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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

What the Zoom Boom Is Doing for America’s Conversational Crisis

We weren’t spending enough time in deep, face-to-face conversation even before coronavirus.

This piece was originally written for and published in The Dallas Morning News.

There I was feeling good about myself for adapting so quickly to the Zoom boom. Like many college profs, I pivoted to teaching classes via videoconferencing this spring with trepidation. Seeing my quarantine-scattered students all lined up and smiling on my laptop screen, however, made Zoom seem like an unqualified blessing.

I then read a piece in The New York Times entitled “Why Zoom Is Terrible.”As Kate Murphy reported, experts seem to agree “the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (or more than you were already).”

Hmm, Murphy had a point. Yes, I did find myself looking at myself a lot. I also noticed students leaving place-holder mugshots on screen as they dug into lunch. One colleague reported a student folding laundry. This was going to be more trying than I’d thought.

“Depending on the camera angle,” Murphy wrote, “people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. Viewers may then perceive them as uninterested.” Wonky video images can leave us feeling “vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”

I admit, virtual communication has left me hankering for the real thing: the ur-connection between humans that takes us back beyond talking to a neighbor over the back yard fence to the campfire at the mouth of the cave, when humans began to invent the art of storytelling.

I should have caught on sooner. For the past three years, my University of Texas at Austin colleague, photojournalist Eli Reed, and I have been making a documentary film about the essential value of in-person conversation and what happens when it goes missing.

“The Symphony of Frank” stars Austin barber Frank Owens, a maestro at orchestrating conversations with and among all comers. Frank has taken the model of the African-American barbershop, with its heart, conviviality and humor, and opened it to a clientele of folks from all walks of life.

When I first went to Frank five years ago, I realized how starved I’d been for what novelist Saul Bellow called the “humanity bath”; in my case, the chance to swap stories with the juvenile parole officer, state worker, accountant, artist, actor, athlete and musician. We were all communicating together, bound by a lightness of spirit and only one unspoken rule: If you disagree with somebody, thou shalt think twice before taking offense.

“That,” as Frank likes to say, “is the beauty of coming to the barbershop.”

In our rough-elbowed society, some conversations deserve to be sharp-tongued and confrontational, if we’re to lance the boils of inequality and injustice. They’re the ones to make the news and supply Hollywood films with dramatic tension. Yet it’s slow, casual conversation that, in the right setting, can act like a corrosive agent on our prejudices and fears of the other, so that empathy pushes through.

Empathetic talk has helped us through dark times. In his memoir “Growing Up,” Russell Baker wrote about the economic bust of the 1930s: “Talking was the great Depression pastime. Unlike the movies, talk was free, and a great river of talk flowed through the house, rising at suppertime, and cresting as my bedtime approached.”

That river flowed through my 1950s boyhood. Working-class Americans bought books to improve their vocabulary and conversational chops. In our digital times, as Stephen Miller points out in his 2006 book “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art,” “There are far more books on improving one’s sex life than on improving one’s ‘conversation life.’”

Today’s nanosecond communication does remove us from the messiness and awkwardness of talking face to face, but at the risk of a kind of national self-muting.

Media critic Neil Postman saw it coming in his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” He argued TV had dumbed down our understanding of public affairs so as to stymie our ability to think in a level-headed way; it had bequeathed us the attention span of fruit flies.

Then — presto! — our screens shrunk, TV married the telephone, the offspring jumped into everybody’s pocket, and we became evermore impatient with hearing one another out.

“Social media is taking away our one-on-one communication,” one of Frank’s customers told me down at the shop. “When you look at someone in the eye you feel their heart, you feel their soul, you feel their love, you feel their sadness, you feel their pain. Whatever it is you’re going to feel. And it changes the interaction.”

In our history, empathy has typically been in short supply when matters of race, religion and politics come up. How perverse is it, then, that so many of our young people hunger for a more inclusive and equitable society at a time when technology makes it harder to communicate at a truly human-to-human level?

Zoom may feel like love, at times, and that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t deliver the sense of simpatico that stems from listening, patiently and tolerantly. Playwright August Wilson talked about the “binding song” that tells us about ourselves and our connection to others. One of Confucianism’s tenets is the principle of “ren,” a glue binding society with a love of humanity. How active are such sentiments today?

Communication technology does offer salvation. It allows us to track public health threats like COVID-19, speed the sharing of knowledge in the hunt for a vaccine and spread the word about risks and precautions. Yet as science-fiction fans know, overreliance on technology’s tools can diminish what makes us most human.

Maybe our COVID-19-imposed isolation will stir an appetite for home-cooked stories. I hope so. Meanwhile, one thing is likely to be true: Today’s videoconferencing boom will infuse technology more broadly and deeply into our teaching, learning and lives.

I’m down with that, I really am. But only if we make ample space for the power of a story, slowly and casually told, while we look one another in eye. That we can’t Zoom in.

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