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Column: Zoom was fun. But it wouldn’t be 2020 if we didn’t figure out a way to ruin it

For a while after the pandemic began, Zoom seemed new and fun. We rearranged our lighting to our best advantage and made sure our cameras weren’t shooting directly up our noses. We put up funny background screens, even on work calls — “Hey Rob, is that a brontosaurus in your swimming pool?” we cackled stupidly. It was during this period that endless jokes were made about not wearing pants.

That was phase one. Zoom usage skyrocketed, company officials said, to 300 million daily meeting participants. Three hundred million people all forgetting to un-mute themselves in a single day. What a riot!

But all that hilarity couldn’t possibly last.

First came the reports of Zoom-bombing trolls who swooped into university classes or AA meetings or church services to shout obscenities. Then we started hearing about young people getting dumped — or “zumped” — over the app.

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And, of course, these things were inevitable. If video chatting was going to replace personal interaction, then sooner or later it had to accommodate all kinds of conversations. Parents would yell at their kids over the app, bosses would yell at their workers and romantic partners would yell at each other and break up. It can’t be fun and games and sexting all the time, kids.

“The internet connection wasn’t great,” complained one zumpee, writing in BuzzFeed about her virtual break-up with her boyfriend. “We kept freezing.”

Then came the stories about people losing their jobs over Zoom. WW International — the company formerly known as Weight Watchers — even conducted a mass firing over Zoom. It’s unclear how many people were laid off at once, but it was enough that the company’s chief financial officer told the New York Times, “It wasn’t practical to have all of the conversations be one-on-one,” which seemed like an insensitive answer from a company built on the concepts of self-image, self-esteem and “wellness.” Uber laid off more than 3,500 people over Zoom.

But Zoom firings were inevitable too. More than 35 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last three months, and most were not in the office when the news came down. It’s got to be unpleasant and impersonal to be axed remotely over a video call (although there is not all that much warmth and intimacy in a traditional face-to-face firing either).

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Disembodied virtual firings are not even the worst of it. In Singapore on May 15, a man convicted of a relatively small drug offense was sentenced to death by a court over Zoom. The defendant, Punithan Genasan, was on the call from prison; the prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges were in various locations.

I guess you could argue that a death sentence is such bad news in itself that learning about it over Zoom is the least of one’s problems. But still it seems shockingly callous and inhumane. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International agreed.

Finally, last week, Zoom hit what we have to hope is rock bottom: A 72-year-old man from Amityville, Long Island, was on a Zoom call with about 20 other people when his son came into the room and stabbed him more than a dozen times. Police say the other participants, horrified, watched the son beat up his father, and then watched the father ”fall off the screen,” where he was killed.

Video calls don’t get much darker than that.

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Still, we can’t blame Zoom! Not for the zumping or the death sentence or any of it. Technology, at least in this case, is just technology; it’s relatively neutral. It is we humans who do all the same nasty things on Zoom, FaceTime and Skype that we do on the telephone and through the mail and when we see each other in real life.

Just as a television can show Saturday morning cartoons or hard-core porn, and just as email can be used to send love letters or break-up notes or pink slips, it is we, not our tools, who are at the root of the problem. Zoom doesn’t kill people, people do.

When I was 6 years old, I went with my father to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where Bell Telephone was showing off its new futuristic “Picturephone.” I got to talk to my dad all the way on the other side of the room while watching his moving image on a small, black-and-white video screen, and I felt like I had been briefly transported into the world of science fiction.

He and I had seen the future and figured we’d be regularly speaking to each other on Picturephones in just a few years, with what Bell scientists described as “an enhanced feeling of proximity and intimacy with the other party.” Bell even boasted the device could “help solve many social problems.”

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Forgive me. I was a child, and I believed in progress and a world that was getting better and better.

Instead it took half a century before people adopted this technology for day-to-day use, and then only a very small fraction of that time before we turned it to our own cruel human purposes.

@Nicholas_Goldberg


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