/ Technology

Opinion: life on screen – what we’ve learned

Virtual experiences vs real life: Rory Cellan-Jones shares his views more than two years on from our first Covid lockdown.

Over the past couple of years I’ve spent much of my time in the metaverse. OK, not quite in the fully realised virtual world which so excites Mark Zuckerberg that he changed his company’s name to Meta, but I have swapped many real-world activities for their online equivalents.

My pilates class once involved cycling to a chilly studio first thing on a Saturday; now I click on a link and join half a dozen others stretching and bending in sync with our on-screen teacher. As a fanatical sourdough baker, I travelled occasionally to a central London cookery school for tuition from a maestro.

Since I discovered a Zoom baking class, I’ve been able to hone my technique in my own kitchen. And going to work, which once meant putting on a suit and spending hours chatting and arguing face to face with colleagues, contacts and bosses, now involves popping up to the attic unshaven in trackies and a sweatshirt to join them via webcam.

The past two years have given us a crash course in what’s possible with digital communications technology – and what’s best done face to face. I may be happy enough with my Zoom pilates, but my wife couldn’t wait to get back to the dance studio for her ballet class.

Dancing around the kitchen to a YouTube video was no substitute for the rigorous instruction from her veteran teacher. But it’s at work where the debate becomes really contentious. In her book The Nowhere Office, Julia Hobsbawm argues that we’re never going back to the bad old days of presenteeism, now that we’ve learned the technology allows us to work from anywhere.

Information overload

There are still questions about what remote working does for our productivity and wellbeing. So-called ‘productivity tools’ such as Slack and Microsoft Teams enjoyed soaring growth as we tried to organise ourselves away from the office.

But too often they just amplified the information overload we’d been seeing in the workplace, or became as full of pointless gossip as any social media platform.

When it comes to existing workplace relationships, screen meetings can be pretty good – I saw some colleagues more on Zoom than I had in the office. But that makes it even harder to integrate new people into a team when there’s no opportunity for the casual one-on one chats that build a relationship.

And while it’s easy to get sentimental about the value of watercooler conversations, on my first couple of trips out to meet companies post-lockdown I learned far more than I had in dozens of on-screen encounters.

No match for reality

But wait – won’t this all change when the metaverse becomes a reality? Then we’ll put on a headset and be transported to a dance studio where the teacher’s avatar will take us through our steps,
accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

We’ll meet colleagues by the virtual watercooler or, more likely, at a lovingly recreated version of the local pub, complete with sticky floor and truculent barman.

I’m not convinced. At the height of lockdown, one colleague, an early adopter of VR technology, told me he’d been meeting another senior journalist each morning for a quick game of virtual golf.

A few months on, I decided I needed to buy my own headset to embrace this new world. But when I rang for advice, my workmate told me the games had stopped. The two had realised that as well as being a bit of a throwback – blokes doing business on the golf course – these encounters were neither productive nor much fun.

His headset now sits unused in its box, and I’ve decided to postpone my move into the metaverse. My mission instead is to try to leave my attic at least twice a week and head out into the real world.

Comments

I wonder if the simple fact that we haven’t got anywhere near the much-touted holography of Star Trek and its ilk has anything to do with that disillusionment?

We simply can’t currently replicate the world to any degree of perfection; restricted viewing angles, cumbersome headsets and the lack of technology to transmit and receive the vast amounts of data to make our online environments even close to reality all restrict our experience.

Besides which, have you ever tasted virtual coffee?

Not so much a metaverse but the usual Which? metro-centric view of the world.

Only a small minority of employees are office workers yet so much stuff is looked at through this narrow prism as though the rest of the working world does not exist. Face-to-face and side-by-side functionality will not be replaced by fancy bits of kit and contrived programs based on crude algorithmic formulae. Happily the human brain can transcend this and employ imagination beyond the powers of any software. Dream on.

