In A Pandemic, ALL Calls Are Screened

The science fiction novels, TV shows and movies that populated my youth got a lot wrong about what life would be like in the future we’re experiencing today. No functional jetpacks, food is still not delivered in pellet form, and a car with a flux capacitor has yet to be invented to allow me to enrich my current self by traveling back in time to clue in my younger self about all the upcoming Super Bowl winning teams.

But one advancement sci-fi undoubtedly deserves credit for accurately predicting is the proliferation of video conferencing. Admittedly, almost all of the video calls in sci-fi took place between the bridges of various spaceships, typically in order for an alien villain to alert our heroes of their impending destruction and to gloat over his superior intelligence.

I never entirely understood the purpose of these video conference calls in space. I mean, why would an otherwise no doubt extremely busy intergalactic villain bother going to the trouble of video calling a ship he’s about to blow up? I guess it just goes to show that, despite all the technological advancements we make in the future, we never quite overcome the universal urge to schedule pointless meetings.

These days, thanks to the coronavirus, many of us have had to adapt to working at home and conducting meetings exclusively via video calls. One of the few future-based shows I remember where video conferencing played a role in the workplace was The Jetsons. And frankly, those of us who watched this show might have been wary of work-based video conferencing, seeing as how the technology seemed to be used just so the boss, Mr. Spacely, could scream at his underling, George Jetson. If George ever participated in more mundane video conference calls, like a department-wide meeting to discuss rolling out Spacely Sprockets’ new accounting software, I never saw those episodes.

What’s That Behind You?

Another area of video conferencing that science fiction didn’t anticipate is the unexpected, uninvited guest coming into frame — typically a significant other wandering by in a bathrobe or maybe a pet looking to let everyone else on the call know that it’s lunchtime. Remember when Korea politics expert Dr. Robert Kelly was delivering a live video report for the BBC, and his two-year-old daughter Marion entered the room, confidently marching into the background, followed immediately by Kelly’s frantic wife, who did her best to appear invisible while performing a high-speed commando crawl to retrieve the child? No doubt the couple were mortified, but hey, the resulting video went viral, and thanks to Marion, a far wider audience became aware of the increasingly precarious political situation on the Korean peninsula.

On the other end of the wholesomeness spectrum, there’s what we might term the “Toobin problem.” That’s one issue the science fiction community never tackled, at least not in any of the movies I was allowed to watch as a kid. (As you no doubt recall, celebrity legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin lost his job at the New Yorker Magazine after engaging in an act of personal gratification during a video call that his superiors deemed “wholly inappropriate” and the rest of us deemed “hilarious.”) Toobin’s firing should remind us all that while employers appreciate when staffers working from home demonstrate enthusiasm, there are limits.

What Jeffrey Toobin’s ill-advised extra-curricular activity also points out is that video conferencing remains a young technology and we’re still working out the, um, kinks, if you will. But if science fiction is our guide, there’s hope we will soon figure things out to make sure these calls always go smoothly. I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall a single Star Trek where a villainous character issued threats on a dimly lit, improperly framed video call or had to be told, “Um, you need to unmute yourself, Commander Zarkon.”

It’s Getting Better All The Time

In fact, we’ve already improved on what our predicted video call future would look like. We’ve got breakout rooms, screen sharing and my personal favorite, the blurred background (which is available on Google Hangouts but not Zoom, for some reason). Not only does a blurred background save you from potentially embarrassing “Zoom bombs,” but it also helps set expectations by letting everyone else on the call know that, “Hey, this meeting is important, but not so important that I’m going to clean up the dirty underwear hanging out of the laundry hamper behind me.”

Possibly even better than the blurred background feature is the capacity to blur the FOREground. Not to completely obscure our faces, mind you, but just to smooth out the lines and mute some of the edges. Zoom describes this as the “Touch up my appearance” feature and I’m all for it. This pandemic has taken enough of a toll on all of us — the least we can ask for from our video calls is the same kind of favorable, soft-focus glow TV interview shows routinely give to aging actresses.

But overall, we should be thankful that video conferencing has allowed so many of us to keep working during this very difficult time. And honestly, it’s been so effective that faced with the prospect of a post-pandemic return to the hassles, stress and other costs associated with commuting to office jobs, we may just tell our employers that we don’t wanna go back and we’re not gonna go back.

Not until we get those jetpacks we were promised, anyway.