Zoom and the lost art of interpretation

Lifestyle

Zoom and the lost art of interpretation

Online meetings have put paid to the richness of in-person conversation as everyone pussyfoots around each other

Janan Ganesh

The greatest of biographies, all 1,200 pages of it, is reducible to some quick flurries of dialogue. When the star of The Life of Samuel Johnson speaks unimpeded, you can almost picture James Boswell and the rest gazing thirstily at the alehouse taps. The experience for the reader is hardly less of a drag. It is when their jousting cross-talk starts that the myth of Georgian London, each tavern an intellectual smithy, becomes not just plausible, but alive.

Interruption, or at any rate the anticipation of it, is what keeps Johnson and his crew sharp. It is telling how many of his canonical lines (“You have desert enough in Scotland”) come in staccato exchanges.

My grievances with the world of online meetings are several and bitter. The sound is tinny. The hilarity of intruding pets and children has run its course as a comedic genre. The two-dimensional camera undersells the warp and weft of my hair. Of all the crimes of Zoom, though, much the worst is its chilling effect on interruption. To cut across someone is to risk that grim dance of confusion in which both parties talk simultaneously for a few seconds. It is the spoken equivalent of colliding pedestrians mirroring each other’s movements as they try to get past. Even the feigned obsequiousness (“No, you first, please”) is the same. And so we stay our tongues...

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