I agree with what has been said so far. My experiences of meetings via computer – Teams and Zoom are that they don’t allow free converse, there’s no body language and no proper interaction. The technology itself is not one hundred percent secure and when it breaks down, it usually does so at a critical point in the meeting. One thing I have to fix here is the fact that when my phone rings my internet drops out. This is thanks to the electricians who did the re-wiring on my renovation. This has interfered with quite a few meetings and it is usually due to a nuisance caller.
The idea of blotting out ones immediate environment and replacing it with a headset, is an unpleasant one for me. No only are these sets expensive, but I like to be in the real world in real time and in one place, not two. I have looked through an electronic view- finder on a camera and have disliked the image enough to make such a product “unbuyable”. That said my phone seems to be quite accurate and, of course a proper viewfinder is impossible in one of these. The advantages of no travel activities with others is not enough to make me want to join this trend or to splash out on equipment. Imagine a romantic encounter and at a critical moment the battery goes flat! Imagine that same encounter without any physical contact. “Hi darling, here’s an electronic kiss.” Shocking!

Throughout the pandemic I have been using Zoom. I have used Teams too but have had fewer technical problems with Zoom, and the cost of the subscription is outweighed by the savings in fuel.

Our online meetings have proved shorter and more efficient because the people who used to ramble on about unimportant matters are less confident and say far less. In physical meetings the chair often had to intervene but that has rarely been necessary when meeting online. With one society our committee is split about continuing with our online meetings or going back to meeting up, so we have agreed to alternate. Covid is still with us and more than ever I don’t want to drive 40 miles just for an evening meeting, so I will send my apologies for the physical meetings and circulate my report for consideration.

I’m also using Zoom for social meetings and meet up with one group of friends every week. I still use the phone to keep in touch but increasingly use Zoom because it’s easy to show photos and video.

In the 90s I used video conferencing for research meetings with collaborators in the US in addition to our weekly conference calls by phone. In these days, video conferencing was expensive, but now we can all do a simplified version. A former colleague who is 96 has until recently been meeting up with his sons daily, by Skype.

Now if someone can convince me that metaverse has practical uses rather than just entertainment I may happily get involved, even though I am not interested in being an early adopter.

the people who used to ramble on about unimportant matters are less confident and say far less.

So true. Especially true of charities and their committees.

Yes, I see this with committee members of charities, mainly the ones who have been involved for many years and feel they have to comment on every item on the agenda, whether or not they have anything useful to say.

For face to face meetings, setting up working groups and circulating reports in advance can save a great deal of time and keep discussion focused.

I wonder if the Ramblers’ Association have people that ramble at their meetings.

🙂 Probably. Heaven knows what the Mountaineering Associations are like. Probably checking for Molehills.,..

Many of us could help those who struggle with technology. To start with made Zoom meetings accessible fifteen minutes before the start to allow participants the opportunity to check that there were no problems with sound or vision.

My approach has been to use a laptop, which has an inbuilt microphone and speakers. Others seem to get on fine with iPads.

I am going to have to visit someone who struggled with using Zoom an ancient PC. He bought a new computer but now has a sound interference problem, so that he has to mute himself at each meeting unless he wants to say something. In the 21st century, I’m surprised that there are still computers that don’t come with an inbuilt camera and microphone as standard, for the benefit of those who want to keep life simple.

My laptop doesn’t have a camera and mic built-in so I use the big desktop for Zoom events which gives a much better picture and sound quality than other devices.

Generally the technology works well and there have been no problems with that side of participation, but some people’s room settings are poor with bad lighting and low-grade audio quality. However, people have learned and developed as they have seen how others perform.

Some of the organisations I belong to quickly developed on-line talks and lectures which I took advantage of; I was able to enjoy things I would otherwise have had to make a trip to London for. Those events have been much more successful than the committee meetings and have actually brought in many more members than would otherwise have participated and a lot more income.

Where illustrations have formed a significant feature, the experience has been far superior to sitting in a darkened hall and peering at a projector screen with muttering and coughing going on all round. One of my societies has even managed to composite questions which arise during the talk and supply concise answers; this saves quite a lot of wind-baggery.

Not being able to meet and greet people physically has not been a particular disadvantage but discussion during the logging-on and warm-up period has to be in series rather than in parallel. And when the Chair calls time it ends suddenly which is a good thing and I know I won’t get button-holed by some irritating person wanting to query the minutes or some such pretext.

The Zoom talks held by one society that I’m a member of have been far better attended than any social evening and have avoided the costs of room hire and speakers’ travelling expenses. We have seen members who have never been to an evening meeting.

