Zoom in the past conditional

by Gary Kafer

Video teleconferencing makes us ever more present to each other: always-on, always peripherally addressable by the network. Every class, meeting, conference, and performance, no matter where they might take place physically, is a now virtual affair whose only point of entry is a hyperlink. At the forefront of this luxury is Zoom, the video teleconferencing platform now synonymous with the COVID-19 pandemic. Founded in 2011, Zoom has only more recently ascended into the upper echelon of Silicon Valley (known as the “Three Commas Club,” symbolizing a net worth of a billion dollars or more) after witnessing a 1,900% increase in its overall usage due to social distancing guidelines and the intensification of remote labor.[1] [open endnotes in new window] In addition to its widespread adoption, what makes the platform so auspicious as an icon of our historical present is how it claims a certain brand of digital ubiquity.[2] With real-time telecommunications, we have no excuse not to show up anymore; indeed, where else is there to go in the midst of a pandemic? As the company states on the landing page of its website: “In this together. Keeping you securely connected wherever you are.” Zoom lets you be present from anywhere, even during “this challenging time.”

On its website, Zoom markets video teleconferencing as a critical resource to stay connected during this pandemic.

This narrative is no doubt familiar. Communications media have long confounded the boundaries between the local and global, here and there, through what McKenzie Wark terms telesthesia or “perception at a distance.”[3] The telegraph, telephone, and television all attest to the enduring desire to bridge the gulf between the near and the remote, to bring what is distant close as a site of action and sensemaking.

An imaginary telephonoscope conceptualized by George du Maurier published in Punch magazine in 1878 following the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell two years prior. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_videotelephony#/media/File:Telephonoscope.jpg
In the late 1920s, Bell Telephone Laboratories experimented with a two-way television system that would allow users to see and hear each other at the same time. Bell Telephone Quarterly 9.3 (1930): 160. Introduced in Japan in 1999, the Kyocera VP-210 Visual Phone is often acknowledged as the first commercial mobile videophone. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_

Writing in the late 1980s, Manuel Castells observed how the material arrangements of information and telecommunications infrastructures gave rise to a new configuration of telesthesia, a global “space of flows,” which supports continuous and simultaneous social practices at a distance.[4] This digital network is the precise terrain of video teleconferencing platforms—including Zoom, but also Skype (founded 2003), Big Blue Button (2009), FaceTime (2010), Talky (2013), Jitsi Videobridge (2013), Discord (2015), Google Duo (2016), and Microsoft Teams (2017). Such platforms have long been employed in courts, hospitals, businesses, and universities to allow multiple people to communicate in real-time, sharing files, audio recordings, documents, and spreadsheets.[5]

But something remarkable has happened since the beginning of 2020. Framed by the pandemic, video teleconferencing—perhaps Zoom specifically—is no longer simply concerned with bringing the distant near through real-time communication. Instead, such platforms have entered into our historical present armed with a promise of social repair, to restore an experience of connectivity abruptly lost in times of crisis. Perhaps then the new-ness of Zoom as another configuration of telesthesia poses a far less relevant concern than the novel forms of experience guaranteed by video telephony amid ongoing social and political upheaval.[6] Such crises of course include the COVID-19 pandemic, but also other concurrent calamities that have come to frame our experience of the common. These include global warming and ecological ruin, anti-Black violence and mass incarceration, the continuing rise of authoritarian fascism and white supremacy, and the metastasizing tumor of U.S. imperialism on the global stage. Throughout all this, we hang our hopes on platforms like Zoom to restore our horizons of expectation and convention, to help us recuperate a scene of belonging so thoroughly effaced so as not to be recognizable anymore as a scene from which we might depart together. And the funny thing is that we give ourselves over to this digital network despite how unrelentingly lonely it makes us feel.

