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MCN Insights blog series. When Museums Embrace Zoom Our Brains Suffer

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By David Nuñez, Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at the MIT Museum and MCN Board member since 2019. He publishes a weekly newsletter about emerging technologies and our cyborganic relationship with computation.

Hero Image (Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash)
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I’ll just say it. Zoom has been a miracle for museums this past year. It is also an inherently dehumanizing interface.

We have turned to video conferencing systems like Zoom to continue meeting with our colleagues, convene conferences, and deliver online programming to audiences. It is helping us connect with other people despite our unprecedented separation. We are finding poetic ways to tell our stories through live video streams. Museums have used it to increase online programming availability to new audiences, whether they are asking for it or not.

Impossibly, we are doing this despite a field-wide decimation of digital engagement teams. We truly live in extraordinary times. 

As museum professionals, I think we should be critical of whether or not live webinars are an appropriate channel for programming. There are strategic conversations to be had about resourcing and developing digital capabilities across the organization to support this activity. We should debate about the opportunity of monetization and the merits of optimizing content for discovery. We must address how people are burning out by generating extreme quantities of new content with severely limited resources. I also believe we are squarely in the trough of disappointment for the promises of live webinars.

For the remainder of this post, however, I’m going to assume that museums will continue to explore live video streams as part of their offering, even after we fully reopen museums. We’ve “shown that it can be done,” and Pandora’s box is wide open.

If that’s the case, we must concern ourselves with the human-computer interface of video chat programs. As a technological tool during a pandemic, there is no doubt that Zoom has been a godsend. At the same time, video conferences are doing battle with our brains, one pixelated, choppy stream at a time.

Note: I’m going to use “Zoom” as a shorthand for the genre of computer-mediated communication tools involving two-way, live video streaming. The issues I raise persist across all of the most popular platforms.

“Can everyone see my screen?”

During MCN 2020 Virtual, I would simultaneously “attend” a keynote talk and a work meeting in side-by-side windows. I watched panel sessions on the same screen where I have intimate conversations with my family. This same display also delivers a constant stream of civil unrest and death by a virus.

The boundaries are so fluid, and the pixels morph instantly between professional and personal. The very notion of trying to maintain work-life balance seems Sisyphean. It’s hard for me to pay attention to your curator’s webinar when cities explode in real-time on my Twitter feed in the next browser tab. 

In the first few months of the pandemic lockdowns, daily Zoom users grew from 10 to 300 million. Seemingly all at once, and in a panic, we had to figure out how to talk to each other through webcams. We’ve all seen the memes

In graduate school at MIT, I studied how we frequently misinterpret the world around us as we commune with technology. We cannot make sense of what we see in a Zoom window compared to the realities we can see through actual windows. Now that we’re spending so much time interacting with each other via galleries of pixels, everything seems fuzzy and off-balanced. I call this The Global Derealization.

Our brains simply can’t cope. Zoom fatigue is a genuine phenomenon. For example, audio delays of just a few hundred milliseconds make us feel negatively about each other, and without environmental cues, these pauses make conversational turn-taking quite tricky. It tires us out. Of course, when we talk over each other on Zoom, the audio stream turns into white noise or gets dominated by a single voice. Zoom won’t let us interject with the “uh-huhs” and “hmmms” that let our colleagues know we are picking up what they are laying down. Even the most hilarious of jokes fall flat when everyone else is on mute, and there is no laughter. Only digital silence and contorted faces remain. Nightmares.

We don’t enjoy each other as much when we only exist as pixels on a screen. Functional MRI data indicate that our brains’ reward centers are more activated in face-to-face communication than video screens. We feel much less connected even when we try to communicate with close friends in a video chat.

We use eye contact and numerous other channels like body language and pheromones to establish social communication with others in physical space. Our brains are continually observing and analyzing social dynamics and cues when in conversations with others. For example, you know when you’ve lost someone’s attention when their eyes wander, and if you are skilled at reading signals, you might adjust your speaking pattern in response.

However, maintaining eye contact is strange and difficult to achieve using video conference software. Zoom meetings are incompatible with human entrainment because when you look into a colleague’s eyes, there is no biological feedback. Neither of you modulates your behavior. They have no idea if you are gazing or just checking email, which is fatiguing at a neurological level. Broken communication channels make navigating cultural differences in these behaviors even more difficult as we now take for granted how easy it is to connect with audiences everywhere around the world.

“Oh! What’s that in your background?”

New signals become available through this technology, as well. We’re starting to learn them. I can tell by the reflection on your glasses that you’re not paying attention. From what I can see of your body position, I think you splurged on a fancy standing desk. All the Zoom cues are emerging and they reveal so much more than we expected.

We have unprecedented access to each other’s personal space. You quickly start to discover who among your team enjoys the privilege of a spare room to dedicate for use as a home office. Those riding out the pandemic in comfortable vacation cabins with strong WiFi are demonstrating they might have a different financial situation than teammates navigating COVID-19 meetings on their kitchen table among a house full of roommates

To add levity to our performance, we show off our cats and iguanas like props, almost as if to prove we still know how to touch another living being. Maybe it’s also to prove we are still alive, ourselves.

