Zoomed Out: why human contact matters

Many of us are not happy taking part in online meetings or online consulations with doctor or therapist. While accepting their necessity during the Covid lockdowns, and their usefulness in many cases, Zoom fatigue is yet another phrase to add to the dictionary of digital vocabulary.

In the longer term, we can agree that for some contexts such as business or other communications structured properly with a tight agenda, distance meetings have advantages: they save travel time, costs and are good for the environment. Formal meetings ideally would be strictly rational affairs, each participant following the long-established conventions of taking part. True, in many cases there are informal aspects of human involvement such as anger, irritation, sheer boredom. Sometime the ideal business structures of meetings fall apart as emotions take over.

Anyway, our concern here is with the suitability of online contact for mental and physical health treatment and support. Certainly while it was all that available it had much benefit. But there is an alarming tendency in some hot-eyed ‘digital health’ enthusiasts to promote it not as a necessary compromise but as the way forward to a bright new future. This vision can also include abolishing any form of contact at all. For instance, ‘smart’ devices can deliver and monitor our health and wellbeing. Little smiley faces can be programmed to pop up every half hour to remind us to ‘Be Happy!’.

Let’s consider the best case scenario in which you join an online one-to-one or group therapy/support session. How does this differ from being in the presence of real people?

Well, an obvious starting point is to agree that in a group Zoom session we lose an incredible amount of human contact and ways of taking part. In a group, for instance, we may see only head and shoulders with some participants maybe having disabled their video. Whose facial and other non-verbal reactions do we observe? Is anybody ‘looking’ at us? In a Zoom session can there ever be silence when nobody is talking? Are people who may be hesitant, shy, scared, confused, afraid to speak receiving encouragement and warm promoting from a facilitator or others?

It should be obvious that actual human engagement is of a much higher quality than murky two-dimensional representations. The vast majority of our actual communication occurs non-verbally. To achieve this quality, this communication, you need actual humans.

Unfortunately, the problem is related to a much deeper and growing issue. We are growing so used to reduce emotions to cartoon icons, to squeezing our identities into needle-thin, shrill social media interactions that we are in danger of losing our own and others’ incredible and unique richness.

To a very large extent this is all an evolution of a long history of turning ourselves and our feelings into things, quantities. How do you feel today on a scale of one to ten? What diagnostic box do you inhabit? What does your smartwatch show today about how many steps you’ve walked or what your oxygen saturation is in percentage?

Turning human beings into things, qualities into quantities, human misery into graphs and data, reducing the unique experienced distress of someone to a neat diagnosis. All this fits perfectly in a driven. 24/7 world of accelerated time where there is never time enough, never a place to rest, and for so many people never the chance of the most important things in life: slow, intimate personal relationships and the unlimited power of genuinely human interaction.

As said, the turning of our unique individuality into a thing rather than a person goes back a long way and is being hugely amplified by the impact of digital technology on culture. To end, here’s a poem from almost a hundred years ago by W.H. Auden:

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

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