We all agree that meeting with people in the real world is better than videoconferencing with them. The evidence for that semi-bold statement is that once we’re all back in one physical conference room, we’re not going to start up a Zoom session to talk with the other people there.
Still, there are things I’ll miss about Zoom, starting with working from home. But our global Year of Zoom may have taught us some positive things about the pursuit of knowledge.
For example, typical real-world meetings are held in spaces purposefully kept agreeable to all, which almost always means they are at best bland. But in a virtual meeting, everyone selects the background they want to display. Some use their real background, others pick a background that says as much or as little about them as they want. Either way, your choice of a background says something about you.
How we’re thinking about knowledge
In fact, it even says something abouthow we’re thinking about knowledge these days. We used to think that knowledge was a result of rational thinking, and that rationality is the same for all of us. Some are better at it than others, of course, but rationality doesn’t change with a person’s character or quirks. Indeed, that’s a major reason we have searched for rational knowledge: It serves as a basis for decisions, independent of the interests of the individuals making those decisions.
But in choosing to disclose something, even a little, about one’s personality and interests—even though it’s kept literally in the background—people are acknowledging that personality and personhood matter to the discussion. The personalizing of the conversation doesn’t mean that people are saying that knowledge itself depends on one’s personality. Rather, it acknowledges that the discovery and development of knowledge does not happen solely on the universal, shared grounds of pure reason.
After all, we recognize these days that diversity helps the knowledge process come to new ideas and to steer away from old, bad ideas. But that diversity does not end with a diversity in backgrounds or standpoints. It goes all the way down to the diversity of personalities. Virtual backgrounds let us inhabit a shared space within our own distinct space.
In line with this is the fact that Zoom sessions not infrequently include a little child running into a room, requiring a participant to break off, engage with the child, and move them out of view and earshot. That’s a good reminder that there are some things more important than knowledge and certainly more urgent. Not to mention that seeing how a parent deals with a child can tell you something profound about the personality that parent is bringing to the discussion.
Democratization of views
There is also something democratizing about everyone being presented in the same size square, arranged in a non-hierarchical order, and without a visual designation (usually) of who is the leader. There is no front or back of the room and no seat specially reserved for the meeting’s manager. There are certainly times when a conversation can benefit from having a strong manager, but it’s often good to be in a space less susceptible to domination.
Some degree of domination is probably inevitable in any group conversation, and it can be appropriate when the knowledgebase is uneven. But when it correlates too strongly with traits irrelevant to the value of contributions to the discussion, then being made aware of it is a first step to holding more equitable conversations. Virtual conversations even have the infrastructure necessary to routinely produce reports on whether people of a particular race or gender are getting to speak. How the system determines the gender or races of the participants is not a straightforward question, however, but neither is interpreting the data it produces.
The development of knowledge
Thanks to group “back-channel” chats being a standard feature of virtual meeting software, we are now getting even more used to the idea that the pursuit of knowledge is digressive, that not all issues are of equal clarity or relevance to each individual, that some quick questions that may not be of interest to the entire group still may be important to a few attendees, that not everyone starts from the same place, and that discussions connect to other ideas and posts at unpredictable moments. The virtual meeting software that allows chats to be saved acknowledges that these ”digressions” can be important to the development of knowledge.
Group chats can also turn personal or funny, providing reminders that the pursuit of knowledge is not separate from the rest of our lives, and that that activity can be lively and entertaining. It’s good if exploring knowledge is fun.
Virtual meeting systems often have a “Record” button that allows the entire conversation to be shared. This can be both a valuable way to save and archive knowledge and simultaneously a reminder that observing knowledge development without having the opportunity to participate can feel not only frustrating but unnatural. Not to mention that merely watching an interesting discussion often makes that discussion not all that riveting after all— offering another reminder that knowledge development is something we do as full humans, not merely as knowing brains attached to speaking mouths.