My Own Little House of Mirrors

One of the strange things about Zoom calls is that you can literally see yourself as part of the conversation. It’s the digital equivalent of speaking in the third person all of the time. It’s also like walking through a house of mirrors. You are always part of the image, the path, the narrative — whether you wish to be or not.

Charles Deluvio, April, 2020

For most of these video calls, all of the participants are lined up on the screen in a Brady bunch fashion, each of us occupying our own little image boxes. And just like the Brady Bunch, we are all supposed to be equal parts of the overall image on the screen. The assumption then, is that we all train our eyes on the speaker, especially since the speaker’s box will light up to indicate who has the digital floor. But what do we do instead? We watch ourselves!

This cannot be healthy.

“Know thyself”. That’s the advice from Socrates’. And during these long months of isolation, I’ve been doing just that — I couldn’t help it. I was staring at myself on the screen several hours a day. And at this point, 18 months in, I’m going to be honest with you… I’m pretty sick of it. Whether it’s me, myself, or I — I’m always there. It’s as if every time I have a meeting, conversation, or visit with anyone at all, there is a mirror behind the other person which causes me to stare at the image of myself.

Is it unnatural to have to stare at ourselves all the time, or is it just me?

Maybe Oscar Wilde Was Onto Something

Recent studies show that staring at yourself in a mirror for a prolonged period of time can produce strange results. As reported in the Scientific World Journal, “In normal observers, gazing at one’s own face in the mirror for a few minutes, at a low illumination level, produces the apparition of strange faces. Observers see distortions of their own faces, but they often see hallucinations like monsters, archetypical faces, faces of relatives and deceased, and animals”.

While this study, done in 2014, utilized a mirror instead of Zoom, it’s not hard to see the correlation. One could even argue that Zoom could produce a more powerful response than just staring into a mirror in low light. Maybe Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote the Picture of Dorian Gray. There’s something to be said about staring at a portrait of yourself, and watching it shift and change in front of your very eyes.

Now, I have to admit that I have not yet seen any monsters, deceased relatives, or aged versions of myself on Zoom calls. However, there is one more damaging aspect of constantly staring at our own image while on these calls.

According to Dr. Julie Ancis, professor and inaugural director of cyberpsychology at New Jersey Institute of Technology, “Consciously seeing our image, in a way, takes us out of the flow because it makes us disconnected from the other person and also from the task. What does this mean? Perhaps that Zoom calls are not always going to be a substitute for face to face interaction. The medium can cultivate too much self consciousness, and this in turn, can get in the way of the human connection, the task at hand, as well as simple person-to-person communication and interaction.”

Let’s Talk About the Uncanny Valley

Simon Maisch, March, 2020

It reminds me of this concept called the “uncanny valley”. Have you heard of it? It’s a sort of hypothetical relation between something that resembles a human being versus the emotional response we might have to that thing.

In layman’s terms, it’s that feeling of looking at a wax figure at Madame Tussauds and feeling a strange eeriness or revulsion toward the statues. They look too real, too accurate, but just slightly off enough to make us feel wary. Will they jump out at us? Will they try to shake my hand? I don’t know, but I don’t want to stick around and find out.

So, whether it’s disorienting, or hampering our ability to make normal, person-to-person conversation, there is something to be said about not being on a screen all day long.

Touch Grass

The pandemic forced us to change our habits, our ways of working, and our ways of communicating on a daily basis. And don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful to have had access to a tool as powerful and versatile as Zoom. It’s helped me keep my life and my work going during these times. Imagine during the Spanish Flu when they didn’t have the internet, plastics, modern medicine; they were just on the heels of a World War, just trying to survive. How much easier would a tool like Zoom have made things for them back then?

Even so, just as we had to change our habits after March 2020, we should also consider changing our habits to accommodate the possibility of a post-pandemic world in our near future. The internet even has a joke about it. When others have clearly spent too much time on the internet, getting lost in memes and conspiracy theories, they’ll tell you to go outside and “touch grass”. And the kids are right: when you’ve spent too much time online, thinking, introspecting…all you need to do is go outside…touch grass.

Ready for a New World

So, how am I preparing? For starters, I’m putting on shoes and socks. I am moving away from the creature comforts of my home office, the digital meet-and-greets all over the world. While yes, it may be a jungle out there, “there” is also where real people live; where my own face (and thus, a constant nagging feeling to introspect) don’t lurk in the background, like competing reflections in a house of mirrors.

Most of us have been in a house of mirrors at least once before. It’s good fun to walk through a mirror maze — to find yourself disoriented. For just a few moments, the lines between reality and illusion are blurred. Which way is up, down, back, out? And all the while, you can see the reflection of yourself, caught in the middle. I wonder…if you couldn’t actually see YOURSELF in those mirrors, would it be so scary? Probably not. In a house of mirrors, you ARE terror, contextualized — and the maze you pass through is just the scene of the crime. That’s how they cultivate anxiety within you. Is it another shadowy figure, lurking to grab you from the corner? Or is it just you, scaring yourself? They say we fear what we do not know. Well, in a place like that, they add one more layer on top of that — the idea that the scariest thing of all can be yourself.

Robby McCullough, April, 2019

In any case, I’m ready to leave the house of mirrors. I’m ready to step away from myself; to put on a better grade t-shirt, tie my shoes, and to step out, blinking into the crisp fall light.

So, let’s make a prediction, shall we? “Live and in-person” will be cool again, and soon. Virtual meetings, events, and functions, will be “so 2021”. After 18 months of forced introspection, haven’t we seen just about enough of ourselves for the time being?

I, for one, can’t wait. I would love to see your wonderful face in person, to chat, to look at someone else other than me, to think about things from your perspective, instead of my own. And in any case, you are so much better looking than me! But I am more charming. Or, is it the other way around? See! I am soooo disoriented.

Curious about other writings of mine? You can find all my thoughts, musings, and words of “wisdom” on my website. https://www.stringtheorybyraybrimble.com/

Finding connectivity in all things. Our world is interesting, unusual, and full of unexpected people and stories. https://www.stringtheorybyraybrimble.com