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Shipwrecked: everybody’s camera is off, can anyone see my slides?

As we’ve grown grudgingly accustomed to the world of 100% online meetings, a curious phenomenon has taken root. That of absent-presenteeism.

Addressing a large online gathering the other day, I suddenly found myself untethered, the usual visual cues provided by a sea of interactive human faces replaced by a bank of unmoving screen avatars, all cameras save mine having been switched off and muted. “Can you see my slides? Is this working?” I asked of the void, nervously awaiting someone’s dislocated voice to crackle in the affirmative or type a solitary “Y” in the chat.

Repeat after me: I am not, nor have I ever been, a robot.

It’s not an uncommon experience, and the more I talk to colleagues about this the more pervasive it appears to be, not helped by the fact that there is a simple kind of logical etiquette to this behaviour, not wanting to overload the system as it were.

I’m also rather fond of being able to switch off the camera when in large scale meetings, and there’s a welcome sense of anonymity that I’m sure many find appealing, when you can tune in and out as you please invisible to the judgement of others. Even so, it is a strange marker of these already strange times that you can attend a meeting where everyone is both present and notably absent.

Whether absent-presenteeism is actually a thing remains unclear, but it’s definitely something I’ve experienced. Here I’m using the term to describe that weird situation where the absence of something vitally important but otherwise overlooked or silenced is so profound that it leaves an indelible impression, perhaps an unconscious one, whispering to you from the wings despite not actually being there. I experience something like this when visiting a house devoid of bookshelves, or where there is just one solitary bookshelf occupied by a handful of Jeremy Clarkson paperbacks and an obligatory Davinci Code. Something doesn’t feel quite right despite nothing being particularly out of place.

Once I become hyper aware of this condition in those larger meetings it becomes difficult to stave off paranoia. Worse is the momentary lapses in consciousness when I catch myself slipping into something like highway hypnosis, where I can’t be entirely sure if I went off on an unexpected and wildly inappropriate tangent, my eyes suddenly unfocused like someone slipping into a trance as the gearing of my mind lost traction. “What was all that stuff about talking to squirrels have to do with timetabling?” people might reasonably ask, as I spiral away like a pigeon caught in the updraft of a passing lorry.



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