Candid Camera

Early on in the pandemic, various meeting leaders—whether Zoom or Teams—asked participants to put on their cameras.  The point was that, missing seeing other people at the office, the video feed was psychologically reassuring.  I get that.  I began working remotely before the pandemic broke out and I’m still reeling from being ahead of the curve for once in my life.  Does it always feel this giddy?  In any case, we’ve got to the point where many people simply do not put on their cameras, even in small meetings.  Since we are trained for diversity we know that some people simply don’t want us to know how they look on a certain day (or perhaps how cluttered their background is).  And that’s perfectly fine.  It does make me think how artificial work in the office is.

At least you could see this kind.

You put yourself together a certain way to be seen by other people.  In fact, we sometimes even put “dress codes” together for work.  I even had an employer once say dress was “business casual,” only wrinkles were unacceptable.  I don’t iron my clothes, so I guess that particular employer was warning not to let them sit in the clothes basket too long after taking them from the dryer (or clothes line).  In any case, now that we’ve come to realize we may not always look our best, we have an option to leave the camera off.  How many days commuting into the office did we feel this way but were given no choice?  Since leaving academia I’ve never had an office at work.  I was a midlife cubicle denizen.  I never liked the idea. Who looks their best after getting out of bed at 3:00 a.m.?

Being on view isn’t the same as working productively.  The pandemic has also taught us that going into the office is often not necessary at all.  If they supply the tech, which we’d need anyway, we will do our work without Big Brother watching over us all the time.  We’ve become, it seems to me, more humane.  Turning the camera off is a way of perhaps admitting I didn’t sleep well last night.  Or something’s really bothering me and I don’t feel like smiling falsely.  Or any number of other things that might put us in the place of wanting some space.  For once now we have it.  It is my hope that once things start to get “back to normal” that we will have learned some lessons.  We can treat people more like humans want to be treated and still contribute to the bottom line.  It’s amazing how much people will do if they’re treated like human beings rather than cogs in the capitalist machine.


Slacking Off

The other day someone on a committee on which I serve suggested we might eliminate the problem of buried emails by using Slack to communicate.  The problem, it seems to me, is that we have too many ways to communicate and yet lack the means to do so well.  For me email is indicative of the problem.  Email was devised—and I remember its beginnings well—as a means of swift communication.  The only real options before that were writing an actual letter (which I miss) or telephoning.  At that time you might have a cordless phone that you could carry from one room to another but you probably did not.  The phone was relegated to a place on a wall or table and, although I appreciate knowing things quickly, the fact is we got along in those days.  Junk mail was evident at a glance.  You sorted it and life went on.

Now email has taken over life.  I simply can’t keep up with it.  Some time ago Google offered a trifurcated email experience: primary, social, and promotional.  Their algorithms aren’t perfect (numbers seldom are) but I can often ignore large swaths of the promotional page.  That saves time.  Most of the social is dominated by people I don’t know wanting to connect on LinkedIn, or someone mentioning something I should pay attention to on Facebook.  Or perhaps something going on in the neighborhood on Nextdoor.  Primary deserves its name, but I can’t keep up with even that.  You see, I have a full-time job.  It largely consists of reading emails.  If I get a personal email in the morning, chances are it will be buried on the second page by the time the day’s out.  It may never been seen again.  I don’t need another new way to communicate.

The pandemic has introduced the new malady of Zoom exhaustion.  It isn’t unusual for my entire weekend to be taken up with Zoom.  If I don’t have a good part of a Saturday to sort my emails into files things I promised I’d do begin to slip.  I don’t see that email—the one that serves as a reminder to this addled brain of mine.  If I order something on Amazon I have to follow up on an email asking me to rate the service.  And then, if it’s not sold directly by Amazon, a vendor fishing for a compliment.  That after getting an email to confirm my order and another to tell me it’s been shipped.  No, please don’t subject me to Slack.  Or better yet, send me an email about it.  I’ll get to it eventually, as long as it stays on the first page.


