Reclaiming Intimacy, Silence and Serendipity from a Zoomed-Up World

by Rob Salkowitz

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Helena Lopes via Unsplash.com

Back in the dawn of the digital music era, audiophiles would complain that the highly-touted new format, compact discs, lacked the warmth of analog vinyl records. Despite the superficially superior features of digitization, something essential had been lost in the translation between the continuous waves captured through traditional recording processes and the stream of ones and zeroes encoded on those shiny metal discs. The flaws in the performances were too clear, the silences too silent, the atmospherics we associated with taking records out and putting them on the turntable completely upended. For those who valued the intimacy of close listening, the tradeoffs for convenience were not worth the cost.

Over the last year, the rest of society is experiencing that same loss of context and resolution, only what’s being lost is more than just the pleasure of experiencing a great musical performance in high fidelity. Many of our most important relationships with friends, family, co-workers and colleagues are now glimpsed through a veil of digital media, along with almost all public events.

In some ways, Zoom, Facetime, Skype and other videoconferencing technology have been our lifeline through the pandemic. These tools have afforded convenience, flexibility and scale, while compressing a decades’ worth of hype-cycle in transforming video calling from a novelty to an essential mainstream service. It has also cost us in ways that might take a generation to understand and recover from.

Last week, the Grey Swan Guild unveiled some new research surveying the impact of the pandemic and its aftermath. One of the questions explored which relationships would be damaged most. Among institutions, respondents believed relations with federal and regional governments were most imperiled (32%), with media second (28%). In the “Weak Ties” category, political leaders led the pack with 44%. But in the “inner circle,” fully 28% of respondents felt relationships with close friends would have a hard time recovering, and parents at 22% (presumably, in cases where parents do not live under the same roof).

There are lots of explanations why our trust in remote, impersonal connections with government, political leaders and the media might be strained by the events of the pandemic. However, the impact on close ties is the most destructive because those are the relationships we’ve invested the most in, and consequently have the most to lose.

Friendships grow slowly over years and decades. In my experience, they can endure long gaps, blow-ups, and reversals of fortune. That’s because the best friendships are based as much on the things that are not said as the things that are.

Like most people, I’ve been doing most of my socializing on Zoom, Facetime and social media. In theory, these platforms provide a step up from an ordinary phone call in terms of richness and capabilities. For business use and certain educational scenarios (college lecture classes, for example), they are adequate and in some cases even superior substitutes for other methods. But for personal relationships, they are almost worse than nothing.

First, video-mediated chat puts our closest personal connections in the same context as our work, school and public functions. We sit impassively smiling at the camera, aware of our own digital reflection, conscious of externalities like lousy connections and weird glitches in the technology, staring back at the disembodied, ill-lit face of someone we’ve known for 10 or 20 years, or for our entire lives. We tell ourselves it is not great but better than nothing. Like someone listening to streaming music or a CD instead of a record or a live performance, we trade the warmth of analog for the convenience of digital.

A lot of what’s missing can’t be conveyed in words. All forms of media tend to be terrible at handling silences. On TV and radio, for example, nothing is worse than “dead air,” and producers go to every length to avoid it. But some of our deepest relationships depend on silence, on being comfortable enough with one another to not make everything explicitly verbal, and to communicate a hundred times more with a look or a subtle gesture than with words. Until our homes are all equipped with 8K telepresence walls — and even then — our mediated relationships will never have high enough resolution to convey the texture of in-person experiences between friends.

Finally, there’s the role of serendipity: the chance events and encounters that are impossible to foresee and impossible to contrive, yet end up having huge consequences in our lives and relationships. Serendipitous events take place in public, semi-public and private spaces alike, but in any case, they require a stage where the unexpected can unfold. Planned teleconferences with invited attendees, online events, and friend-to-friend virtual catchup sessions don’t leave room for this, partly by design: after all, no one wants Zoombombers. Again, in the name of convenience and making due, the technologies that have helped us mediate the pandemic have left us nearly incapable of forming new shared experiences or warm memories within our relationships.

A lot of the innovations in remote collaboration that have been forced into the mainstream by the pandemic are valuable and are likely to endure once the crisis has passed. But in our embrace of convenience and efficiency, we shouldn’t neglect the hard, inefficient, inconvenient work of restoring texture and resolution to the unmediated, immediate relationships in our lives.

We can do both; it’s not an either/or proposition. After all, just last year, despite the ubiquity of Spotify and Apple AirPods, vinyl records had their biggest sales in decades!

For more sensemaking about how the pandemic is affecting our modes of working, living, loving and leading, or to contribute your own thoughts and content, go to the Grey Swan Guild and sign up for our updates and programs.

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Rob Salkowitz

About the author: Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is an author, consultant and educator focusing on the social implications of digital technology. His firm RS Associates, Inc helps organizations of all sizes navigate a fast-changing world and articulate their unique value to business customers. Rob’s books include Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Young World Rising (Wiley, 2010) and four others. He is senior media/entertainment contributor for Forbes and writes regularly for several other publications. He teaches in the Communication Leadership program at the University of Washington Graduate School of Communication in Seattle, where he lives and works.

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