Expert comment

Zoom fatigue: online communication platforms and technologies of the self.

Expert comment

Zoom fatigue: online communication platforms and technologies of the self.

Chris Beighton looks at the impact of online learning.

In a recent paper in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior Stanford University communications professor Jeremy Bailenson discusses the psychological impact of online communication platforms. Essentially, he argues, these platforms put us under “nonverbal overload” by showering us with nonverbal communication, notably images of faces. We are constantly under scrutiny, either looked at by others or looking at ourselves. This encourages a sort of hyper-vigilance and “zoom fatigue”, he says.

Zoom fatigue, although widely prevalent, intense, and completely new, has  a clinical definition: anxiety, tiredness or burnout linked to the overuse of virtual communication platforms.

Bailenson, who avoids criticising the companies themselves, admits that we can simply change the settings to avoid it. But there are other implications beyond the need for users to simply get to know the tools better.  

The first of these is that some guidance about working in such conditions may be misleading. From an education perspective, for example, teachers are told by Ofsted to reject the “myth” that remote education is fundamentally different to other forms of teaching and learning. Likewise, Government advice also downplays the educational importance of the medium, stating that the same features determine the effectiveness of both online and “live” teaching. But if, as Bailenson says, online teaching is like walking around with a mirror constantly held up to our faces, this similarity is far from obvious.

The second implication is that, although these platforms are said to save time and energy, this remains moot: as the transformation of homes into technologically enhanced workspaces during lockdown has amply shown, the fact that we can work in spaces previously dedicated to non-work does not imply that we should. Zoom working is often not smart working.

Finally, all of this masks the limitations of the medium itself: the physical limitation which locks us to our desks; the perceptual limitation which locks us to the 2-dimensional screen; and especially the sensory deprived, affective limitation which locks us into fatigue-inducing online spaces. I  have discussed this elsewhere as a form of self-imposed claustrotopia.

Bersenson’s views thus echo what philosopher Michel Foucault (1932-1984) famously called a “technology of the self”: behaviours, attitudes and equipment whose purpose is to regulate ourselves in line with a governing set of values. In the case of online learning platforms, these are the values of the mirror image: we get zoom fatigue because, we are at the same time watcher and watched, police and policed, judge and judged.

So from an educational point to view, it’s not just that official guidance downplays the fundamentally limiting features of online teaching and learning. Rather, this guidance itself mirrors a transformation in what teaching and learning are said to be about. Talk of “learning”, “achievement” or “reaching potential” in this context have little to do with the acquisition of knowledge, understanding or personal development. Instead, they reflect a mirror image, displaying little more than self-scrutinising images and the technologically-enhanced spectacle of our own compliance. 

Chris Beighton is a Senior Lecturer in Post Compulsory Education in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education.