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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Zoom with a View

The inner lives of co-workers

Eric Johnson

The internet: It was going to usher in a brave new world of information and understanding, democratizing data and empowering the people. What it turned out to be really good at was distributing pornography, fuelling conspiracies, and electing fascists. (Okay, as we’re all in lockdown, there’s room for discussion on the merits of one of these deliverables.)

Now, as the world imbibes a coronavirus cocktail mixed with equal parts imposed isolation, enervation, and anxiety, the video conferencing app Zoom is our new boss. It’s the ultimate digital tool for staying in touch, even as touching actual digits is number one on the pandemic-prevention naughty list.

It turns out the Zoom conference is something else too: an unsurpassed siege engine for storming the castle that is supposed to be everyone’s home. And it’s a generator of industrial-strength schadenfreude.

Of course, you have to cut certain people some slack — interns, juniors, and associates, for example. Sure, from what you can see of their kitchen, where the desktop is set up because the light’s passable, their place is entirely furnished in IKEA and free-to-a-good-home sidewalk scores. So was your first apartment. Plus, Navinder, the programmer, was hella impressed when you told him you saw the Hip when they were just starting out in Kingston. You get to call him Nav now.

And Jennifer, the new marketing hire. Her place is lovely, a marvel of what the right person can do with next to nothing. She’s laughing at something you said, and you’re speculating —perhaps more than you would in person about the physics of mass, gravity, and sweaters — when a shadow passes over her monitor, and the mute button goes on. You can see she’s still laughing, and then her eyes roll and she holds up five fingers. The mute goes off, and a voice, indistinct but masculine, is heard finishing a sentence. Jennifer apologizes. She forgot she has another meeting in five minutes. Can we pick this up tomorrow?

Alternatively, some places are just . . .  Phil’s, for example, is just like Nav’s. Except Phil is thirty-seven, not twenty-four, and you strongly suspect that below his button-down shirt, he’s wearing sweatpants. Did he do this kind of thing before the divorce? You don’t want to know. You’re just glad they didn’t have kids. Unlike Dave, who has two.

You know that because they come into his “home office” with its backdrop of stacked plastic storage bins every time you start a goddamn call. And the thing of it is the call is scheduled for the same time every day, and it’s only fifteen minutes long. All you have to do is turn on Frozen 2 five minutes before the meeting starts and you’re good. Sure, the first time it was kind of cute, but you’ve got things to do. And then there’s that frigging song they keep singing: Baby Shark, doo doo doo . . . During one of the interminable choruses —Great-uncle twice removed Shark, doo doo doo — Dave’s monitor is jostled, because of those obnoxious dance moves.

When the camera tilts up, you get a quick flash of a small brownish spot on the ceiling. It could be a sign of water damage, something to take care of. You’re about to draw it to Dave’s attention when another chorus starts up and you doo doo doo . . . don’t say anything.

Adults are just as bad. Maria in accounting: like clockwork, her husband brings her a coffee just after a call starts, and you have to banter with him. The thing is, after you’ve been stuck in the house for several weeks, your stock of banter is kind of depleted. It occurs to you to toss in “We’re thinking of eating the dog,” but you’re not sure they’d know you were joking.

The shelf behind Maria features china balloon girls, porcelain poodles, and Toby jugs, stuff your grandmother had, and you suspect their house is an irony-free zone. Backgrounds can be a giveaway.

Luckily, Nav, your new buddy, showed you how to easily change them. With a couple of clicks, you can pick your own background, and you’ve got every picture and pattern on the internet at your disposal. You can even have animations, though no serious person would do that.

Not surprisingly, Mike, Jennifer’s boss, started a meeting seemingly surrounded by giant aquarium fish, swimming above, behind, below, and, occasionally, through him. It was disturbing. Somebody must have said something. The next meeting saw a return to a static background — the cantina from the original Star Wars. Mike was wearing a “Han Shot First” T‑shirt. And this is why he’ll never have equity.

Backgrounds aren’t always the problem. Sometimes it’s a foreground issue. In one meeting, the low camera angle on a client’s laptop gives you a horrifying up-nostril view of the kind usually reserved for ENT specialists. At first you try to follow the talk about reduced quarterly projections. Then you notice the hairs, which from this perspective seem like stalactites or the moss that hangs from trees in horror movies, and an idea occurs to you.

If this whole situation goes on, there could be big money in nasal grooming: nose-scaping! You make a note to see how Braun and Philips are trading. Or Dollar Shave! This would be their kind of thing. You’ll do it tomorrow morning, or maybe in the afternoon. Or the next day.

After all, it’s not like you’ve really got anywhere to be.

Eric Johnson is a corporate communications strategist in Toronto.

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