As you say, we can compare our image quality with the others. Some cameras need better lighting than others but laptop cameras can be very good these days. Some people use headsets with a built-in microphone to avoid sound problems. I get on fine with the microphones built-in to the laptop but now know to put phone handsets and my mobile in another room to avoid disturbance of meetings. It has been a learning experience for us all.

Just after posting I had an email from a fellow society member who wants to arrange a Zoom meeting to demonstrate how to use a mobile card reader paired with a mobile router to take donations for a charity. His advice to those who have never used Zoom before is to use a tablet. I presume that this is because they have a built in camera and microphone. I may record the session for the benefit of those who miss the session.

Kevin says:
10 June 2022

Video conferencing works well unless there are contentious issues to discuss, when latency and other technical limitations make things worse. When I was involved in implementing such systems I tried to ensure that there was a “plain old telephone system” as backup. Luckily most venues had business quality conference phones, but modern smartphones would do a reasonable job I think, as long as a fallback contact number is provided along with the meeting details.

I often see news interviews via Internet video where the voice is breaking up and the interview cancelled, and presumably the central services at least are running with the highest quality network kit and high speed connections. Why they don’t simple revert to a still image and use a telephone is beyond me; BBC news seems particularly prone to such counter productive use of technology.

As for socialising over video, apart from specific organised activities, I think in a work/play context it’s likely to be more productive and healthier to chat in the meatverse over a pint or a meal, provided you can remember the brilliant solutions or convivial agreements made the night before. Trying to pass off a metaverse version of life as an alternative to physical interaction seems like the top of a slippery slope, especially given likely advances in technology, with things like realtime augmented avatars becoming commonly available.

Jackie Weaver showed the world how to deal with disruptive people meeting online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l17UIwAFOyk

I have observed a number of local authority on-line meetings on highways and environmental matters over the last two years but never seen any behaviour like that. Even outside the formal confines of a council chamber or committee room the participants have always been polite and courteous in discussion and respectful to the Chair.

There seems to have been something wrong with the training provided to the members of Handforth Parish Council and such contemptible conduct must have been offensive to local residents watching their elected councillors carry out their official business.

There were a few difficult scenes at some parish council meetings in Norfolk recently and at one of the district councils ; it does seem that parochial issues stir up very strong feelings on quite minor matters, albeit they probably are very important concerns for the villagers and deserve to be treated properly.

Yesterday evening a society that I’m a member of held an AGM, the first physical meeting I have attended since before Covid. It was very poorly attended with many of the usual attendees missing. Perhaps it should have been an online meeting as some of us had suggested.

I had a similar experience last Friday evening. The association lacked a quorum but proceeded anyway. The previous year’s on-line AGM attracted far more participants.

We had a similar problem last night. Under AOB I mentioned that our new website could accept donations and merchandise could now be bought online but the real benefit had been the number of new memberships purchased online. That raised the question of whether we were quorate. Thankfully there was nothing contentious and no changes in the committee. Last year our AGM was via Zoom and that was better attended.

A joint physical and online meeting would be the best of both worlds but I have no experience of these.

We can probably accept that individual online participants may be unable to attend as a result of having technical issues joining an online AGM. In fact, the chair would probably proceed with the meeting in ignorance of these individuals – how would they even know?

But I can see a constitutional problem arising if the physical meeting is unable to establish an online presence. Ignoring the location of the elected officers for a moment, what happens if the meeting is quorate without the physical members or vice versa? Does the meeting proceed? Are the resolutions made and passed at that meeting even valid?

I doubt that many constitutions have been written to deal with meetings held in the cloud. Perhaps that should be the first item of business whilst the technology is next behaving itself.

It’s certainly worth looking into these issues, Em.

The number of people who are unhappy about joining online meetings or don’t have a computer will continue to decline. Those of us who are confident can help them with the technology or even invite them round to join in at a meeting.

The society that I mentioned has people that have retained their membership after moving away from the area, even abroad. They do not join a physical AGM but could join one online. Those who have continued their membership despite moving away include those with the strongest interest in our aims and achievements. Covid has given us a lot to think about and I will suggest that we discuss how we hold the next AGM at our next committee meeting.