There are perhaps many ways to narrate what I take to be Zoom’s promise of social repair, but for me this is a story about time. More specifically, it’s a story about the experience of time made possible by Zoom and how we endure that time—sometimes together, but very often not. In this essay, I argue that Zoom’s promise of social repair hinges on its perceived affinity to the present (or hyper-present) as the premiere temporal modality of networked culture. In this framework, technologies like video teleconferencing consolidate the many diverse temporalities of the world into the now of real-time, synchronous action. Importantly, this networked now articulates new forms of embodiment and sociality within the technics of electronic presence. Through Zoom’s publicity materials and the use of the platform in reality television, I track how this electronic presence promises to alleviate the pangs of disconnection felt most acutely in the midst of the pandemic.

And yet, as we have come to find, the temporality of electronic presence is at odds with the material conditions that shape our collective realities—conditions now more starkly lit by the temporalities of crisis that have dislocated whatever experience of the commons we might have had before. In the second half of this essay, I locate a different tense—the past conditional—to speculate on how video teleconferencing mediates the social not with a promise, but as a failed potentiality that only now in retrospect seems to contour our shared frameworks of crisis management. As opposed to the present, the past conditional dilates the modes of disconnection (be that technological, economic, racial, geographic, ecological, political, social, or otherwise) that underlie Zoom’s promise of social repair. And in doing so, the past conditional likewise opens up alternative temporal trajectories of electronic presence that gesture towards submerged forms of connection beyond the network itself. Ultimately, by considering the medial tense of Zoom through the past conditional, I argue that we might better account for our own orientation to the network, our capacity to be addressed by others, and our mode of arrival to a scene of belonging at a very time when who inhabits this “we” is made increasingly uncertain by crisis upon crisis upon crisis.

A promise

The time of networks is the time of the now, the present, the real-time, and the simultaneous. Networked media render the world as a modular, scalable, and flexible system of communication relays in which any and all information is accessible with a simple click. In this network, differences in time and place mean nothing. Where you dwell in the world is less important than your ability to become synchronized to the ever-present now of the network. Anyone who has ever missed a Zoom meeting on account of being in a different time zone than the host knows this all too well. Writing in the early 1990s, Vivian Sobchack took stock of this now of networked media as giving way to a new aesthetic mode of “electronic presence.” As she argues, digital technologies not only mediate our own sense of being-in-the world, but constitute it. To quote at length from her essay “The Scene of the Screen”:

“A function of technological (and televisual) pervasion and (World-Wide-Web) dispersion, this new electronic sense of presence is intimately bound up in a centerless, network-like structure of the present, of instant stimulation and impatient desire, rather than in photographic nostalgia for the past or cinematic anticipation of the future […] and this electronic world incorporates the spectator/user uniquely in a spatially decentered, weakly temporalized and quasi-disembodied (or diffusely embodied) state. “[7]

If for Marshall McLuhan electronic media extend or augment the body and its capacities for information processing across time and space, for Sobchack “the electronic tends to marginalize or trivialize the human body.”[8] Obliterated by digital rendition and experienced only as a form of temporal discontinuity, the body becomes homogenized in its re-appearance within the ever-expanding present. A data profile or a flicker on the screen, this new electronic body emerges everywhere and nowhere, eternally connected and interactive.

In order to distinguish the cinematic image from the electronic image, Sobchack analyzes the famous scene from Blade Runner (1982) in which Deckard’s “electronic eye” enables him to modulate and enhance space and to peer around corners in ways previously unavailable to the photographic medium.

Sobchack’s essay is admittedly dated, and very few of us these days would be so naïve as to think that the body has simply evaporated in cyberspace or that “we are all in danger of soon becoming merely ghosts in the machine.”[9] And yet, now in our pandemic present we might more fully appreciate the brunt of this electronically mediated presence as it comes to suffuse our ordinary lifeworlds. As universities, corporations, city councils, courts, and professional conferences move online to promote social distancing, Zoom contracts our experience of many shared temporalities within the flatness of a networked present, a flatness mirrored so effortlessly in the platform’s gridded interface. In this now, your body is no longer your own, but that of the network, legible only as an electronic presence. Who among us hasn’t simply stared at their own uncanny reflection in the grid, mesmerized by our digital apparition?

