The Douglas Rushkoff insight about the biases of technologies has stayed with me, bubbling in the back of my consciousness, since I first heard it, and it has come to a boil during Coronavirus and all of our sudden dependence on Zoom.
What is the bias of Zoom?
I don’t mean Zoom the company, although, as a tech start-up in a capitalist economy, Zoom Technologies surely is biased toward profit-making. I mean Zoom the interface. Or Skype. Or Google Hangouts. Or Facebook. Any synchronous multi-party video communication tool: what does it really want to do?
First and most importantly, Zoom is visual. It is not biased toward audio the way that a conference call is. It is biased in favor of sight. When participants disable their video, the Zoom session loses some of what it’s really good for.
Specifically, Zoom is biased toward sight of other people. It’s not a webinar platform, at least not the way most of us are using it. A webinar has a visual bias, too, but not necessarily a personal one; you’re meant to see the content on the screen, which can be slides or videos or a person. Zoom is for people.
Finally, on Zoom people talk to one another. They don’t simply listen to one presenter. So in addition to a personal, visual bias, Zoom is also biased for interaction. You can lecture with it, but that’s not what it’s really good for.
This clicked for me during a recent youth group session. I gave a really simple check-in prompt: tell us about a time when you weren’t ready. And then people told stories. It was fun and easy, and the vibe was authentically human and personal. It felt like the exact thing Zoom was invented to do, help people tell stories to each other.
Zoom has a range of capabilities that include screen and audio sharing, a whiteboard, and text chatting. As we design activities with it, however, it will help to be guided by an awareness of where the needs of our activity and the bias of Zoom overlap.