Lost in bandwidth
Having braced the comic aspects of the follies and foibles of web-conferencing for such long, we now yearn for the old in-person meets
A whole year has literally 'zoomed' by. Not because time flew quickly—it was a painfully slow year—but because of a web-conferencing app of that name. And there are many others of its ilk too, which have asserted their presence emphatically since the pandemic began. With lockdowns and work-from-home as the new normal, an array of such apps has become the primary medium of communication between any three or more socially distanced homo sapiens.
While human history is replete with pandemics, what decidedly changed between the last one a hundred years ago and the present one is that the tyranny of distance which historically separated nations and peoples, finally ended with "death of distance", as famously proclaimed by Frances Cairncross in a much-acclaimed book of the same name which appeared before the turn of the century. Among other things, the book predicted (in the year 1997) that location will no longer be key to most business decisions, that most people on the earth will eventually have broadband access, with the capacity to receive TV-quality motion pictures (think Netflix or Amazon Prime), that there will be a deluge of information (including, no doubt, liberal doses of rumour, half-truth and fake news), that the line between work and home will blur, that home design will change such that the domestic office will become a regular part of the house, and so on. It appears, therefore, the writing was already on the wall more than two decades ago. The pandemic only hastened the inevitable. Powered by the worldwide web, everything from bilateral and multilateral meetings between countries to classroom sessions for students went digital, as did spiritual and religious discourses, Yoga and meditation sessions, gardening and cooking lessons, family get-togethers, religious rituals, weddings, memorial services and much more.
Meetings are the heart and soul of any office. In fact, a highly intuitive axiom that goes by the name 'Hendrickson's Law' asserts that if an issue causes adequate number of meetings, the meetings eventually become more important than the issue. Meetings, therefore, provided a viable (even respectable) alternative to 'real' work even in the pre-pandemic times. With the arrival of pandemic-induced work-from-home, however, meetings quickly attained cult status, albeit in dematerialized form. Reputed to be an event where minutes are kept but hours are lost, the ubiquitous meeting has helped us preserve the façade of self-importance and busy pre-occupation in a world brought to heel by the tiniest form of life on the planet.
But how is the experience of online meetings different (if at all) from in-person variety? Well, for one thing, the entertainment quotient in a web meeting is much higher, thanks largely to a range of tech and human failures and bloopers, occurring in permutations and combinations which are idiosyncratic to each individual meeting.
It is said, "To err is human, but to really foul things up it takes a computer". Thus, the microphone which went on the blink just when the Guest of Honour began the inaugural address, suddenly becomes super-sensitive and captures every word when you are ranting bitterly under your breath about the complete incompetence of the chair to conduct the proceedings, mistakenly presuming that the microphone of your device is on mute. Content-sharing hardly ever works, except, of course, when you are not trying to share any content. Sudden and entirely involuntary launch of content of a more unsavoury kind (the adult variety) from the deep recesses of the worldwide web without any apparent provocation is also not an unknown phenomenon. Continuous volume variations bring back fond memories of Radio Ceylon broadcasts of yore. And then there are unearthly voice echoes that occur intermittently for no apparent reason. Every syllable uttered by the speaker gets repeated multiple times, each time striking a shriller note than the last, until it is ultimately reduced to nothing more than a sharp squeak. The voice echoes are somehow reminiscent of the mutually reflective mirrors on either side wall of the barbershop which produce infinite reflections, each one smaller than the previous, until your head completely disappears into the last and smallest image, all while your haircut is still a work in progress!
Tech failures no doubt provide much comic relief during the web meetings. But as celebrated author Yuval Noah Harari points out, artificial intelligence is really no match for natural stupidity. "Humans are always better at inventing tools than using them wisely", he adds. From accidental revelations of wardrobe mismatch between the upper and lower halves of the body, to the unmistakable sound of the toilet flush giving away the live location of the participant, sudden intrusion by pets or children, deep snoring noises, speaking with extraordinary eloquence into a muted microphone, multiple participants speaking at the same time, followed by complete silence from everyone – natural stupidity is amply in evidence during the web-meetings. While the Texan lawyer who joined online legal proceedings as a cat may have deployed the cat-filter of the web-conferencing app quite accidentally with no idea how to turn it off, surely there was nothing accidental about desi one who sought to join High Court proceedings attired in an undershirt (baniyan)!
Well, web meetings with their comic interludes have certainly done their bit to keep us sane. But now that we have had more than our fair share of them, we do look forward to good old in-person meetings held in brick and mortar buildings, where the success of the meeting is usually measured by the ratio of meeting to eating, a key yardstick on which web-meetings are total non-performers as compared to their in-person counterparts.
Views expressed are personal