Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians are sometimes associated with the view that cameras can steal the soul. It is the sort of view that we in the supposedly more advanced and enlightened West scoff at, thinking it a primitive superstition. But it’s not. Cameras really can steal the soul.
My evidence is anecdotal. But among the friends that I speak to during this bleak time, one subject keeps on coming up, again and again: the soul-sucking nature of video conferencing. As many as 300 million users worldwide now communicate with each other using Zoom, and other video platforms are catching up fast. We use it not just for meetings, but for everything from socially distanced dinner parties to church services. It’s is the software through which we make business deals, go to school, say goodbye to our dying loved ones, and even — believe it or not — attend sex parties. Zoom is now the gatekeeper, the space between our separate, isolated lives.
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Now Zoom is having its problems with security. Is it vulnerable to foreign surveillance? Will uninvited participants come in and disrupt our meetings? My interest is not in such matters. I worry about its existential consequences. That this all-pervasive digital mediation is means of communication in which we lose something essential about ourselves.
In 1929, the Jewish Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote a seminal essay reflecting on the advent of mass culture. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he argues that the technological changes of modernity, and in particular the capacity to reproduce images, has a profound and transformative effect on how we understand art. For with mass reproducibility we begin to lose the idea that there is something special about the original work of art — its uniqueness, its “aura”. The original painting of the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre has a quality about it that its many representations, on posters and postcards, just do not have. Benjamin thinks that this special and unique quality the original artwork has is linked to the original use of art in cultic and religious festivals. One could even say that Benjamin was arguing that the camera steals the painting’s soul.
Benjamin’s essay was the reflection of a Marxist worried about the dehumanising effects of modernity and mass culture. I wonder what he would have made of Zoom? It is not too much of a stretch to extend the argument he used more than 90 years ago to our present concerns — not just the work of art, but also the human subject in the age of digital representation. For it is Benjamin’s essay that best captures for me the thing that Zoom takes away — our “aura”, our souls.
I think a word or two about the idea of the soul is necessary here. I do not mean it in the sense that it developed in the early Christian era, when some aspect of our personal identity was required to carry the essence of who we are into the heavenly kingdom, beyond death. I simply mean by the soul the thing that makes me… me. My essence, my individuality, the specific characteristic that picks me out as different in the world.
Philosophers have argued about what this ‘thing’ could possibly be ever since at least the fifth century BC when the comic playwright Epicharmus described how a debtor tried to wriggle out of his obligation to repay a loan by arguing that because so much of him had changed since he took it out, he was not the same person and so could not be reasonably expected to repay something that was effectively taken out by someone else.
So too with justice. If there is no thing that makes me me, how can I be punished for a murder I committed 20 years ago when I was, so to speak, a totally different person? The soul may be a fiction, but it is a fiction that underpins some of the very basic features of our common life. These days philosophers are much more likely to speak of our physical continuity in space and time as the carriers of our identity. Our bodies have become our souls, so to speak.
I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of the philosophy of personal identity. But I do just want to disabuse those who presume that the very use of the word soul commits someone to a Christian-type world view. I use it as a useful shorthand for what makes me me and you you. Our distinctiveness.
With many of the people I meet over video conferencing, especially in a business context, I don’t care too much about their fundamental distinctiveness. Our relationship is transactional and instrumental. We want to get some sort of deal done. I don’t need to know how they smell or the funny, distinctive way that they stir your coffee. I have no need of their “aura”. But if I am trying to communicate, say, with my wife after a period of absence, Zoom is incredibly frustrating. I want to touch, to hold, to inhabit the same space. I want the original, not the digital copy. And indeed, if Benjamin is correct, even if the technology gets so advanced that we will be able to experience the touch of another at a distance and mediated through technology, that still wouldn’t be enough.
Zoom does many weird things. The other day I sat in a meeting with people sitting in the US and Jerusalem. The space we commonly inhabited, the Zoom space, was not a physical space. It was a space that is not a space. There is both a curious intimacy to the face-to-face encounter, but also a sense that something is not quite right.
Zoom enables a rather bloodless kind of meeting. Not only do we carefully curate ourselves to the other — now even concerned about the books we have on the shelf behind us — but the whole experience seems stage managed in such a way as to make impossible many of the traditional ways that we use to get to know each other. For example, getting to know someone partly involves my presence disrupting the careful self-presentation of the other, and their presence disrupting mine. Never before have I appreciated quite how essential the interruption is to mutual acquaintance. On video calls all this is flattened out.
With Zoom you can travel the world and meet important people, not only without leaving your study but without even having to put on your trousers. In other words the social obligations of sharing a common physical space no longer apply. And, to me, that makes for something profoundly disquieting. Different rules apply to the public and the private realms. Zoom collapses them, plays with them. And I worry that no good can come of this.
There is something religious about this sense of disquiet, as there was to Benjamin’s idea that mechanical reproduction dissipates the aura. Over the lockdown period I have been celebrating the Eucharist for my congregation in front of a Zoom camera. In such a context only I am able to receive the bread and the wine that has been transformed into the body and blood of Christ — and this is a real privation for many of my congregants. How about if we get some bread and wine and place it near the screen, some have asked: can you consecrate it over Zoom? And the answer of the church is clearly no — it doesn’t work like that. And this is not because “the magic” doesn’t carry over Zoom. Consecration is all about real presence. It requires the physical connection of shared space. Incarnation, so to speak. Indeed, Zoom is the magic that is being distrusted here.
Video conferencing is an extremely useful tool of human communication. And it has become a lifeline to many in these times of isolation. But it is precisely because it is so important that we must also worry about it, for we can all too easily allow our agendas in life to be set by the limitations of our tools. As Abraham Maslow famously said in 1966: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” And the tool du jour is Zoom.
It is not easy to express my anxiety about this new tool, and what it is doing to us. But I feel there is something subtly dehumanising about it. Perhaps that’s why Zoom is so draining, why it makes us so tired using it. It’s like a voodoo doll. We pay the price for our global connections with something that is slowly sucking away at our souls.