As the coronavirus pandemic hit, the government issued a fiat ordering a stringent lockdown. The roads and sidewalks were emptied, the shops shuttered, and the phalanx of police guarded the junctions from casual strolling and nonessential driving. The scheduled programs, seminars, meetings and appointments were indefinitely deferred. People went cloistered inside the four walls of their homes or the rented rooms, listening to radios, watching televisions or mindlessly scrolling the algorithms. The opportunity to spend free time with the family members, after a long time, evolved as a response to the fear of a death-dealing virus presumably spreading in the public sphere. The home, which was in constant interaction with the public, and where it drew its essence from, gradually showed how it could turn sour from sweet from the harshness of its own sheer domesticity. In contradistinction to an initial assumption that lockdown would free us from the unfree labor conditions of the public working places, and we would be able to pass time by a relentless and reckless exploration of our hobbies, we soon started to pine for the same old routines. The social media provided avenues and practically advised on how we should approach our hobbies, which books we should pore over, which movies we should watch, and what DIYs we should get our hands on. The middle class cyberspace displayed accordingly its exploits--exotic, elaborate vittles and crafts, as an unintended affront to the precariats who were on the verge of hunger. As philosopher Theodor Adorno defines boredom in Free Time as “the function of [social] life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under strict division of labor”, excitement flagged too soon, and boredom reigned in. The boredom, and the anxiety it brought, forced people to return back to the reified labor regime through computerized work-from-home mode, and to a compelling engagement in micro-discourses of the social networking sites with a fair degree of petulance and irascibility. Chaos, and the ineptitude of the authorities to take exact measures to curb the spread of the virus, spurred the gentrified protests of the urban youths whose age and vigor entails them to peregrinate over places pretty much like the virus itself. It seemed staying in and staying out of the houses for the longer periods were both menacing--only a delicately balanced shuttle between the two appeared to be salubrious. Objectively, the financialization of capital, and the neoliberal paradigm that can’t sustain savings for a few months, and is reluctant to provide “basic goods” during the crises even for the relief of indigent families, and subjectively, the associated aspiration of people to meet quantitatively set “productive” goals got disrupted by the lockdown. As days, weeks and months passed in the passivity of countless scrolls, we witnessed a surge in publicization of a form of face-to-face interaction in the social media--the zoom, first as an anodyne for boredom, and second as a compulsion for performance based work-plans.
Even though cognizant of the fact that there is cornucopia of video conferencing platforms on the internet, I first came to know about the specific brand and its service through the talk programs aired on YouTube, and saw how it sneaked into the individual private spaces of the guests, and diverged those images to the public. The zoom webinars, a portmanteau of web and seminar, soon became a vogue phrase of the professionals--sharing screenshots of combos in the social sites, and receiving applauds for the same. As the zoom screenshots grew profusely, I secretly wanted to get a role in one of those. Eventually, I participated in a handful of webinars with excitement until the point of time it seemed too trite.
I was first invited to zoom by a batch of senior sociologists to listen to a series of talks on the prefatory remarks on the effects of coronavirus pandemic. Sociologists, much like other academicians, are active in documenting social lives, churning out papers, and disseminating information through seminars as a ritual. Currently off from teaching duties, academicians must have felt nostalgic about the “real” seminars, and must have felt an urge to disseminate their “productive” works, from the research conducted from home, to their colleagues and the wider public through live telecasts on Facebook. As I opened the zoom for the very first time, it felt as if intruding in a Goffmanesque hall, reminiscent of the works of American sociologist Erving Goffman, where the participants precisely know how to coordinate a routine through a repertoire of behaviors. The men, all middle-aged, were greeting each other as if they were in a backstage of a seminar hall or during a recess until the clock struck when everybody toned down and silenced in ways to shift the ambiance to the front stage where only the formal talks are allowed. I had really put the room together, and had concealed the objects which were not allowed to the gaze of interlopers for a readiness to a situation if I had to open the video or accidentally did so. In quotidian seminars, academicians are generally called into a podium composite of table, pen, notepad and microphone where they give thoughts and give off expressions to the audience who are close to each other but socially distanced from the speaker. The metaphysical hierarchy is duly maintained. In zoom, however, participants are physically distanced, in the real sense, that they can even get a chance to get closer in a single frame. While the structure and props of regular seminars are institutionally fashioned, one has to cautiously “suppress” the pointless facts, and adjust the computer in a way that participants can see the professorial front of one’s space in an optimized angle, a rack of books, for example. It was of late that I came to know that zoom can obliterate your room altogether, and provide artificial backgrounds so that a person of certain status can feign one’s room according to the status and hobby--hackneyed bookrack concocted to a pair of oil-paintings or a guitar. Prior to knowing this specific feature, I was astonished by one participant who was going live from a pebbly seashore as the other sat in a baroque room. I don’t understand the degree of gratification one receives from these altered, synthetic backgrounds, but the technology has genuinely assisted to sequester the offstage into a working frontstage. While it is merely a fib on the part of who feigns his or her background, it is redolent of the general direction of human nature toward the impression management.
The molecular details given off by the webinar participants, as they lecture on or listen to, specifically helps to glean information on the spaces which are often associated with traumas and anxieties, generally fenced off from the trait of confident forcefulness showcased in the public situations. Even though the entertaining but addictive social media has prompted public figures and academicians to post family photos and those of their fetishized possessions, as the camera zooms in, the face bulges out of the interior design and the architecture of the strictly private space. It is on the part of the audience to judge the aesthetics of a particular room whether it is spacious or crampy--to boast or regret is the duty of the speaker. The etiquettes and sartorial choices in the zoom webinars are either maintained as if the session had started at the midst of reading, writing or any of the “important” chores or as if one has been long preparing for the session which can be both casted as impressions projected toward the audience. Frustrating it may seem when the sound starts to crackle or the face goes blurry as the bandwidth decreases, a participant starts to talk on the phone or is summoned by a family member, calling forth a giggle or a shout.
In an academic system, everybody must be upbeat about the workings of the computer and information technology, and one should be able to process notes or prepare slides. As German philosopher Martin Heidegger states in “The Question Concerning Technology” that the “essence of technology is nothing technological”, the usage of the technology has been pragmatically employed in mundane scholarly activities far from being an end to itself. As the pandemic hit, the dependency to technology became more and more prominent and necessary for remote learning, for example. Technology, in broad, and the social sites, in particular, may have neutral features and objectives, yet they seem to strongly espouse, reinforce and circulate the unthought conservatism. One conspicuous example is of the manels of the web discussion series, where men boast of having specialized knowledge of a certain field, and end up passing the bromidic information. It is always the case for a discussion whenever its panel is homogenous, and the discussion is only more consequential if it incorporates diverse lived experiences and points of view. But, the real devil lies in the details--the social structure comes down to the molecular interactions -- micropolitics --of the social spaces. Academicians generally eschew the interactions altogether, and focus outwardly on the themes and structures which are themselves the consolidations of the interactions with which they themselves get involved. It is worth contemplating on the micro (mis)behaviors and conversational (dis)orders --littered with gaffes, aggressions, inequities--that gives keys to our social structure to which zoom becomes a rich ethnographic field.