Maybe I’m in the minority, but Zoom meetings don’t leave me feeling drained in the way that this week’s readings—“Why We’re Exhausted by Zoom” by Susan D. Blum and “The Zoom Gaze” by Autumm Caines—describe. Of course, I understand why “Zoom fatigue” is a real phenomenon; both Blum and Caines point out how during video conferencing, it’s impossible to make eye contact, frustrating to listen to laggy speakers, and tempting to constantly make real-time adjustments to your appearance—all of which can leave a person feeling exhausted.
But I don’t think Zoom deserves all the blame. Like danah boyd explained in last week’s reading, “The Internet of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” online platforms are just a reflection of the flaws that already exist within our society. When I read that Blum, after teaching her first Zoom meeting, was so tired she just “sat and watched something silly on Netflix, drank a glass of wine, and did nothing productive until [she] could finally go to sleep,” my first thought was, “Wait, wasn’t that the average work night pre-pandemic?” Maybe the reason Zoom meetings feel so draining is because our pre-pandemic, in person lives were already exhausting.
In twenty first century society, worker productivity is ever increasing, and—in the majority of families—both parents are working (Gabriela Saldanhas’s article “The Post Pandemic University and the Caring Gap” shows how strenuous working while raising children can be), yet employers are still clinging to the forty hour work week from the Industrial Age. So, the pre-pandemic workforce had more members who were working harder than ever (without the benefit of shorter hours or higher pay)—and then the pandemic hit. Employers asked us to continue chugging along at the same breakneck pace we had been before, while also asking us to learn to use a new video conferencing platform that most people were unfamiliar with—all while we’re struggling to survive the stress, isolation, and health risks of an unprecedented global pandemic. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think Zoom is entirely to blame for the exhaustion most of us are feeling right now.
However, I do see the value in questioning the motives and functions of video conferencing platforms and asking whether they’re doing all they can to be equitable. Caines describes how many of Zoom’s functions are based around hierarchies, such as a new immersive reality feature that will replicate courtrooms, classrooms, conference tables, etc., and legitimize the rigid power structures those environments uphold. Again, I think this is an example of the internet reflecting our society rather than the internet being purposefully malicious, but it’s valuable to question which aspects of our society Zoom’s developers are choosing to include in their software and why.
While it’s necessary to raise these concerns, it’s also important to recognize that platforms like Zoom need to strike a difficult balance between equity and practicality. Caines laments features that prevent anyone but the host from controlling the functions of the meeting because they uphold traditional power structures, but if you’ve ever taught high schoolers, you’d know that letting everyone in the meeting have equal power would be a recipe for disaster. Caines even proves the need for host only controls when she mentions “Zoombombing,” in which uninvited internet trolls disrupt meetings. We must continue to push back against the inequitable technology that Caines describes—such as video filters that don’t recognize black faces or algorithms and AI that “replicate existing biases”—while also recognizing the practical need for platforms like Zoom during the pandemic.
Once the pandemic is over, I hope universities recognize that ending Zoom meetings won’t end our exhaustion. I’m worried that when it’s finally safe to return in person, schools will try to go right back to their pre-pandemic structure instead of recognizing how much that structure contributed to stress and fatigue for both students and educators. Right now, we have a chance to make fundamental changes to our outdated education system, but if we ignore the systemic causes of Zoom fatigue, I fear we’ll miss that opportunity.