Zoom Into The Future

Bell Labs Picturephone was the darling of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It was going to change the world. Fair goers waited hours in line at the AT&T exhibit to spend 15 minutes in a booth talking and actually seeing the person they were talking to in Disneyland in California doing the same thing. The Picturephone was going to replace old fashioned technology where you could only talk.

That idea actually sat there for four decades until apps like FaceTime, Skype, and Go-To-Meeting surfaced to make video calls and conferences a reality. But, really, it remained a novelty, used sporadically in business conferences and occasional conversations. Interestingly, it was old school communications that really took off — the silent typing of messages back and forth to others. Texting was more of a nod to Samuel Morse’s telegraph going back to pre-Lincoln days.

But now, to narrow the distance in “social distancing,” the Zoom app may be the holy grail for those who dreamed about digital face-to-digital-face communications becoming commonplace.

You’d never know it from the company’s own definition of what it does. Zoom “provides videotelephony through a cloud-based peer-to-peer software platform.”

But peers, I’m telling you that this could be the post-coronavirus game changer.

It’s not because it’s an easy technology to use and relatively inexpensive, which it is, nor that so many people are Zooming, which they are. But, that we’re discovering that real time video adds a surprising, important human connection we didn’t realize was missing from voice-only phone calls and certainly, text. And, this is coming from a guy who spent his entire career exalting the wonders of audio.

We’re seeing each other’s smiles, worries, joys, fears. We’re visiting inside each other’s homes, seeing our hair grow (or turn gray). We see laughter and tears. It’s powerful stuff.

We are crying out for human contact, contact that we took for granted back in the old days of a little over a month ago.

We’re getting together with our children and relatives who live both close and far away. We’re connecting with good friends and reconnecting with old friends we haven’t seen or heard from in many years. For the first time, we were able to have a Seder that included our nieces in Oregon.

There’s no denying that the impact of seeing family and friends is a powerful tonic that offsets, to some extent, the emotional trauma of our new times. A trauma where the long-term impact may indeed be the loss of the carefree way we’ve enjoyed being together in a physical space.

Zoom — and I use that word generically — makes the world smaller, wider and more accessible at the same time in a way that the visionaries at Bell Labs likely never envisioned.

Zoom can never replace a soothing touch, a kiss, a pat on the back, a hug, a three-dimensional tear. nor, for that matter, the smell of a baby or a fresh-baked apple pie at Thanksgiving.

But, it will play an important role in our relationships with one another as we’ve woken up to the reality that we ache for human contact as never before. That ache — our emotional antibody — will remain long after there is a vaccine for COVID-19 as there is no vaccine for the absence of humanity.


Listen please to Rocket Man by Elton John