse than physical torture.

A common theme among the various proposed lockdown easing programs, including the government’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again, is that vulnerable people should remain socially distanced while the young and healthy resume their normal lives.

“We already place such a premium on youth and vigor in society, and this forced artificial distinction between the old and infirm and the young and heathy probably will hit some folks very hard,” says Stuart Wolf, associate chair for Clinical Integration and Operations at Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas. “I would not be surprised if some grandparents chose to break the rules.”

The problem with this, Wolf says, is it could place parents and grandchildren in a bind. “Do they hug grandma to soothe her soul but put her body at risk, or do they hold back which protects her physical health but twists the emotional dagger more deeply?”

As America tries to determine the new normal in relation to human touch and interaction, it has been noted how even the likes of the positive development of discovering antibodies relating to potential COVID-19 immunity could further extenuate the emerging divide between the healthy and youthful and the older and more vulnerable.

“You could eventually see a scenario out of some science fiction dystopia where citizens with antibodies are allowed to walk around unimpeded as long as they carry their papers or maybe a microchip,” Wolf says.

Such possibilities reflect the degree of ambiguity in the final phase of the government’s guidelines for opening up America. These state that “vulnerable individuals can resume public interactions, but should practice physical distancing, minimizing exposure to social settings where distancing may not be practical, unless precautionary measures are observed.”

Does this mean, Wolf asks, that vulnerable individuals continue physical distancing indefinitely? Or until they are vaccinated? Or until the person they want to hug is vaccinated? Or until the incidence of infection drops below a certain point?

It is a logistical and medical riddle, one that, until solved, could keep tearing at human hearts everywhere. In the meantime, we are becoming a Zoom Nation in a Videotelephony World, digitally broadcasting and streaming our lives away.

Wright finishes by noting “how our current predicament is as cultural as it is medical,” and that it wasn’t just the Machine that was imprisoning Forster’s characters.

“They are instead held hostage by a flawed ideology of benevolence, trapped in an ethic that fears death more than it loves living,” Wright says. “The result for them is a cloistered existence of pale imitations, bland ideas and authoritarian technocracy.”

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. He previously served in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the British Army. He is finishing a book about his army experiences and the challenges of leaving the military and adjusting to a strange new civilian world. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey and Instagram james_rfj.