Tomorrow’s Brainchild

The voice of one person is very small.  Even a guy like Donald Trump wouldn’t be the terrible threat to this nation that he is if nobody would pass on the nonsense he says.  I often think of this because internet personalities are always have to remind their fans to share their posts.  It’s a simple thing—click “share” and more people find out about something.  What if that something were free?  Isn’t something free worth sharing?  So tomorrow I’ll be participating in Virtual Voices Author Fair: A Day of Nonfiction Books, a small Zoom conference from one to five, to talk about Holy Horror.  Various readers over the years have asked if they can get a discounted copy—like most conferences this one will have a discount associated with it.  Stop by if you have the chance!

The variety of the books being discussed is pretty wide.  Topics will cover many of the areas for which the publisher McFarland is known: television, film, music, politics, the outdoors, and more.  A schedule may be found here.  For those of us who have been (or the lucky who still are) academics, the conference is a sacred cow that has largely been sacrificed to the pandemic.  Getting together with others to discuss ideas is important—the funny thing about ideas is that they often arise from talking with others.  For three years, for instance, the American Academy of Religion offered a session on monsters and monster theory.  That would never have happened if I hadn’t had a discussion with a friend and colleague who shared that interest.  If it’d been only me, it never would’ve transpired.  Sharing is important.

One of the things about generations is that mine (no longer the younger one), is still trying to wrap its collective head around this internet thing.  Now we feel like a bunch of avatars with no onboarding.  We don’t think in terms of clicking a share button.  We still feel like browsing is an individual thing.  They young people I know tend to think of the internet as a place for community.  It’s easier to find like-minded people there.  Unlike school (and often work) where you’re thrown together with people who may or may not share your interests, the web offers places where you can find others who share your interest.  If you’re interested in the kinds of things that you’ll find in the media, and if you have a few minutes tomorrow afternoon, feel free to stop by the Virtual Voices Author Fair.  If you land on their Facebook page, it’d be great if you’d click the share button.


Dreamland

I don’t keep a dream journal, but with my odd sleeping habits I’m thinking maybe I should.  You see, waking in the middle of a dream is a good way to remember it.  Often I bolt awake in the middle of the action.  Well, I assume it’s the middle of the action, but how would I know?  Dreams are that way.  Whether in the middle or at the end, I wake up able to remember them in some detail for a few hours.  I have noticed a pattern over the past several months.  Not surprisingly, the characters in my dream worlds know about the pandemic.  It often plays a role in the story.  I have yet to remember a dream where the people are wearing masks, however.  They sometimes talk about it, but never do it.

The subconscious is a slippery place.  Although psychologists are often fascinated by dreams, nobody can say for sure what they mean.  One class of dream that I often have on an annual basis is the AAR/SBL anxiety dream.  The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting has been a fixture throughout my professional life.  Usually I have a dream where I’ve forgotten something important for the conference, such as forgetting to stop in the exhibit hall to see the new books.  I recently had my annual conference anxiety dream.  This year the conference is virtual so I’m not actually going anywhere.  In the dream I did.  And nobody was wearing masks.  The dream, however, was mainly about keeping my boss happy.  That’s simple enough to understand.

Most years I get several blog posts out of the conference (which takes place in November).  The virtual conference has been postponed until after Thanksgiving, and lengthened out by over a week.  Accommodating all those papers (thousands of them) via Zoom must be a logistical nightmare.  Since editors go to these for meeting people, there’s no reason for me to sign up.  Instead, I’ll be right here in eastern Pennsylvania, huddled down waiting for the pandemic to be over.  I’ll be wearing a mask whenever I venture off my own property.  It is my hope that others might do the same.  I read of covid-weary people burning their masks, putting themselves at risk as the number of infections continue to rise.  In my subconscious mind I’m somewhere else.  Perhaps I can convince them to wear masks in my imaginary world.  After all, anything is possible in dreams.


Fire and Ice

Most people in our modern world consider a cooking device an important part of a household.  Many of us are also over-committed.  These two elements came together last week when our kitchen stove (“range,” I’m finding out, is the correct term) burned out.  We could tell when we bought our house two years ago that the previous owners had likely not replaced any appliances.  The refrigerator died our first year.  Now, in our second, the stove—excuse me, range—went.  Given that it’s turned cooler around here, a good hot meal in the evening has been a welcome relief, but with no stove how do you cook it?  This happened on a Tuesday.  My wife and I compared calendars.  The closest evening we could both get out to look for replacements was Friday.  Of course, once you shell out the money you also have to wait for delivery and installation.  It looked like at least a week without home-cooked food.  Grocery shopping, of course, had been on Monday.

