On the tyranny of Zoom, knowledge policy, flamenco shoes, and touching somebody’s shoulder

What is wrong with a Zoom meeting?

Nothing. It’s perfect. A little bubble (or big, size doesn’t matter, marginal costs are zero, the more, the merrier), where you can convene and commune with each other in perfect harmony. Communication for all. Democracy enacted. Everyone can participate. Participatory turn. Erasing barriers, gaps, distances, divisions, frontiers and other hurdles. Zoomers of the world, united, forever and ever, amen.

It’s going to be great. As always. I repeat this to myself a few times, staring at my screen clock, waiting for it to change from .59 to .00, before I click on the link.

I don’t want to be there too early. It’s awkward.

Here we are. A bunch of little squares on the screen. By now I can place bets on who will be speaking when I get there. There are really only a few people who tend to speak in Zoom meetings. So it will be one of them. Zoom is a place where only one person can speak at a time. No little side conversations. No little exchanges of winks and smiles (if you wink or smile, you do so at everyone, which is idiotic, but very egalitarian). No buzz of small conversations around the room until the last second. One-person rule.

I arrive unnoticed. No creaking of doors, no rustling of clothes, no thud of the bag put down on the floor, no strengthening of the skirt. No need to calm my breath after running up some flights of stairs. No rustling of pages. I wear no perfume. I take no space. I have no body.

I AM no body.

The meeting officially starts. I realise to my horror that we are to discuss the document which I was going to read, but forgot (needless to say, I came here straight from another Zoom meeting). I bring the document up on my screen. It’s two hundred and thirty pages. It’s my research topic. I rummage in it through Ctrl+F, looking for the thing we are going to talk about. I feverishly read bits of sentences in Swedish, which don’t make any sense. Someone is making a presentation, but I cannot follow, and cannot relate to what they say, as I haven’t read the thing. I give up.

‘Now we will divide into groups’, says the moderator brightly.

My fingers tremble slightly. I feel the adrenaline levels go up, like water filling up a solitary confinement cell in which I am locked up.

There are two ways to be ‘divided’. Either you are assigned to a group by the host, or you choose one yourself. Either way, you are thrown into a dark tight airless chute which keeps rotating until it spits you out on the other side. You have no clue who you will end up talking to. And this is great. It is very democratic, a good way to reverse the tendency to form cliques. Everyone talks to everyone. New coalitions. New perspectives. We shake things up a bit. Get ourselves out of our comfort zones. You arrive prepared to jump straight into the subject. No shuffling of feet. No eye-contact with those in the group who you know, no cursory smile of recognition. No whispers on the side.

No touching of your shoulder by someone who knows you.

In this case however, I can choose the group myself. I choose it as fast as I possibly can. This time I want to be there first. I realise it’s not that fun, after all, to come into the conversation which had already started.

When I am spat out of the chute, adrenaline off the charts, I breathe out in great relief. There is only one person there yet, someone I had very briefly met before the iron curtain fell, but who I like a lot, because of the way she speaks. I have something to say to her, and I am prepared. She says: Hi, Tatiana – but as I smile and open my mouth, someone else appears in the room, someone who knows her for centuries, and who strikes up a conversation with her immediately, cracking a little joke. I close my mouth again and listen to their exchange. I retreat into the shade. I disintegrate. I dissolve.

When a few more people pop up (literally, it looks like pop-corn in a pan), the discussion ensues about the document. By then I am completely disengaged. I am trying to read some bits of it, listening at the same time to what they are saying. In the end, I am failing at both. I have some questions I want to ask. I don’t know if this is the place to ask them. I don’t know what the rules are. I cannot read the signs, I am disoriented, I am in a foreign terrain. Not everyone has read the document, but most have nevertheless things to say. Not everyone says something, though. There are one or two people who are silent. Like me. Do they care? Maybe they don’t. Or maybe they are, like me, bad at reading the signs.

As usual, when someone is speaking, ‘this-room-will-be-closed-in-59-seconds’ appears. I am relieved. This part of the meeting will be over in 58, 57, 56, and no-one can change that. The person speaking is interrupted in the middle of the word.

The airless chute, the main meeting again. The tyranny of Zoom.

