This piece is from 1843, our sister magazine of ideas, lifestyle and culture.
FOR THOSE of us who are lucky enough to work in the service sector, life ought to be more productive under lockdown. There are no claustrophobic commutes to ruin our mornings and evenings, no sumptuous lunches to keep us from our desks, and no office chats to fill our heads with bile and nonsense. This is particularly true for journalists. Writing is the business of turning time into words: the more time you have the more words you should be able to produce.
Something always comes along to spoil the idyll. And in this case that something is Zoom, and the whole gamut of other meeting platforms that we’re supposed to be using. Everybody had high hopes for them at first. You can join virtual discussions from your desk. You can dress like a slob. You can forget about the political jockeying and status-signalling that consumes so much of office life. Yet the longer the lockdown lasts the more irritating Zoom becomes.
There are the technological glitches: people freeze in mid-sentence, chatter echoes as if you’re all in a tunnel, and speakers’ words turn into a high-pitched whine. Then there are the timetabling problems. Because everyone can join, no matter where they are, you find yourself being asked to go to meetings at inconvenient times of the day and night.
But the biggest problems are human ones. There are the background blackguards who insist on being filmed against a groaning bookshelf (in some extreme cases with books written by themselves) or in the garden of their sumptuous country home. There are touch-up artists, who’ve worked out how to use clever technological functions to de-wrinkle their face, de-sag their chin and de-bag their eyes. But above all there are Zoom bores – Zoombies? – who turn every meeting into a marathon of self-important tedium.
We all know the type by now. They take ten minutes to make a simple point. They raise their virtual hands at every possible occasion. They don’t think any meeting is complete unless they have intervened at least three times. Like the virus that caused all this trouble, Zoom bores tend to come in clusters: once one has opened his or her mouth others then feel a licence to intervene. Pretty soon what should have been a brisk meeting has eaten up half a morning.
For the most part these virtual bores are also bores in real life. Digital meetings magnify their tedium tenfold. Having so few people to talk to in the real world means that the bore is determined to make the maximum possible use of the captive audience. The bore’s co-workers must stand in for the publican, shopkeeper, subordinate, neighbour or whomever routinely gets the benefit of their banality.
The lack of a digital feedback mechanism doesn’t help. In the physical world all sorts of micro-signals keep all but the most resolute speakers under some sort of control. The chairperson can raise an eyebrow, ostentatiously look around for someone else to interject, or, if the bore continues to plough on, interrupt to say “I’d like to bring Sarah in on this one”. The audience can make itself felt, animal-like, by fidgeting, coughing, spluttering, murmuring or rustling papers. Zoom removes all such mechanisms. The audience is muted. The chairperson is isolated. The bore has the virtual floor – the yellow box frames them like a halo – and is determined to make the most of it.
The absence of distractions makes this all the worse. In physical meetings you can entertain yourself by looking around the room or whispering to colleagues. In virtual meetings whoever has the floor has all your attention: their face fills your screen, their voice fills your ears (particularly if you’re wearing headphones) and their attention-seeking soul occupies your whole computer, sucking away your life-force.
How can we keep these meeting mutts under control? The best chairpeople are already beginning to work out codes. Invite people to join meetings, say, ten minutes early. That gives them a chance to take the top off their pent-up chatting energy. Limit the number of people invited to the discussion. Bores make up at least 10% of any given audience, more at the managerial level. The rule that smaller meetings are better meetings is even more important in the virtual world.
Above all: divert bores with other bores. It’s always worth suggesting that Bore A continues the discussion after the meeting with Bore B – or, if there’s an alphabet of bores, suggesting that they convene a meeting of their own. The internet is full of virtual cubby-holes where bores can bloviate to their hearts’ content. The more use that can be made of them the less the rest of us have to suffer. It’s the digital equivalent of shoving them all into a single room and turning the key. Maybe Zoom has its benefits after all.■
Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist’s political editor and Bagehot columnist
ILLUSTRATION EWELINA KARPOWIAK