Why is it always the “museum person” in the couple that takes calls on the living room couch with their kids on their lap? Why does the partner with the “fancier” (i.e., better paid) job get to have the home office with a closed door and a more uninterrupted day?

While Zoom offers virtual backgrounds to give privacy, not all computers have the horsepower to enable this feature, signaling inequities. High-speed internet is not a given for every member of our teams, much less our audiences. We all have that colleague who may as well remain silent in meetings because their audio is always so choppy.

Have you had meetings with people you know who spent a lot of time and money crafting their backgrounds and upgrading their camera and microphone? They command your attention because we have been trained over the past decades to appreciate high levels of production value when watching media. Everyone judges the artwork and books you choose as part of your set design. 

When we hold job interviews online, how unbiased can we be when a candidate just has a better lighting setup than another? Expensive cameras are unfair advantages, and we are all suddenly YouTubers, whether we like it or not. We have a lot of catching up to do, at any rate. 

In 2021, cinematography and audio production became critical skills for basic digital literacy. 

“I think you’re on mute.”

Zoom has a long way to go before we can claim it makes museums acceptably accessible. For instance, live webinars are an impossibility to the vast majority of our planet who lack sufficient high-speed internet connectivity. Ignoring this perpetuates the fiction that increased online engagement effort automatically makes our museum more accessible to all.

While transcription services and interpretation features are helping, people with hearing or vision differences have to make adaptations to participate in live video chats, and often the teams designing streaming programs are not applying universal design. There is no minimum accessibility standard for Zoom calls. Neurodiverse individuals who already have difficulty parsing non-verbal social cues find Zoom disorienting and even alienating. People with ADHD might struggle with Zoom and the increased requirements for focus. Many refuse to turn on the chat windows and do not participate in the backchannels because trying to make sense of a screen full of faces is already overwhelming enough. Anyone using a screen reader to participate in a call will be inundated by off-topic asides from the chat window in the same audio stream as the main conversation. Humans are terrible multitaskers, and these running rivers of text are a recipe for increased cognitive fatigue.

“This meeting ID is not valid. Please check and try again.”

I’m ashamed to admit that Zoom is bringing out some of my worst instincts, also. If I’m not alone on this, please let me know so I can give myself a break.

For example, sometimes, when a colleague is presenting something, I’ll mute them and then turn on a podcast to see if their shared screen somehow matches up with the alternate audio. It’s a small, private delight when everything syncs up.

I catch myself often sending and receiving snarky direct messages to some of my colleagues in response to what’s going on in a meeting. The jabs are probably sharper because they are committed to writing, however ephemeral or not. Every now and then I break into a cold sweat, thinking I posted a private comment in a public forum. Then I terrify myself more, remembering all of this ugliness lives on in perpetuity in a hackable server somewhere. The backchat is unprofessional and unkind, and I’d be a better human being if I didn’t engage in this sniping. 

I justify my behavior, though, because I just assume others are probably doing the same to me. I feel a little less lonely when I can confide in teammates in this way. It’s as if we’re sharing a private conspiracy against the inhumane way we are operating these days.

Power dynamics get scrambled by a Zoom window. In a gallery view, when every person on your team takes up the same number of pixels, who is in charge? The host can silence anyone with a mouse click. I often wish they would exercise that option more often.

I’ll hover my mouse over the red “Leave” button during especially tough days and wonder if anyone will notice if I click. Then I click, regardless.

I don’t have the option to directly and professionally practice radical honesty with people behind a closed office door anymore. Confrontation happens only online. It’s weird when you’re talking one-on-one with someone about difficult topics while you’re both in your own homes. Boundaries are too fluid. We see each other’s faces, but it’s impossible to connect. So things continue to fester. 

Without daily, regular non-verbal contact, I can’t keep a running temperature check on how my colleagues feel or what they’re thinking. Zoom chats are a pale imitation of heart-to-heart conversation or a walk to the coffee shop to catch up and hash things out.

It makes me sad I’ll not be able to shake hands with colleagues to say, “My mistake. I’m sorry,” anymore.

Zoom can never invent a button for “It’s all going to be ok” when a teammate and friend is crying on my computer screen because they have reached their limits during this shutdown.

“Hey everyone, I’m sorry I have to hop off the call now. Keep talking, and I’ll catch up later.”

As a museum technologist with “digital” in my job title, I think part of my responsibility is to advocate for healthy and appropriate technology use. Zoom is a powerful communications tool for museums, but now that the novelty has worn off, let’s get a little more intentional about what the technology is doing to us and the audiences we serve. 

In my next post, I’ll suggest a series of practical steps we can take individually and collectively to help mitigate some of the issues with video conference technologies. I will also propose a speculative interface for increasing communicative bandwidth in video chats. 


Tell us your reactions to this first post in our MCN Insight blog series. You can contribute your thoughts on the MCN #general Slack channel. Email us at [email protected] to be invited to MCN Slack.