It occurred to me how utterly dependent we are on our big appliances.  The refrigerator died just before a holiday weekend in pre-covid days, so we were on our way out of town when it happened.  A lot of food had to be wasted.  It took about four days before a new one could be delivered, and we had to cut short our trip to be here in time for the installers.  Food.  Unless you’re living on granola bars and trail mix you need to keep it cold or keep it hot.  Our ranges and refrigerators do the heavy lifting for us.  Our ancestors stuck things in the cellar to keep cool and chopped wood to keep what is properly called a “stove” hot in the kitchen.  It was pretty much a full-time job just to survive.  Now nightly Zoom meetings make any interruption of online connectivity difficult.

Weekends, given the circumstances, are gems.  They are the only time we can get things done.  Days are eaten up by ever-expanding work by people desperate to keep their jobs in a tanking economy.  Supply chains, interrupted by the virus, meant that a delivery of a new range would only happen in January.  Going without food until the new year steered us toward a DIY appliance repair solution.  I never thought I’d be sticking my head in an oven, but here I was, with a new part ordered from Amazon and the confidence of the friendly people on YouTube telling me I could do it.  Taking days instead of months, we were cooking again by Sunday, and I just might’ve learned something along the way.


Upgraded at Last

Those who pay close attention to labels may have noticed the tag “Neo-Luddism” appended to some of my blog posts.  Luddites were nineteenth-century protestors against machines because, their thinking went, machines denied people jobs.  I’m not fully in line with this way of thinking, of course, but I do occasionally point out the ironies of how our technological life has become, well, life.  Tech seems to have taken over life itself and some people really like that.  Others of us miss the outdoors and even the “free time” we used to have indoors.  Our computers, phones, iPads, left behind and maybe a physical book cracked open—this seems a dream at times.  I really do enjoy our connected life, for the most part.  It makes this blog possible, for instance.  What I object to is being forced to upgrade.  That should be a decision I make, not one thrust upon me.

Which cloud is it?

This is just one small instance of what I’m talking about: my laptop wants an update.  It has for a couple of months now.  Since it’s in rather constant use I can only devote the time to it on the weekends and the past four weekends have all been used up with other things, including two that had over eight hours of Zoom meetings scheduled.  Now, you see, the update isn’t just a matter of simply updating.  You need to clear space off your computer first.  I like to keep my files and the tech companies want to pressure me into keeping them on “the cloud” so they can charge me for the privilege of accessing the things I created.  Instead I back them up on terabyte drives, sorting as I go.  Photos, formerly iPhotos, take seven or eight clicks to upload and delete for each and every set.  If you snap a lot of pix that translates to hours of time.  It also means when I want to access my files I have to remember where I put the terabyte drive, and then connect it to the computer.  At least I know where my files are.

But do I?  If I were to crack open the drive would I have any means of locating what, on my laptop, looks like memories of family, friends, and places I’ve been?  Are they real at all?  If you’re sympathetic to this existential crisis created by the tech world in which we live, you might understand, in some measure Neo-Luddism.  Of course memory is available for purchase and it will surely last you at least until the next upgrade.


Zoom Game

Perhaps you’ve notice it too.  The technology blame-game, I mean.  Although it’s grown more acute since the pandemic, it has been around for as long as the tech disparity has existed.  A typical scenario goes like this: someone (often of a more senior generation) encounters a techical problem communicating with someone else (often of a more recent generation) and asks them what the problem is with their (the younger person’s technology).  I sent you the message, the narrative goes, there must be something wrong with your tech if you didn’t receive it.  Believe me, I understand how bewildering this can be.  We’ve sold seniors (one of which I am rapidly becoming) on the idea that this little device in your hand can do anything.  When it doesn’t work, it must be somebody else’s fault.  The young, however, often have the latest tech and fastest speeds and broadest bandwidth, so the problem is probably on the sending end.

I run into this quite a bit since I run a small program for some local folks that involves weekly Zoom meetings.  I’m no Zoom maven.  My wife trained me in it and I can do passably well at running a meeting.  Many of those older than me, however, often have problems.  They wonder what is wrong with my broadcasting rather than their receiving.  I’m not sure how to say ever so gently that we pay (through the nose) for high-speed connectivity.  We have to since I work from home as a matter of course.  Now my wife also works from home and the two of us use our bandwidth all day long with multiple simultaneous meetings without any issues.  The tech here seems good.  We have no way of checking the tech on the end of those who are having connectivity issues.

