Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are planning a small move soon, but will still be able to use the city’s public schools. But now, as a parent, I worry how weird these schools could get. My wife and I have been shocked by the decision making of the local school board. Do you think that their choices are a function of meeting together on Zoom during the pandemic? Would weird decisions be less frequent if they meet on Zoom less and more in person? Teresa, San Francisco
Dear Teresa: You rightly point out that group decision making over Zoom is new for most and has reached its pinnacle during the pandemic. We have a technology, fresh out of the box, and not a lot of experience of how it tweaks or spoils public meetings.
So, a dip into the annals of communication (see photo). An established technology with a new function can overtake the story line, particularly in anxious times. Just before W.W. II, people tuned into radio to hear the “boot by boot” “frame by frame” deliberations of the Axis powers. This was the first time in history the public could follow the pre- war buildup nightly, on radio, from their living rooms. It’s hard to picture today, but listeners heard Orson Welles Halloween Eve 1938 radio broadcast, called the “The War of the Worlds” and many panicked. They trusted radio news, and never had reason to doubt it. On Zoom, we trust that the interpersonal dialogue has just moved to a new platform, but perhaps it’s not the same as face to face.
Zoom is Different
In today’s environment, we don’t have Martians landing, but there are some similarities. Zoom is ‘new’ software running on established media. A Zoom meeting does not function the same as pre-pandemic Skype meetings and Facetime calls. For the most part those were bolstered by interpersonal meetups opportunities for non-verbal exchanges, and less emphasis on the word itself- things critical for business relationships and group dynamics.
And, the Zoom meeting is typically larger. Public meetings, like the school board are composed of people we ‘know’ in person and those (i.e. strangers) we have not met IRL. Zoom meetings are also longer: we are on the Zoom platform for multiple hours at a time, often without breaks or a change in scenery. They wear down our critical faculties: “six hours on Zoom is like 10 hours in the office.” Finally, Zoom meetings are peculiar, per our conventions of two way communication: with its picture in picture function, we view ourselves viewing ourselves, analogous to fun house mirrors.
Trust in the Settings?
But, to your question: perhaps public groups reach bad decisions for other reasons- namely they cannot trust the technology. You will recall the story of the local school board that thought they were talking offline, and exchanged “non-PC” stuff about the parents who needed babysitters, so schools needed to reopen. These are offhand remarks people might toss out privately to each other, perhaps in the parking lot or before the official meeting “on stage”. It might be communicated with humor, not with resolve. Now contrast that with Zoom. That school board, and others, have surely learned that if you are online and not sure what or whom is recording it is preferable to stay muted. So, Zoom meetings could be stifling real speech and debate.
Conversely, online meetings also stifle the “pregnant pause” or quiet moments that occur in natural, in-person conversation. Micro-moments of silence may be necessary for people to process and reflect. And there is a propensity for the quietest people to not speak up. Zoom’s chat function, polling, and raising a virtual hand are not real replacements.
Finally, and this may be at the crux, it is easier to “slack off” on Zoom. No one is going to know if we did not have the time (or the will) to read the background documents, take notes, and study the agenda.
For all these reasons, and probably more, Zoom in 2020 may have led groups to decision making that may seem weird when we look back on the pandemic year. Perhaps it is less about the technology and more, circa 1938, about playing into community wide fear and anxiety. I am sure that there are some groups and public sessions that have been improved by meeting over Zoom. I invite readers to contribute them! Meanwhile, good luck with the move and settling in-person into a new neighborhood.