Did you find yourself, over these last fascinating and upsetting weeks, always on camera? Attending meetings and social gatherings, pitches and parties, over videoconference? Toasting into the void? I had to construct a little studio, building a tower of books and mounting lights on top to get the backdrop right. I hate the moment when you enter the call and it shows you all alone in your corner. In that instant I see only my lopsided jaw and splotchy nose, a meaty jug of disappointment, mirrored back at me. Then again it's the only face on hand. You can't order a new face on Amazon. You can't even get a new webcam; everything is sold out.
Way before video calls, I was a freelancer, in a one-room apartment. I worked at home with a modem that shared a line with my phone. My work relationships always focused on doing a thing: writing the code, writing the copy, launching the website. Even though it was transactional, work was often intensely social; you'd make a lot of friends chatting, often for hours, about what you were doing. You'd have meetings in the park. You'd find other freelancers through word of mouth and hang out at their kitchen tables. It was random and satisfying. But at a certain point you'd need a little shelter, and health insurance if you could get it. So off to interviews and, hopefully, into the office you would go. Less fun but more stable.
This new working from home is not like that. We have dozens of software-as-a-service tools managing our calendars, running our meetings, helping us manage our code. I have my choice of multiplexing video chat tools and pay to use them. On Tuesday I teach a class to 16 graduate students, most of whom I've never met outside a square on the screen. On Wednesday I go into a virtual town hall with 50 or 60 wee square faces looking back at me. I talk too much because I need to fill the air. The faces blur in a way that makes me feel ashamed. How can I pretend to know these postage-stamp people? There are buttons for raising your hand and buttons for applause.
It's awful. I'm too much at the center of my weird little world, alone with my thoughts and my USB microphone. And my calendar is full of these meetings. There's no time for long conversations that stabilize the mind, that allow you to perceive the world as others see it.
It's the simulation of work. Take video chat programs like Meet, Zoom, BlueJeans. These are meeting emulators. They attempt to copy and repeat the form of the meeting but don't capture the actual interactions. You can't read a room, take its temperature. Your little jokes fall flat. Your spine doesn't tingle when things are going well.
I love a real-life meeting. There, I said it. They're theater, and I'm a ham. You plan and prepare, you make a deck, you try to surprise. Meetings, well run, are alchemy; you can turn words and pictures into large checks or people agreeing to work for you, or convince a big company to do something it hates to do. An hour? Two hours? Stop crying. Lock me in a room for three days with a team of five strangers and a stack of sticky notes as high as your eye. Right now I'm 5,000 words into organizing a six-week seminar on knowledge management. I believe firmly in the principle of exhaustion: Once you see them start to collapse, that's your time to glow. Leave the room, splash some water on your face, and get back in there and win. You don't see meetings in terms of who won and lost? Why are you even going to meetings?
But now I'm trapped. I feel two-dimensional. I desperately need to break out of this simulation. After days of muting and unmuting, I go out searching for some software or pattern that will feel less fake—something to do, something to show. What I learn is that, of course, some people have solved this already.
I download a piece of software called OBS, which is an open-source video and audio mixer. It turns your computer into a little mixing room, except that instead of anchors and cameras and mixing boards, it's the different windows on your desktop, the game you're playing, webcams, video from a friend's webcam—it is software that turns digital things into sources of sound and light and lets you arrange them into scenes and fade between them.
You can shrink your head and put it into the bottom right corner. You can play a game or a video, or bring up your text editor and share that. You turn your whole digital reality into a TV show and then select your livestreaming service from a dropdown. Of course the dropdown options today seem to be mostly oriented around videogames or porn, Twitch streamer or cam girl.
I see other people discovering OBS. People download it and complain on Twitter about how it doesn't quite work. Out of the blue, the CEO of Shopify issues a $10,000 bounty for anyone who can make the “virtual camera” software that will link OBS (on a Mac) to Google Meet or Zoom. “I know a lot of people who need OBS now but to broadcast into video conferencing software like zoom/meet/teams,” he writes in a GitHub commit.
My cofounder, who truly loves a good uncomfortable moment, uses a website called Renderforest, and we start adding videos to meetings, overdramatic introductions and announcements of new projects, ridiculous vaporwave scenes, and images of animated people in a cityscape. An imaginary camera pans up and over to reveal, on our building, our logo. What's more ridiculous than purposefully awkward corporate fun? Someone online will take $100 to bring a llama to your video call. It's called Goat 2 Meeting. I am tempted.
We are all livestreamers now.
I start writing a tiny bit of custom software, in the evenings, since there's not much else to do besides bake bread and care for your own health and well-being, neither of which interests me too much. My software shows nice layer-cake diagrams, with components all in harmony and shades of blue. This is a story I usually tell with rectangles in a slide deck, but now, when you click on a component, words pop up, things change. The data is coming alive! You can poke around and show connections. I'm leaving the bottom right of this little app a blank white space, so that I can squeeze my face into it.
I have a lot of fantasies about how it will go. We'll be paging through some boring-ass Google Slides, and I'll say, Let me switch over to our Custom Platform Explorer, and my face will swoop down into the bottom right corner, and people will think, I've never seen this before. I must give this man my money so he can make me things. Our competitors will be using PowerPoint and Skype, like medieval peasants or big-company automatons. Whereas we'll be corporate Coppolas.
Stop thinking of an office as a meeting place. Think of an office as a cineplex, each conference room a theater of craft and discipline. In my fantasies the networks are always fast and the software never crashes.
I think my idea will become a component of much future software: the empty space where you put your face. Tune into my livestream, aka any meeting. Let me show you not just slides or ideas but the actual thing that is being made. Chat amongst yourselves. I welcome the back channel. If you miss the show, I've recorded it and it's transcribed in the enormous library of videos that will define our culture. Yes, that will be the future. We're headed that way. We're all going to be streams of live data, games and toys and windows. It's unavoidable. We should welcome it, in fact. Spend time, spend money, and make this happen. And then, after I think these very important thoughts, my spouse and I do our donations, and then we take our two children onto our little balcony, carrying pots and pans. It's 7 pm and time to cheer for health care workers and first responders, and to wave across the wide street to the neighbors, we who are real, and come from all around the world.
Photo Source: Getty Images
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.