I’m not setting myself up as any kind of tech prophet.  If you read my blog you know that I am deeply ambivalent about this whole thing.  I’ve been thinking a lot about overpromising recently and I wonder if that’s not a major part of the problem.  Technology will not solve all of our problems.  The fact that you need a regular source of electricity for it to run shows its inherent weakness.  It is a tool like any other, and if the tool is bladed to be useful it must have a dull part onto which one might hold.  Our Zoom society is bound to have issues.  Once we can see each other face-to-face again, all we’ll have to worry about is whether the laptop will communicate with the projector, or if the microphone is on the fritz this morning.  So it always has been.


Time Slip

Perhaps you’ve noticed it too, or perhaps it’s just something those of us in the strange world between Mac and PC see.  A couple of months ago I noticed something strange: the time clock on my work computer (PC) differed from that on the various Mac devices scattered about the house.  The difference was about a minute, possibly a bit less than that.  PC, symbolically, was running behind Mac time.  Now, I have no idea where either platform gets its data regarding what time it is.  I do know that I never have to set clocks anymore, and that the traditional clocks in the house all have trouble keeping up with electronic time.  Still, it is odd that time signatures that had, for many years been the same are now off by a number of seconds.

Time is a mystery.  We know it’s passing and many of us looked up suddenly a few days ago and said “How did it get to be August?”  A summer without vacations, without the usual markers, has silently and sickly slipped by.  We’re all waiting for something undefined, and time has begun to slip.  The phrase always makes me think of “The Time Warp,” and that may be more appropriate than I realize.  We live by the clock.  My jeremiad—surely not mine alone—is that I never have enough time.  The pandemic and its endless Zoom meetings have taken much of what had been a quiet, if time-stressed, life and made it a very busy time-starved life.  Meanwhile HR measures your loyalty by the hour and minute and many of us therefore overcompensate.  “Time,” Morpheus says, “is always against us.”

So you can see why I’m concerned about that missing minute.  There’s a question as to who owns it, but still, it’s another busy moment to slip into a life with barely enough time as it is.  If I perchance glance at my phone during work hours I notice the discrepancy.  Can we not agree about what time it is?  Businesses, of course, like the more conservative PC image.  Many creative types prefer the freedom and ease of use of Macs, particularly those of us who learned the computer world on one.  And since conservatives drive with a foot on the brakes it does make me wonder if they’re slowing down time or Apple is speeding it up.  The end result is the same—we don’t know what time it is anymore.  A deeply divided society can’t even agree on that, it seems.


In the Clouds

So I’m looking for a photo.  An electronic one, of course.  And since my camera, or phone, or whatever it is, automatically names them for the benefits of machines, I don’t know what it’s called.  When I want to search for it I have to scroll and scan through hundreds of images.  It’s the price we pay for letting technology run things.  Okay, so it’s made life easier; I’m down with that.  Still, I would like to know where my info is.  I learned to find files by navigating to them, something computers taught me how to do.  But computers move things around while we sleep.   

Now that Covid-19 has moved in to stay, we all use meeting software to stay in touch.  Most of us use Zoom so businesses naturally prefer Microsoft Teams.  I don’t know the details of Teams so I watch a video tutorial.  The Microsoft official (well-paid enough to dress casual) is explaining that you can attach things in Teams, something that we’ve all had to learn how to do in email school.  He says that those sharing in your chat don’t know where the actual document is.  “Who needs to know?” (I’m paraphrasing here), he says.  “Nobody needs to know where it is.”  This is my fear—my personal files need to be where I can find them, not on some sleepy server halfway around the world.  Just the other day the internet went out here.  Just for a little while, but those were panicked minutes nonetheless.  I don’t want my files bumping around in a cloud when I need to know how to navigate to them.  What if the server goes down right when I need them?   I don’t trust clouds.  Zeus raped Io in the form of a cloud, remember.

Bordone, Zeus and Io; a picture I did find!

