The problem with videoconferencing is video

Going off camera to get on task

I watch you speak in a tiny rectangle on my screen. You are looking at something, but I am left only to speculate as to the object of your gaze. Maybe you are looking at me? Maybe not.

I glance at the rest of the Brady Bunch bingo tiles on my screen. God only knows what they are looking at — or thinking about — as your soliloquy continues. Like you, I do not have the foggiest clue what holds the attention of our fellow attendees. We are all alone here, together. Together, watching you talk in a room all by yourself.

How do we make sense of this? Well, eventually someone else speaks in response to what you just said. Evidently, only our speech carries much significance here. Even nodding is an unreliable proxy for feedback. The only dependable conveyor of comprehension, engagement and a sense of shared meaning is our words.

So, I wonder, what value does video supposedly add to our meeting, exactly? Does our visual co-surveillance help facilitate our focus and attention? Or is it perhaps a liability — a deterrent to a thoughtful, relational exchange of thoughts?

When you and I go for a walk, we do not spend our time fixated on the direction of each other’s eyes. But we might have a profound conversation while barely even looking at one another as we stroll down the sidewalk. When we, as pedestrians, share the same space, the question of what you are looking at while you are talking is mostly irrelevant to me. Because it is obvious. My brain unconsciously determines any inference of a relationship between where your eyes are pointed and the substance of our dialogue. Our finely evolved social noggins automatically fill in all these gaps and draw these correlations because they have access to all the data they need when we are in the same space together. But how useful are these signals when we are not in physically proximity?

Unless I am otherwise obliged to manage some technical aspect of a meeting in front of a webcam, I have become one of those people who insists on “calling in” to Zoom meetings as an audio-only participant. When possible, I have also become an avid meeting walker. To me, putting on headphones and joining the conversation auditorily is far more immersive and “mentally all-encompassing” than participating in a videoconference. I do not walk during meetings in order to multitask — although the oxygen, exercise, and reduction in screen time helps a lot — but because my engagement is so much higher and my cognitive resources are far less depleted. I’m off camera because I’m on task, liberated from the distraction of inconsequential video interference.

The problem with video conferencing, I hypothesize, is that video adds unnecessary noise vis-a-via the signal. To make remote interactions as meaningful as possible, details about the physical location of each attendee ought to matter as little as possible. Ideally, geography should be irrelevant, as to be invisible to the dialogue. Engaging one another on-screen risks clogging our neural pathways with a superfluous spatial data that is mostly irrelevant. To foster effective remote, synchronous interaction, we should aim to eliminate extraneous stimuli that siphons off precious cognitive bandwidth.

Why don’t we use the word “virtual” to describe voice-only phone conversations? I suspect it is because we think of them simply as conversations. But video swallows conversation qua conversation into a new virtual reality—an approximation of conversation. (Or, at least, a kind of technologized conversation that introduces a barrage of inapplicable visual data points.)

It is entirely possible (likely?) that I am just an old geezer who is not evolving with the times. But I am far from a Luddite. I snapped the above photograph a few days while actively taking part in a Zoom meeting. I’m thankful that this technology provides me the opportunity to escape the aesthetic sterility of boardrooms and drudgery of my office from time to time. For me, this picture represents an ideal place for listening, thinking and creativity: this is where I should be when I need to take a conversation seriously. The option to be here for a remote meeting is a gift of technology.

I’d encourage everyone to experiment with ditching video to go walking, sit on a couch, or even wash the dishes during their next Zoom meeting. Humans are really exceptional at talking together while undertaking other activities. We seem well adapted for this. But gawking at one another in tiny rectangles, wondering what, and who, each other is gawking at, too… is this helpful?

Do you need a focussed, creative “virtual” discussion with colleagues? Suggest that everyone call in, offscreen, while doing something else. Then just watch — I mean, listen — to what happens.