“Zoomed out: the surreal nonsense of the online meeting cannot end soon enough… Over the past year, virtual gatherings have stifled creativity, limited conversation—and made us less human” – this was the headline in a fairly recent article (8 April 2021) in Prospect magazine by Stefan Stern, a British management guru.
There Stern wrote of “the weird, surreal nonsense of the online ‘meeting’” and stated that:
On the Zoom screen the faces are all isolated, sealed off, disconnected. There is little meaningful intercourse of any kind. You can try to think (or speak) outside the box, but the technology is against you. It appears to be bringing people together, but in fact makes us less human…..I want to go to a real meeting again, with people in the same non-virtual room at the same time. To sit round a table, or in the audience for a talk. Or even to give a talk. I want to tut, roll my eyes, and harrumph….. I want to laugh, and make others laugh, even intentionally. I want to unmute myself.
He concluded with words from Howard Beale, a news anchor gone mad in the 1976 film Network:
I’m a human being, God damn it, my life has value!…. I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!
But was Stern right? Although I have missed the face-to-face meetings, my experience is that Stern overstated his case. Indeed, over the months of the pandemic I have had many in-depth and meaningful conversations which without Zoom I might well not have had. What is more, I am not alone in this experience.
As a result the mid-week fellowship group which I lead has decided to continue to meet by Zoom this autumn. The members of the Sunday ‘Breakfast with the Bible’ group to which I belong have also decided to continue with Zoom. My Rotary club with its weekly Wednesday morning meeting has decided to meet three times a month face-to-face, but once a month by Zoom. The Cambridge alumni club which before the pandemic met once a term for a lecture and a slap-up lunch has decided to go back to the termly lunches, but for every lunch to have two Zoom meetings.
True, at one stage, most of us were frustrated by Zoom and longed for face-to-face encounters, but over the months we have seen the advantages of Zoom. For instance, we have discovered that when a larger group uses the break-out option, we can meet together in groups of three or four where a much deeper level of sharing has often gone on. This has certainly been true in my fellowship group as also in my ‘Breakfast with the Bible’ group, where the main ‘presentation’ has always been followed by discussion in these small break-out groups.
My Cambridge alumni group has appreciated another advantage of Zoom: we have been able to have a host of distinguished people speak to us who in pre-pandemic times would have declined an invitation to come to Chelmsford. As a result the Master of my old Cambridge college readily agreed to speak to us, for it only involved an hour of her time. Similarly we had a great talk on child development from a professor in Durham, who would never have dream of making the journey down to Chelmsford to speak to a group of just fifty people. We are even having a gin-tasting evening from a distillery in Lytham St Annes! As a result of Zoom we gained eleven new members last year.
My Rotary club has also seen the advantage of having speakers from further afield – in particular, we have enjoyed listening to speakers reporting ‘on the ground’ from places such as Zimbabwe and Uganda. However, our members are conscious of another advantage – at a time when we are faced with the challenge of climate change, by meeting by Zoom we are saving on petrol. However, I am grateful that there will be weeks when we will be meet ‘face-to-face’ for this means that we can return to our cooked breakfasts!
Contrary to Stefan Stern, we have also been able to enjoy ourselves on Zoom. Thank God, there have been times when we have been able to pull one another’s legs and laugh together. Indeed, my Rotary group has also played games together – it has not always been serious stuff!
Of course, Zoom calls– and its equivalents – have had their limitations, not least when it comes to Christian worship. Listening to a choir is not the same thing as singing hymns together. Similarly, celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Zoom has been a pale reflection of the real thing. However, Zoom has its advantages – and I have no doubt that Zoom meetings will continue to be with us even when the pandemic is long gone.