I’d feel better about all this if those of us pen-and-paper types were involved in the discussion.  Nothing says “ephemera” like documents made of electrons.  Maybe I need to spend more time with religions of east Asia where the idea of lack of permanence is key.  Knowing where to find important things, however, has been a hallmark of Euro-American thought.  And if your very own personal documents are being kept where you don’t even need to know where, how can you sleep at night?  Some of us are kept awake still wondering where that thing we can find since we’ve moved might be.  I get the spooky feeling that technology is training us.  For what nobody can guess.  As for me, I’ll get in line once I find that photo that I didn’t even name.


Up the Downgrade

My computer’s been telling me that it wants to upgrade.  In fact, when I first bought this laptop several years ago, and started it up the first time right out of the box, a message popped up that a system update was available.  The tech business, you see, never really sells you a computer.  They’re working on it constantly, often at the same time I’m trying to use it.  In any case, the reason I haven’t upgraded has been that I need to clear off space on my hard drive.  Each upgrade requires more and more of the limited space I have, so my work has to be shoved off onto external drives that I stack like bricks in my attic.  And that takes time.

This wasn’t a problem with my pre-internet computers.  You bought them to do PowerPoint for work and word processing for publications.  Said publications were printed out and sent via mail to publishers.  Just typing that makes me feel old.  The fact was, however, you could get by on those computers without any upgrades at all.  The system that came with it was sufficient for the life of the machine.  Once you get connected to the internet, though, you have to keep up.  I often run into websites on my work laptop, which doesn’t have the latest system, that simply don’t work.  If they’re going to upgrade, I have to upgrade, and to upgrade I have to discard stuff I want to keep.  Every day I get the red warning signal—computer is hungry but can’t be fed until I start throwing my hard work away.  Or at least putting it where it will take extra effort to get it back.

Also, how are you supposed to find the time for upgrades when you use your computer constantly?  A typical download and install takes over an hour.  If we’re so wired, when are we possibly going to find the time for that?  And I still haven’t cleared enough space on my hard drive.  My external drive’s getting too full.  I guess it’s impossible to keep everyone happy.  In the midst of all this I squeeze in some time to use my laptop for that which I actually bought it—to do my research and writing and, during the pandemic, to buy the necessities of life.  And if I don’t upgrade Zoom’s going to stop working because it’s upgrading too.  I need to buy a computer that does nothing but upgrade itself.  That might be the solution.  That, or going back to good old-fashioned pen and paper.


WHO Believes?

These days it’s pretty clear that if you want to listen to anyone for advice it shouldn’t be the government.  I suppose that’s why I spend so much time on the World Health Organization’s page.  I’m no medical person and I certainly don’t understand epidemiology.  Contagion I get, because religion operates that way.  So WHO has been making somewhat frequent references to faith.  A recent status report noted that 84% of the world’s population reckons itself as religious and that many coronavirus outbreaks have taken place because of continued religious gatherings.  To that I suspect they’ll need to add political rallies supporting governments you shouldn’t trust, but what is such blind faith in leaders who don’t know what they’re doing if not religion?  People want to believe.

Religious gatherings also provide crucial support.  The community with which I associate has been using Zoom gatherings since mid-March.  It’s not perfect, of course, but during our virtual coffee hour I’ve been put in breakout rooms with people I don’t know.  I’m starting to get to know people I might be too shy to speak with in “real life.”  More than that, I’m asking myself what real life really is.  Technology has been pushing us in this direction for some time.  We relate virtually rather than physically.  I’ve never met many of the people with whom I have some of my most significant exchanges.  The internet, in other words, has an ecclesiastical element to it.  The words “church” and “synagogue” both go back to roots meaning “to gather.”  Faith, despite the stylites, is not lived alone.

WHO suggests that since religious leaders influence millions of people, if they would turn their message to prevention it could have a tremendous human benefit.  Consider how one man’s personal crusade in the mid-nineteenth century led to elections being decided on the basis of abortion alone.  If faith leaders were to take the good of humankind to heart and spread that message, it could well outstrip the virus.  Alas, but politics interferes.  Many religions also want to determine how people live.  There’s power in that.  We’ve seen it time and again with televangelists.  WHO has faith that these leaders might set aside their scriptures for a moment and read situation reports based in science and rationality.  WHO apparently has faith as well.  Until someone smarter than politicians sorts all of this out we’re probably safest meeting virtually.  Who knows—perhaps there are hidden benefits to that as well?