America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    America on the Brink

Technosolutionism Isn’t the Fix

Whether a crisis of public health or public safety, is the best response increased surveillance?

Christine Rosen

Illustration by Batteries Not Included/Alamy Stock Photo.

When the coronavirus began its long, deadly march through the United States last spring, and states mandated that businesses and schools close and people stay home to limit the spread of the virus, the ability to communicate and work via videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype was hailed as a technological blessing. In stark contrast with the purgatorial mood many people were experiencing during indefinite lockdown, newspaper articles set a celebratory tone, hailing the arrival of the Zoom cocktail hour and encouraging Americans who were now spending countless hours online to add preselected digital backgrounds depicting exotic beaches and other happy scenes to their calls.

“It humbles us a little bit to see how people are using Zoom and how they are being creative,” Colleen Rodriguez, a Zoom spokeswoman, told the Washington Post. The growth in the use of Zoom was dramatic: According to the Post, “Usage grew from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to 300 million in April, including both business and personal gatherings.”11xJura Koncius, “The Six Do’s and Don’ts of Zoom Happy Hours,” Washington Post, May 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/the-six-dos-and-donts-of-zoom-happy-hours/2020/05/14/e173af4e-93a0-11ea-82b4-c8db161ff6e5_story.html.

In the midst of a crisis, Zoom (and similar videoconferencing programs) provided an immediate, seamless way for people to continue to work and socialize while maintaining a safe physical distance from one another. Here was a simple technological response to the many complicated social problems that arose during the pandemic, a solution that seemed to address a practical challenge while also proving the legitimacy of Zoom’s slogan—“We deliver happiness.”22x“About Us,” Zoom, accessed August 4, 2020, https://zoom.us/about.

But as the weeks of lockdown wore on, and virtual gatherings shifted from novelty to obligation, many Americans began to confess to feelings of dread each time a new Zoom meeting appeared on their calendars. Human nature, that irrepressible beast, emerged in stories of “Zoombombers” who used the platform to interrupt classroom lectures and business meetings, harassing others with hateful remarks. Then there were the lackadaisical workers who neglected to turn off their cameras, treating their colleagues to embarrassing displays of private behavior made inadvertently public.

By the end of April, New York Times reporter Kate Murphy was explaining to readers “why Zoom is terrible.” The disappointments she outlined were not technical—the platform had resolved its privacy and software glitches—but experiential. Murphy noted the unease she felt about her connections to others, even after hours spent talking to people through a screen, because she could not always interpret the subtleties of facial expressions and body language. “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,” she wrote.33xKate Murphy, “Why Zoom Is Terrible,” New York Times, April 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/sunday-review/zoom-video-conference.html.

In addition, as family birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other life celebrations all played out across the same platform, the details of each began to blur for many people. Psychologists Gabriel Radvansky and Jeffrey Zacks have described the crucial role of “event boundaries” in memory formation and cognition: “Events are at the center of human experience, and event cognition is the study of how people perceive, conceive, talk about, and remember them,” Radvansky and Zacks write. But those events require clear demarcations to help us distinguish one from the other and form permanent memories of our experiences. During lockdown, our endless stream of Zoom business meetings and social meet-ups has had the effect of effacing those boundaries, flattening experience, and in the process altering the memories we will carry with us about this time of crisis—a small but not insignificant change.44xGabriel A. Radvansky and Jeffrey M. Zacks, “Event Boundaries in Memory and Cognition,” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 17 (October 2017): 133–40, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.08.006.

Of course, there are alternatives to Zoom for communicating. During the long weeks of lockdown, some people used e-mail or text messaging; some opted for old-fashioned telephone calls; others rediscovered the humble pleasures of letter writing.55xAndy Smarick, “Letters in the Time of Covid,” Commentary, June 2020; Rosie Blunt, “Letter-Writing: Connection in Disconnected Times,” BBC News, May 20, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-52709729. Nonetheless, many people appear to feel that Zoom and similar online meeting spaces proved more of a blessing than a curse during this crisis.

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