In the evening I go to dance class. I love walking through the busy Odenplan and down Upplandsgatan, music in my headphones. I push the iron-and-glass door. I take off my boots and walk on the red carpet down, down, into the music, the splattered, inconsistent splish-splash of the beginners’ feet. I walk with my bare feet on the wooden floor. I put my bag on the floor with a thud. I unzip it. I take out my flamenco shoes and start warming up. The others arrive. We smile. They chat. I grab the tips of the shoe soles, and the polished nails hammered into them press against my fingers, hard, cold and smooth. I bend and stretch the shoes, to warm them, to soften their rough black leather. The beginners leave. ‘Har ni värmt upp?’, shouts the teacher. We put on the shoes. The straps have become soft, the holes in them starting to crumble a little. The shoes which once were like wooden now have shaped around my feet, become a little loose. I step onto the floor. The floor is like a drum. The front of the feet first (tack, tack, tack, tack), then the heels (klack, klack, klack, klack). It’s such a small movement, but it pushes the blood all around your body. Then golpe. Then zapatiado. Tiko-ta-ta-dam, clicko-tiko tam. All of us are reflected in the mirror. We all do the same thing, but differently. We sound like a drum. The teacher hears the slightest deviation in the rhythm. She says, I can hear something wrong here, and waves towards one end of the class. She walks over. She says, let’s hear. She gets us to do the footwork one by one. She ‘catches out’ the girl next to me and corrects her footwork. She gets me to do what she calls the ‘third Sevillanas turn’. I do it wrong. She corrects me. I do it over and over and over again, and she corrects me again and again. Every time I make a new mistake. My leg goes too high up, then too far out. The fringe of the shawl covers my face, because my arms are positioned wrongly. In the end the teacher is satisfied with me and stomps away, back to her position in front of the class.

I see myself in the mirror. I can hear my shoes against the floor. I am seen, I am heard. I have been put together. I have been restored to a physical existence. I am one with the landscape, the rolling, singing terrain under my feet.

As I stand there, I am trying to remember the morning’s Zoom. I can’t believe it happened. I can’t believe it mattered.

One of the people I interviewed for my study this year, Stefan Svallfors, wrote a book a few years ago which he called ‘The Knowledge Person: On Body, Collectivity and Knowledge Policy’ (my translation of Kunskapens manniska: Om kroppen, kollektivitet och kunskapspolitik). I wrote to him: ‘You must hear this a lot, how relevant your book has become’. He writes that scientific research is portrayed as the activity of the head, a head which is separate from the body, and an individual process. Our knowledge policy is designed according to this perception. In reality, we think with our whole bodies, and research is never a solitary activity, but an activity of a small group, a collective.

On the book cover there is a statue which I have fondly dubbed ‘stengubbe’, a ‘stone guy’: it’s a large stone cube on which a head is lying, detached, its eyes closed, on its lips a smile – sometimes I think beatific, sometimes a grimace of pain.

A few days ago, when I did my first presentation at the PhD day at the department, I showed that book cover and said, this is me. Because this is what it feels like to have done your first year of research training predominantly on Zoom, with a few very, very welcome exceptions for which I am infinitely grateful.

(Also because research training can be compared to sculpture, which I wrote about in my previous post here.)

And oh, how I’ve cherished those exceptions. A hike in the forest with a few more PhD students. A couple of sneaky lunches with another. A sneaky celebration of twenty years of the research school (we were forty on Zoom and six in the kitchen later). A coffee to catch up with someone who took a break from research. Some tête-à-têtes with my supervisors, their small IRL coffee cups always magically stretching over two and a half hours, like their Zoom coffee cups rarely do.

There is nothing wrong with Zoom, other than its insidiousness. It seems like such a great idea, until it takes its toll on you, and you don’t even know what hit you. Until you lose sleep and appetite. Until you shut down the camera and bury your head in your hands.

Some are more sensitive to its tyranny, perhaps, than others. Maybe the introverts, who need to stake out their place in non-verbal ways? Maybe the kinaesthetic learners? Maybe the ones with the artistic streak, who are suffocated when more than half of their senses are disengaged?

Maybe the ones who are trying to enter through a digital interface an unfamiliar, uneven terrain of a new collective, in which the others have their established places?

At our last meeting, I touched my supervisor’s shoulder, and she looked up at me, as if in surprise at this forgotten gesture, which once was so natural. I’d done it to others before, too, during the Zoom pandemic, and had always jumped back with apologies. But not this time. I barely noticed I did it. Perhaps I should have?

How have you experienced the life lived out predominantly in the digital universe? How has it affected your research/art/other practice?

2 thoughts on “On the tyranny of Zoom, knowledge policy, flamenco shoes, and touching somebody’s shoulder

  1. This is so well written and expressed. Thank you.
    I so recognise a lot of this. Indeed We are grateful for this technology and no doubt will have become so familiar with it that we will continue to use it even after this pandemic is over…
    We are discovering that there are huge advantages with zoom meetings as it enables people who normally don’t attend to be present because they don’t need to travel.
    As for me the zoom age has made me realise even more how I miss meeting people wile doing other things physically….cooking together, household work….garden work, building, painting, digging..and of course the arts, singing ( oh yes!) painting, drawing, making things….
    Rubbing shoulders together while doing stuff. Conversations while doing things together. Yes! Miss it so.
    Some of the best meetings happen in the unexpected moments.
    Zoomed out. Yet grateful.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much Elisabeth! I knew that you would resonate with this. Grateful for all the times I had a chance to ‘rub shoulders’ with you while cooking, painting, etc , and for the beautiful moments in your home. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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