People are more than 2D

Photo by Philip Justin Mamelic on

As lockdown starts to ease across the UK, spending time with other people is coming back into the realms of possibility.

I’ve been angry, perplexed and at times despairing at how the Government advice has never addressed the mental health aspects of remaining isolated or socially distant from all others. Too often it seemed the face of power was a middle-aged white man in some variation of a 2.4 children household. Whilst I don’t imagine being locked down (up?) with your family is at all plain sailing, it is a very different thing to being in a form of solitary confinement. You are allowed hugs and to hold someone else’s hand occasionally. I hope most people were anyway. These are important things.

I listened, bemused, to announcements that we could visit a garden centre, before we were allowed to be close to a person from outside of our own household. Is that how humans live? Not to knock gardening which I have found new appreciation of, but I need company more than plants. Being in a relationship with someone I don’t live with has taken on a strangely radical feel lately. It was as if the government didn’t want our way of life to exist. Perhaps I’ve been lucky not to experience that feeling before.

But of course I’ve been speaking to a lot of people via Zoom calls. As I currently teach a design course, calls with students make up the majority of my day. This time has been one of improvisation, of running workshops online using virtual whiteboards and post-it notes. And also working out how to communicate when our usual measures of understanding are removed. When people are on mute as the default, can you tell if they are following you? Are you doing a good job? The thumbs up and clap emojis offer vital reassurance.

I’ve been observing how tired I get from Zoom calls. In theory, running a workshop online requires much less physical energy than running it in person. You can sit down! You can wear jogging bottoms and slippers! But it also requires a more precise level of preparation. Getting your browser tabs in order, your webcam working, optimal audio and recording settings, pausing your Slack notifications (yet stealthily checking for anything urgent), screen sharing and breakout room mastery. Sadly I rarely get it all perfect! And just when I think I have, something will malfunction. That’s tech life.

I’ve read great articles explaining the science behind why using Zoom is tiring. Here is an extract:

Non-verbal communication makes up the vast majority of what we convey to one another, through kinesics (body language), proxemics (distance), haptics (touch) and paralanguage (hand gestures and facial expressions). Video distorts these cues and trying to read them on a screen takes a lot more energy. The problem is exacerbated in Zoom calls with a Muppet-gallery of participants, as the brain scrambles to take in cues from multiple parties without the benefit of peripheral vision.

Mia Levitin, Unherd, Why the Zoom Gloom has set in

This explains exactly why those calls take so much cognitive effort. Trying to process up to 10 different faces at once, when they are all looking slightly away from us into laptop screens is surely a new task for the brain. Then throw in the curiosity factor of seeing the background of everyone’s homes, sometimes figures moving behind them and light changing. Then add trying to process documents being shared on screen at the same time. No wonder on Friday I lay down on the sofa at 9pm with my eyes closed, all stimulus and screens out of reach. Short circuited.

Yet still I want to write and communicate more than ever. The hunger for connection is real. Just maybe not via Zoom. I predict a renaissance in real life chats. I hope it’s coming.

I found a photo taken at work a few weeks before lockdown started. It was novel to see the full shape of people. Their different heights and sizes. Their shoes! People have many dimensions and that has been missing for nearly 3 months.

I do wonder if the lack of dimensionality is another reason why there is so much rage around. The reaction to a government advisor breaking the lockdown rules was alarming. Days of social media complaints, footage of neighbours yelling in the street. I understood the anger but then I also understand fear and panic. It’s overwhelming.

We have all been reduced to our actions at times and judged accordingly. I hear from friends that police were called by neighbours because other neighbours took down their fence to allow garden chats. Another story of police called because someone living alone had a friend visit. Strange incidents of humans policing humans for committing human acts.

When we get past this, will we be multi-dimensional again?

One thought on “People are more than 2D

  1. I so agree with this. My online experiences are much less frequent and pressured – group chat, Pilates on Zoom, but I identify with the demands and limits of 2 dimensional contact.

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