The Problem Isn’t Zoom Fatigue — It’s Mourning Life as We Knew It

There’s an unspoken sadness whenever we join a video call

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Like so many families, mine is trying to keep things together during the pandemic by scheduling Zoom time. We Zoom to celebrate birthdays and holidays, catch up, and pass the time by playing games and solving puzzles. This is the new normal of socially distancing together.

Unfortunately, I’ve started experiencing what’s come to be known as “Zoom burnout,” or sheer exhaustion after so many video chats. Don’t get me wrong: A locked-down world without video calls would be significantly worse — more socially isolating and economically devastating. But this doesn’t change the fact that telepresence is contributing to my overall weariness, and maybe yours, too.

People are struggling to politely opt out, to honor their feelings of burnout without upsetting the people they care about. After all, it’s hard to say you’re unavailable and can’t make an online appearance during a quarantine.

What makes the situation especially fraught is that we’ve accepted the wrong explanation of the problem. The issue isn’t just about technological mediation — all the differences between a video call and in-person communication. Our “burnout” is largely due to the depressing thoughts the pandemic brings to mind during every online conversation that substitutes for one we’d prefer to have in person. Thoughts that are palpable even when we dare not speak them aloud. Thoughts that trigger a desire to use physically expressive emotional labor to reassure others and ourselves during these anxious moments.

Every video call to someone you wish you could see in person but can’t is a memento mori of a world that’s been shattered and can’t be revived.

I don’t want to downplay the impact of the technology. Because the medium is the message, the technologies we use to communicate can matter as much as what we’re saying. Glitchy calls where images freeze and the audio stops are taxing. But even when stability isn’t an issue and folks don’t have to repeat themselves, video calls can still wear us out.

During face-to-face conversations, you can see yourself only obliquely and catch fleeting glances at body parts, like arms and legs. But when you’re talking online, you can see an image of your own face staring back at you. Becoming simultaneously subject and object can make you more self-conscious. That’s an energy drain, especially if you’re monitoring how engaged you appear. Video chats also can leave you stuck in a single physical position, unable to comfortably break out into side conversations, and visually overwhelmed with strained eyes if you’re using gallery view to take in a group. And let’s face it, the proliferation of video chats is piling on more screen time to our hyper-screened lives, which can leave us with the feeling that we’re managing our social lives like regimented workplace meetings.

The thing is that if we focus too much on technical issues, we’ll be tempted to make a big mistake. We’ll look for superficial life hacks (like trying to space out calls, hide yourself on Zoom so you don’t have to see your own face, and take breaks to move around) to fix an existential situation that tinkering can’t remedy. A root cause of our collective tiredness is the painful awareness that life can’t go back to normal. Every video call to someone you wish you could see in person but can’t is a memento mori of a world that’s been shattered and can’t be revived — a symbol of tragic deaths and shattered hopes and dreams. It’s only natural to want to be your best self during these moments. To be so damned present and empathetic it hurts. It’s no wonder our better angels, which are what the situation calls for, are exhausted.

Prof. Philosophy at RIT. Latest book: “Re-Engineering Humanity.” Bylines everywhere.

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