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The world is chaos but my Zoom background is control-freak perfection

Nudge that potted plant a little to the left aaaaand… action!

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Take a good look at my junk. Nice, isn’t it? OK you can stop staring at it now. No, really, stop. Hey, my eyes are right here, pal.

Five minutes later, you are still leering at my junk and enviously comparing it with your own. How did I come to be so well-equipped, you wonder? Easy: it’s all in the arrangement.

I take great care in the placement of stuff lying about my office – why, what did you think I meant by "junk"? – so that it gives the right impression during video meets. Although retinal tracking tech lies beyond my reach for the moment, I feel quite sure that most people do what I do when a colleague speaks up during an online meeting: ignore what they’re saying and ogle the weird crap that’s visible behind them instead.

Before Covid, when WFH became an idle-fantasy-made-real for vast numbers of employees for their first time ever, nobody cared much about where they Skyped from. [Remember Skype? No? It was just a verb we used in the old days. It means Zoom.] Remote video calls would be made casually from all sorts of random places, such as client offices, spare meeting rooms, coffee shops, club bars, park benches… or most frequently from a wobbly stool.

Oh yes, the wobbly stool. You know the one: the shit wobbly stool at your trendy city centre coworking space. You’ll find it next to the broken coffee machine under the flickering light at the razor-sharp peeling Formica end of the breakfast bar. You wouldn’t choose to sit there, but nobody else in their right mind would and therefore it would be the only place available whenever you turned up. A bargain for £400/month, I say.

From the end of March 2020, however, people became obsessed with their backgrounds. It’s one thing to be in a coffee shop but an altogether more embarrassing thing to be webcammed in one’s own bedroom. Even if you dress in a suit for the meeting and don your finest Jon Snow tie, your colleagues’ eyes will be focused on the crumpled duvet and skidmarked shreds behind you.

And while the kitchen is often an ideal place to do some work – it is usually the best-lit room and its high, flat surfaces are more comfortable to work at than a coffee table – your remote colleagues will be transfixed by the skyscraper of dishes teetering in the sink behind your left shoulder. You assume they are leaning towards their computer screens to analyse the data in your shared project deck. What they’re actually doing is trying to guess which variants of two-week-old curry are fused onto your plates. By the time your meeting is over, you discover your team has been using the Chat window to organise a sweepstake on whether your curry leftovers might be removed more effectively by hydrochloric acid or a blow-torch.

So what happened was that some of us began fooling around with utilities for blurring the background or replacing it with a photo of somewhere tidier, bigger and better furnished. Pop-up green screens sold out at Amazon. These functions were eventually incorporated into the remote meeting software itself, of course, but they still look as cheap and fake as they did a year ago.

What we all wanted was a backdrop of bookshelves.

Suddenly everybody started taking calls and holding meetings while sitting directly in front of a monstrous set of shelves stacked with five lifetimes of books. You began to wonder whether everyone else apart from you, despite the lockdown, was remoting from their local library. Even colleagues who would never read a book unless it had a big hole through it and a drawing of a caterpillar on the front quickly acquired a full set of authoritative-looking bookshelves, hurriedly stocked by raiding the bargain bin at Abebooks. Billys sold out at Ikea. Dan fucking Brown’s Da Vinci Code sold out at charity shops.

Enough! Resist! Resist, I say!

The last thing I want is for anyone to see what’s in my bookshelves. It was bad enough when my children were infants that we had to hide the witchcraft tomes whenever the health visitor came round. I’m certainly not in the mood to censor my reading material now just in case someone on a Teams meeting doesn’t like my 1980s sexist sci-fi multi-volume manga boobathon.

Instead, I stage-manage. What can be seen over my shoulder on my webcam is precisely what I want you to see. It is a real room with real stuff in it, but it is entirely fake. You’ve seen Day For Night, right? Given a little thought, it is possible to control everything that others see.

OK… bring in the ambulance.

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I first picked up on this after attending a particularly long Google Meet. Getting slightly bored after the first three hours, I found myself trying to imagine what the rest of other attendees’ homes looked like, based on the bits I could see over their shoulders on their webcam. One person must have been in their kitchen judging by the ceramic tiles but they may equally have been streaming from their toilet. Another was surrounded by a veritable jungle of plants, looking as if they’d connected live from Jumanji.

Behind yet another attendee, sitting in a bookshelf-packed home office, I could see they’d left the door open, revealing a white corridor leading to a passage. For all I knew, these may have led to further white corridors and passages. Maybe it was a labyrinth of sorts, I daydreamed. Maybe all the other corridors were brilliant white too. Maybe Tom Baker was running down one of them at that very moment…

The lead presenter of the Meet was speaking to us in front of a beautiful, featureless background with some hi-tech presentation screen to one side and an impressive tower of foliage to the other. We assumed he was in a TV studio. Not at all, he confided: it was just his home office.

The trick, he said, was that we could only see one tidy corner of it. The other corner was piled high with the usual office stuff: an untidy desk covered in files, sticky notes and a stress ball; an overflowing box of tangled obsolete cables he doesn’t want to throw out "just in case"; and so on. The hi-tech screen we could see was just a cheap Dell display showing his presentation slides. The conifer was just a mature potted plant, unfeasibly mounted on a hydraulic arm to he could nudge it around with a finger to make space for other items as necessary.

A clean, featureless background plus movable props is definitely the way to go. If people are going to stare at what’s behind me, I may as well control what they’re thinking. This is why I have sleek black metal filing cabinets in my office: normal grey ones look shit on-camera. I am particularly proud of the large but nondistinct hi-tech light-absorbing dense black cuboid alongside them. Everything about it whispers mystery and doom. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

It’s a Rymans shredder.

When all this seems a bit much, I slot in a bass guitar that I bought just after graduating. I’m not sure I’ve even played it since just after graduating. But its presence achieves its desired effect: to give the impression that I’m not a grumpy, talentless self-absorbed arse with a heap of tangled obsolete cables at his feet.

Bring on the bass!

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He has promised himself that he will dig out his practice amp from the cellar at some point this summer and begin annoying his neighbours. This is because he has yet to discover any decent smartphone app alternatives to the real thing. Recommendations are welcome. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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