To trace the contours of this electronic presence, consider here two stock photographs found on Zoom’s website. In both, a man sits in a brightly lit office space, thoughtfully curling his finger around his chin as his elbow rests on a sparsely decorated white desk. He regards the monitor in front of him, upon which we find the recognizable Zoom grid in both gallery and speaker view. But while the Zoom layout changes between the images (as well as the brand of the desktop computer), the man does not. A phantom of Photoshop, he remains unaffected, seemingly a fixture of the mise-en-scène itself (before offices were sites for contagion).

Official stock photographs from Zoom’s website. The platform, we are told, apparently works on both PC and Mac.

Here Zoom sells the fantasy of a digitally mediated presence in which real space and time are rendered obsolete. Endlessly iterative, the man is merely a proxy of a person intended to advertise Zoom’s technical operation and corporate appeal. I understand this visual repetition as an index of what Kris Cohen calls the “tonelessness” of networked media, insofar as Zoom intensifies an “affectively flat or ambiguous form of mediated intimacy.”[10] In the monotonous diagram of the network, electronic presence evacuates the usual coordinates of subjectivity and agency from the scene of the social, held together now by the phatic exchange of data indexing our ideas, behaviors, and emotion. Such tonelessness I argue is felt most acutely in what we have come to call Zoom fatigue, that strange vertigo one experiences when suspended in the domain of the virtual, tediously shuttling back and forth between personal and networked modes of encounter.[11]

No doubt, electronic presence poses a threat to bodily integrity by consolidating the multiplicity of temporalities that dwell in our common world to the flatness of the now. And yet, within the ever unfolding catastrophes of our contemporary, such presencing has come to feel more reassuring than foreboding. In this pandemic, we not only settle for electronic presence, we need it. If before the mode of electronic presence articulated by videotelephony climaxed in the crisis of the body, now it bespeaks the reconnection of the body into networks framed by crises of another kind—the pandemic and more—that index the unmooring of the social from our imagined horizons of historical movement. Disoriented and without stable footing, we engage (now more than ever!) in new forms of what Lauren Berlant terms “genre flailing” that might aid us in collectively grappling with the bewildering transformations of our world. For Berlant, the genre flail is a “social/aesthetic form in relation to the mass vulnerability lived by persons, populations, and nations.”[12] It is an improvisatory mode of crisis management that attempts to recuperate the patterned set of expectations and frameworks of interpretation that enable one to emerge as a relational subject when one’s sense of the present begins to fall apart. Like protesting or starting a book club or even my own writing of this essay, the genre flail gives form to the impossible and messy project of being together, if only for a moment.

As I see it, Zoom is one such contemporary (plat)form for genre flailing, promising to repair the social and recuperate what is now otherwise lost among our contemporary catastrophes. Under the moniker of electronic presence, Zoom purportedly alleviates the anxieties of disconnection (both physical and temporal) brought on by the pandemic with feelings of liveness, interactivity, and simultaneity. Here then we discover a shift in our orientation to the object of videotelephony from the dystopic anxiety of a post-cinematic datascape to some embittered, intoxicating optimism that makes our experience of Zoom so cruel.[13] In this sense, it’s no surprise why so many at the beginning of lockdown noticed the uncanny relation of our world with that in E.M. Forster’s 1909 “The Machine Stops.” In this short story, the inhospitability of the Earth’s surface forces humans to live underground in isolated rooms, only able to communicate through the Machine, a global computer system that supports instant messaging and video chat. Our very own Zoom Machine similarly alleviates the pangs of isolation in a world ravaged by disconnection (perhaps soon we too might face a planetary apocalypse of our own).

Stills from the televisual adaptation of Forster’s “The Machine Stops” from Out of the Unknown (Season 2, Ep. 2, aired 1966).