Column As we struggle wearily towards the beginning of the end of the pandemic, we can take stock of what we as a species and as a society have learned.
We all have our own revelations. Mine have been that as a freelance tech writer, lockdown and total freedom are indistinguishable; that it's a mug's game struggling home with bottles of supermarket plonk when nice young men will bring crates of the superior stuff to my door; and that there are two entirely separate toilet paper industries. Who knew?
One epiphany unites us all, though, that one technology has promised a bright future and delivered an unrelenting hellscape. Videoconferencing must die. It must die today.
It finally hit me last week, with the same sense of total relief I got when CNN called Pennsylvania for Biden. Videoconferencing is a huge con that we can and should just shut down. It does no good, the industry has utterly disqualified itself from being taken seriously, nobody wanted it, nobody likes it, and nobody understands why they do it. And yet we do.
I blame science fiction. From the 1930s to the turn of the century, fictional spacepeople talking to each other over video screens was a cheap and a reliable marker of The Future. No matter that when the technology got close enough to actually do it, from the Bell PicturePhone of 1964 to the (Linux powered! Spectrum compatible!) Amstrad E3 Superphone of 2004 and the BT Videophone of 2007, the punters stayed away in droves.
The excuses each time was that the quality was too poor – which it was – and the services too expensive – which they were. Bell dropped half a billion 1960s dollars on its system and tried to get it back with hundred-dollar monthly rentals and hundred-dollar phone calls for a flickery low-res black and white image. Yeah. Nope.
Those excuses no longer hold. The cheapest laptop can do HD internet video calling at full frame rates for free. The pandemic has pushed business with its meeting addiction and education with its face-to-face lecture model online, and as a result videoconferencing usage looks incredibly healthy, with most of us spending many hours a week staring at each other's badly lit two-dimensional faces, wondering if our hangovers are obvious.
The experience of getting it going can be infinitely worse. VC software is dire, there's far too much of it, and it's undercooked to the point that salmonella breeds in the binaries. My epiphany of revulsion happened when I had to configure two new services in as many days to talk to two new companies, and neither worked properly.
This experience never goes away, because there are so many to choose from. You'll know Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, Skype, Facetime. You may know BlueJeans, WebEx, Jitsi, and Chime, and you may include things like WhatsApp. But how about Houseparty, Yeecall, Big Blue Button, Face Flow, Talky, Nexmo, imo, Whereby, Tox, Linkello, and Airtime? Even gamers' favourite Twitch has a video-calling feature on its desktop app. This isn't an exhaustive list.
They are, as far as makes any sense, mutually incompatible. They all want to install apps, some want registration, some have in-browser options of indifferent quality, all have different UIs, and all are impossible to diagnose when they go wrong because how do you even do that by yourself?
There are so many bad VC services because of corporate ego. No self-respecting big tech company can bear the thought of its users spending time in someone else's service – the Apple Maps syndrome – and yet because there's no money in VC the bare minimum of development time is put in. And because the whole point isn't to provide a useful, pleasant service but to lock the marks into an ecosystem, interoperability is verboten. I can phone any phone on the planet and just talk. Imagine that with VC.
And the reason that there's been no real drive to interoperability is that there's no actual market there. Nobody wants to use this stuff. It's dehumanising. You can't maintain eye contact like humans do, you can't pick your nose like humans do. Just talk to each other and be free, man. Voice only leaves your brain free to think instead of processing broken visual social cues. It really is a better experience if you switch off the cam.
The only justification for video on a conference call is so that people can raise their hands to speak – you know, like being a seven-year-old needing to pee during maths. That could be replaced by an on-screen button, and already is on some platforms. Sharing documents, screens, all that stuff – sure, but none of that needs to cut back to Yoshi from Seattle's gurning mug.
Comrades, revolt. Just say no. If you can't say no, then do what my pals do – say there's not enough bandwidth and you need the camera off for good audio quality. Or that your camera's broken. Or that you're getting this weird error message. Or you mistakenly denied permissions one time to bar the camera and now you can't turn it back on.
Freedom is ours for the taking. You get the picture – or, rather, you don't. ®