My 92-year-old sister phoned me the other day and said, “I just had a lovely Zoom with my family.” What? This sweet old lady (sheíll be mad at me for calling her that) has joined the new craze that threatens to cast hugs and kisses into the shadows of history. Zoom is replacing human interaction and I donít like it.
Like most, if not all, of you, Iíve been house-bound for months trying to dodge the nasty Coronavirus. This doesnít mean Iíve been out of touch with my friends in the peace community, but actually I have been out of “touch” with them. This is the paradox with Zoom. I see my friends, but I canít hug them. I see the members of my far-flung family on Zoom calls, but I canít hug them either.
I had never heard of Zoom until the world closed in around me last March when the pandemic struck. Suddenly, my computer started giving me invitations to attend “webinars.” For the uninitiated, a webinar is a seminar conducted over the Internet. Thatís where Zoom comes in. I had always thought zoom meant something that travels fast. It turns out that Zoom is an electronic product that facilitates visual panel discussions composed of people in far-flung destinations around the world. The audience participates by just listening and watching the presenters, or can even be brought into the production to ask questions or otherwise interact with the panelists.
The age of Zoom has revolutionized conferences, at least the old idea that you travelled to a conference to hear distinguished speakers and mingle with old and new friends over coffee and lunch to bat around the ideas you had just heard and try to absorb them. Now the conference comes to your study or living room, or wherever you work at your computer, and you sit alone staring at the screen as a speakerís face appears, to be followed by another and another. The energy you feel from being in a packed room with others visibly responding to a good speakerís linkage to the audience is totally missing.
Why do people go to concerts when they could sit at home and listen to the same music on records? Because the concert provides an experience, a melding of the artist with the listener, and in the high moments they become one. So too, we go to lectures or seminars or conferences to physically experience the community action and reaction. We do that because we are social animals with beating hearts that respond to the movement of a group, not robots automatically following commands.
We need each other to learn. Thatís why we have classrooms. Should we now close up all the schools and universities because we can sit with headphones on listening to a teacher speaking into the camera? Just as children need to play together, adults also need the stimulation that comes from physical contact with our peers. I need to smile at new acquaintances, hug my friends, and look right back into the eyes of the instructor to receive the total communication I yearn for. But now I have Zoom, and I am lonely in my study.
I think that Zoom will profoundly change the peace community and I am uncertain if this change will be for good or bad.
Everyone recognizes that because of the physical distancing and other precautions necessary to avoid contracting the coronavirus, we have to stay apart, so Zoom meetings and conferences in these circumstances are understandable.
Thereís even a novelty to it. Zoom is an expedient answer to the inability to travel to conferences. But what about when the pandemic recedes and a vaccine has established sufficient immunity that the old ways of carefree travel open up again?
Already, people in the peace community have realized there are great savings in personal budgets by not traveling. No hassle in airports, no sleeping in strange beds, no jet lag. Just stay at home and turn on the Zoom and you get the conference without rising from your chair. Will the financial appeal of a new way of communicating ideas outweigh the loss of personal connection?
As I look back on my own life, I know how important physical interchanges with some of the great figures in the peace movement were in my development. Jo Rotblat, a heroic peace leader and one of the founders of the Pugwash movement, took me under his wing and personally gave me the confidence to start speaking out; I walked the hallways of conferences with the unyielding Bill Epstein, who needled me into taking stronger actions; I formed a close friendship with the indomitable Murray Thomson, who never stopped badgering me to do more for peace.
These were not figures I watched on the screen. They were flesh-and-blood people who animated me and with whom I laughed and cried, rejoiced and grieved in our common struggle to drive sanity into the political processes.
In the peace movement, we need each other, to shore each other up. I donít know about you, but in my immediate circle of friends in my home city, thereís hardly anyone I can have an in-depth discussion with on the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the background to the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Everyone wants to talk about how bad President Trump is, but very few think about the factors that make up common security and why we need to keep pressing the government to adopt a human security agenda.
People in the peace community are constantly struggling with the minutiae that go into policymaking, and when we talk with one another we donít have to go back and explain what has brought about the current modernization of nuclear weapons. We “talk forward” when we are together, not “catch-up.” We energize each other and are strengthened by each encounter at conferences and seminars. Besides, itís a lot of fun being with compatible people. When a Zoom conference ends, I sit alone and reach for a book.
I have no doubt that I am guilty here of old-school thinking. I am resisting modern technology. I am failing to see that groups can produce outstanding panels of speakers at minimal cost compared to the old days when we had to fly in speakers and also pay their hotel costs. I suppose all this is true.
But just to show you that I am not a hopeless retrograde, I turned to a rising star in the peace community for her opinion on the value and future of Zoom. Kehkashan Basu is a 20-year-old Youth Ambassador of the World Future Council and the founder president of the Green Hope Foundation, a youth-led global social innovation group working on sustainable development education. She has led many Zoom webinars featuring prominent speakers from around the world.
One time, she asked me to be a panelist. I asked her what is so great about Zoom. She said, “Itís a great web-conferencing tool that allows me to connect with people globally.” She sees great value in bringing together expert voices that could not otherwise be assembled because of distance and cost. Then she added: “I think that Zoom webinars will continue to play a prominent role in the post-pandemic era. It would help bridge geographical boundaries and reduce the need for unnecessary†travel.”
Iím willing to give Kehkashan the last word. Sheís the voice of the future. I represent the past. But I still miss getting strength from hugs from my friends in the peace community.
Douglas Roche is a former senator and former Canadian ambassador for disarmament.