My church, Crooked Creek Baptist Church, has announced its plans to resume in-person worship next month. My reaction was one of wordy rather than jubilation. That could easily have been an instinctive reaction based on what has been in the news about various congregations who persisted in holding in-person services, but that wasn’t the reason. This move is appropriate given where we are in the process of vaccination, and appropriate social distancing measures will be observed.
No, my reaction with a tinge of sadness and concern is due to the fact that my Sunday school class has grown and thrived on Zoom, and I am worried about several aspects of the prospect of losing them.
The main things I am really distressed about is that we have not only had better attendance from church members (understandable when you don’t have to get outside your home to be present), but new people joining us from as far away as California. If we just go back to whoever can drive to the church building for 9:30 am on a Sunday morning, we lose more than just those who are running late locally. New friends and conversation partners that we welcomed into our fellowship are suddenly cut off from us.
I am sure that we can do better, and that in the long run we will do better. The day will come when every room in any building that even occasionally hosts meetings will have a screen with a built in camera. It may not provide any other computer services (although it may – displaying information, library catalog, advertising, and who knows what else). It will simply mean that being physically present won’t determine whether one can be a full-fledged participant in a meeting.
We are not there yet. But we should be aiming there. It will not only transform our Sunday school classes but our other schools, our universities, our businesses, our families, and (to connect this with something that has been on our minds of late) our conferences.
Some may hear this and think immediately of 1984’s telescreens. The issue in Orwell’s novel is not the existence of such technology but its use by an authoritarian regime. We have seen the poignant irony in how fostering mistrust of one another and of “big government” in our radically different democratic society can get people to actively embrace and pursue tyranny. I cannot go along with the doublethink required to reject screens and cameras that would allow life-sized faces and voices to be invited into my classroom from elsewhere while we all carry tiny telescreens in our pockets that can do the same thing less efficiently and on a smaller scale—and be used to track us and spy on us more effectively than any devices fixed to walls could, should governments or corporations wish to do so.
It is perhaps related to the subject of this post that I had a nightmare recently about the first day of a new semester. It is one that many academics have had: not knowing where the classroom I have to teach in is, wandering hallways that are at once familiar and unfamiliar as it gets later and later and my panic grows. This time the dream had a couple of elements that stood out to me. One was that our department office suite had switched around who was in which offices, and everything in boxes. Another was that my phone turned out to be a GameBoy or something like that. I realized afterwards that the anxiety in the dream was centered on the fact that both the traditional and the modern tech-enhanced ways of finding a solution to my predicament had been closed off.
I think that is my biggest concern at the moment: in our rush to get back to the way things were, we may forget the fragility of our established ways of doing things that was exposed by the pandemic. We should not be rushing back to that. We should be rushing towards a future in which that fragility is mitigated by technology, tech that is not simply there to be discovered or dusted off in a crisis, but woven into the fabric of our societies and our daily lives.
Of related interest:
Larry Schiffman will be presented with a Festschrift, on Zoom, and as a result you can attend
There is a call for chapters for a volume Preparing Faculty for Technology Dependency in the Post-COVID-19 Era. There is an upcoming conference about open textbooks:
Also in the “sometimes Zoom is not enough” category, a professor at Temple University utilized a telepresence robot to enhance interaction with students.
The call for “Zoom-free Fridays” strikes me as misguided and unhelpful. That’s like proposing phone, email, and/or meeting-free Fridays. Having blocks of time without meetings or checking email are good, but I don’t know that a sabbath from Zoom would benefit anyone expect perhaps technophobes. What we do need are better versions of or alternatives to Zoom.
The man arrested for riding in the back of his Tesla with no one at the wheel was in the news again. Also about electric cars and what composer Hans Zimmer is contributing to their safety: