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Last week I attended a large, in-the-flesh work function for the first time in months. It came, as you would expect, with all the fripperies of a pandemic production. Restrictions on numbers, temperature checks, vats of sanitiser – what was life even like before them?  

And then there was the farcical dance of taking off masks and putting them back on between canapés and drinks; everyone trying to be polite and to do “the right thing”, but then forgetting etiquette mid-glass of bubbly, scrap of fabric abandoned to hang off an ear. You can only laugh at the awkwardness of our fumbling through this limbo-like land between normality and lockdown.  

In the middle of this IRL shindig, another funny thing happened: I met someone I’d been working with daily for months, for the first time in person. I could pick him out in the crowd – but suddenly there he was in 3D. His voice was familiar, his humour too, but said gent was taller than I’d expected, and his shoulders were broader. I could see all the lines of life on his face because it wasn’t screen-sized and, I noticed, he had great taste in shoes. He had a whole figure of body language and hand gestures! 

Honestly, it took me a few moments to adjust to his heft and height, and the vividness and colour that go with standing next to a person and being able to lean in and gossip during a speech.

As we exchanged this skinner, another thought flashed through my head: I am so over Zoom. If I never see that little blue camera icon, a meeting link and passcode again, it would be too soon.  

As a good friend said of this video vexation that has engulfed our world over the past 18 months: “Turn the cameras off!” It’s definitely not healthy, or in any way useful, and no substitute whatsoever, for a face-to-face meeting. Adding, as we plunged deeper into a collective conflab on the topic: “They’re like some ridiculous proof-of-life situation when the person’s voice will actually do just fine.” 

I agree – and not just because it means I can stay in my PJs and continue eating my breakfast while you talk. As time-saving as it can be to just jump on a video call instead of gathering, the “ease” of this virtual realm has people in a perpetual loop of gratuitous on-screen meetings and organising them. And a phone call, WhatsApp message (when, of course, it’s not down, as it was for much of Monday evening) or e-mail can be more productive and quicker than a stilted Zoom call where half the participants are on mute, and working on something else anyway.  

Think of this as 2021’s answer to CC-ing everyone in a mail. No, that conversation does not require either an on-screen meeting or inviting the entire city to log on.  

Plus, as another mate said of this digital mire of onscreen get-togethers: “I have never spent so much time staring at myself in my life.” For the vain and Instagram influencers, this might seem a boon, but for the rest of us, the continued glimpses of our verlepte hair and weird involuntary expressions are never going to be fun.

It might sound like a middle-class problem, but when you read this Guardian piece, you will realise the extent to which the constant view of our own faces, diminished in size, and from a funny angle, has affected us since Covid hit.  

As its author, Ashley Abramson, puts it: “Psychological studies have long correlated time spent in front of the mirror with increased insecurity.” In this case, however, experts reckon it’s more a case of looking into a funhouse mirror where your face is distorted. Abramson speaks of people buying skin products and even having cosmetic interventions and surgery to mitigate the “ugliness” they’ve unearthed on Zoom. It’s disquieting stuff.  

Video conferencing technology saved our arses in the early days of the pandemic and allowed businesses and teams to keep going. But now, as the world gets vaxxed, I look forward to a time when we’ll all switch off our screens and engage with each other in all the other ways we used to. And without worrying about wildly overexaggerated under-eye circles either.   

Buitendach is a contributing editor to the FM


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