“Here’s looking at you.” Those were the words of Pete Flaherty, mayor of Pittsburgh, on the first ever video call, which took place almost exactly 50 years ago. He was talking to John Harper, the chairman of the aluminium company Alcoa, on a grainy black-and-white TV screen, with a phone pressed to his ear. AT&T marketed this moment as the beginning of the future. Having invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the Picturephone system, they swore it would take America, and the rest of the world, by storm.
It’s been half a century, but that storm has finally arrived, and all because of a global health crisis. After ten months of near-constant Zooming, it is almost impossible to picture a world where we don’t frequently see our colleagues, friends and family refracted through screens – now in colour and high definition.
Even the fact that ‘Zooming’ has become a verb is telling. Pre-pandemic, that particular video conferencing platform was the preserve of long-distance business meetings. Now it is mainstream: in the four months to April 2020, its number of meeting participants increased 30-fold.
But what are those meeting participants up to? We know about the office get-togethers, of course – most of us have sat through our fair share. We know about the quiz nights and birthday drinks. What’s less appreciated is how video calling has enabled people to fight for change at a time when they can’t physically show up and disrupt the status quo. Activism hasn’t just adapted to the constraints of the pandemic; it’s been supercharged.
Consider something as simple and prosaic as council meetings. New York City Council’s public hearings were always, well, public – but, in March, they started being held remotely and are far more accessible as a result. Over the summer, they became a venue for many people from across the city to air their grievances about the NYPD directly to their local representatives and, crucially, to each other. Just like that, those people were not alone.
Nolan MacGregor, co-founder of London-based political analytics firm Jarrow Insights, has been organising reading groups for the Fabian Society and Democratic Socialists of America, and he’s noticed significant changes since everything went virtual. Online reading groups have allowed people to “dip their toes in the water”, he says. There are no commutes, no rain, no pressure.
And this has broadened the range of participants. All of a sudden, people who were stretched for time, had kids, or couldn’t afford to pay for transport gained access to these events. People are now joining MacGregor’s reading groups from all over the world, which he suspected might happen. However, he’s always particularly pleased to see those who aren’t far away but who previously “felt that there was a barrier to entry”.
Even the different video calling apps affect accessibility. “We usually don’t use Zoom for our meetings,” explains Ross Tanner, co-founder of a youth-led charity called the LUNA Project. “We use Microsoft Teams because it auto-generates captions.” Whilst the core team at the LUNA Project hasn’t met in person since the pandemic took hold, the charity has been able to grow significantly by opening up their meetings to young people across the country. They have now recruited over 40 writers for their blog, who have been able to share their experiences about living with long-term illnesses.
Then there is full-on protest. In April, climate activists used Zoom as a virtual town square, swapping out their marches and huge crowds for mass video calls and three-day live streams, and as a tool to organise in-person protests. Similarly, Black Lives Matter activists have been using Zoom to organise simultaneous protests across the country.
Tyrek Morris is a co-founder of All Black Lives UK, a group that held protests every Sunday for ten weeks in cities across the country, and he says that Zoom was crucial for coordinating these protests: “It just made everything ten times easier. Everyone involved [in ABLUK] is a student or has just graduated. We were all over the country so there’s no central point for us to meet. Zoom is our central point.”
There was also something reassuring to Morris about being able to actually see his fellow protesters. “I didn’t know many people, really, so there was something different about being able to see their faces… [it showed that] we were in this together.”
But, in a broader sense, are we really in this together? Video calls are more accessible for more people – but they still aren’t totally accessible. Not everyone has the necessary devices and connections. According to evidence from Scotland cited by the Office for National Statistics, only 51% of households with an annual income between £6,000 and £10,000 have home internet access, compared to 99% for those with an income over £40,001. Moving everything online further isolates the poorest groups in society.
This digital divide needs to be addressed. In the meantime, the potential of video calling is unfulfilled but still exciting. Remember that, in the decades after Pete Flaherty made his inaugural call, this was a technology that was roundly dismissed – the video-phone was considered too bulky and far too expensive. Even with the rise of smartphones and webcams in the 2000s, video calling never came as easily as text messaging or email.
Yet now, as a result of the pandemic, Zoom and other video platforms might deliver – or at least partially deliver – on the early promise of the internet, that it would be an unstoppable democratising force. Instead of a tweet sent out into the void or a Facebook post that no one ever reads, how about a real chat, one civic-minded person to another?
This article was originally published by Tortoise, a different kind of newsroom committed to a slower, wiser news. To try Tortoise, New European readers can get a 30-day free trial and a special half price offer: just go to www.tortoisemedia.com/friend/trial and enter the code TNE50. You’ll get access to all of Tortoise’s investigations, live editorial meetings, audio articles and daily news briefing emails.