In 1986 something happened to television in the UK. It went from being a regulated daily dose, interspersed with frequent ‘trade test cards’ to being a 24-hour broadcasting affair. Around the same time mothers would frequently rebuke children for soaking up all that extra TV with the beration-come-warning that they would end up with “square eyes.”

That old chestnut of a phrase has started resonating again during this lockdown period as efforts to pursue some sort of business as usual has involved the arrival of Zoom et al into our daily lives. While my eyes have not yet turned square, they certainly feel as if they are stiffening up around the edges.

Now we have got over the initial unfamiliarity of online conferencing en masse and mic control gaffes the computer screen is increasingly becoming the source of digital fatigue. Unlike in previous pandemics, technology has allowed us to hide away behind closed doors and yet still feel as if we are connected to the world outside them.

Teens and embarrassing parents have taken TikTok to new levels, while Zoom has snagged a huge audience thanks to its free conference call facility for up to 100 people, making it the online equivalent of a conference room, not to mention party destination when lockdown Friday rolls around.

Is online the future?

The upsides are obvious, leading to musings that this could be the future for many businesses – cutting out the need for unnecessary travel and physical office spaces – but after a month of staring down the screen the downsides are beginning to become more evident. As time draws on one starts to realise how de-sensitized and de-stimulating this form of face to face interaction actually is. Yes, it’s fine for the odd meeting, but when your day becomes filled with only virtual encounters the limitations begin to bite.

Communicating in a virtual world is not unlike trying to have a conversation by email instead of using the phone. There’s a two dimensional element that fails to reveal the whole picture. I have written before about the importance of body language and what becomes evident as we scramble to become optimised Zoomers, Teamsters, Bluejeansers, Cisco kids etc, is the absence of these extra communication signals that we subconsciously feed off as we scan the room for signs of affirmation, encouragement or dissent.

A video meeting, with many participants, tends to jam those signals – is that grimace now appearing in the top left square in response to something I’ve said or a reaction to an off screen incident in the domestic setting (the dog’s escaped again and is harassing the delivery driver)? Likewise, one can never be sure whether one is holding the attention of the (virtual) room or holding the room captive. As with any meeting there are good and bad orators and, as there’s nowhere to hide, video only serves to emphasise the bad.

It all adds up to digital fatigue

After the big virtual meeting comes the inevitable follow up virtual meeting – fewer participants but often just as taxing and then the next virtual meeting to plan another virtual meeting and so it goes on.  Fortunately however, most virtual meetings are wrapped up on a Friday afternoon, leaving us all free for a bit of Friday night socialising, lockdown style. We may be in isolation, but it doesn’t have to be hibernation. We can still socialise; meet up with friends for drinks, have sparkling conversation (which rarely gets further than lockdown anecdotes) and maybe enjoy a quiz. We have the perfect tool for the job! Just when you thought it was safe to turn it off, out comes Zoom once more…

While there has been much talk of the ‘new normal’ – in to which these virtual spaces are seen as natural fits – I am not so convinced. Call me a Luddite, digitally fatigued or just plain old sociable, but these past few weeks have illustrated just how much we miss actual human contact and person to person interaction in our daily lives.   Next time you’re enjoying virtual drinks with a friend, make a mental note of how long your tolerance for having that time with them on screen lasts and compare it to actually being with them in person.

If I’m correct, and there is a future beyond the new normal, I think we could discover a new appreciation for the much-maligned meeting.