🇬🇧 Zoom and the necessity of tool-critical tool-use

The ongoing global coronavirus crisis has had numerous side-effects. One of these is that in higher education, lots of colleges and universities worldwide have had to switch to distance-learning tools and online education.

This is a dream-come-true for some, and a nightmare for some. For most of us, the reality of this falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Online learning tools can be a great tool, but as scholars in my field in particular (media and communications) are very aware about, tools always come with built-in biases, norms, expectations, governance models – yet tools can also partially be shaped by how we as users choose to use them, and how we as citizens choose to relate to them and talk about them.

The US-based, fresh startup company Zoom has seen a remarkable, even mind-boggling popularity in the wake of government orders to switch to distance-education only, in many countries across the globe. Zoom offers a nifty, user-friendly tool for video conferencing with two or more (sometimes MANY more) participants. Lots of tax-funded universities, for example here in Sweden, have signed enterprise deals with Zoom that let their staff use the premium version of this tool – and boy, have we seen a flurry of Zoom activity in the Swedish internetz over the last two weeks! It is now reported by Sunet, the state internet infrastructure provider for Swedish universities, that Zoom usage increased by tenfold over the last week or so, and that the company had to buy extra server capacity from Amazon Web Services (platform behemoth and world leader in server infrastructure, effectively serving much of the internet backbone, since more than a decade…) so that some hard cold steel in the new Amazon server farm in Stockholm came to good use.

Chart from Nordunet, showing Zoom activity in the Nordic university networks between February 26 and March 24. Sweden is red, Norway blue, Finland yellow, Denmark green, Iceland orange.

Consequentially, we have seen media effects among users: dons who don new on-screen persona; new social norms blurring the public and the private; normative and even ritualistic uses of the “mic on/off” function, the “wave hand” function; and so on. I have even come across Swedish tech wizards who have become so jaded that they’ve jerry-rigged their webcams to run through Snapchat as a proxy, so that they can enable Snapchat’s real time filters when they are on Zoom!

All is not just fun and games, though – there is a more serious, if not even downright disparaging side of Zoom, irreversibly placing it among the dodgy apps and platforms enumerated in Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism” concept; digital tools that all share one feature in common, namely that they in various ways solicit, harvest, capture and analyze data about their users as part of their business model.

Critical articles are now warning about the company’s data collection and privacy policies. “Whether you have Zoom account or not,” the company’s privacy page states, “we may collect Personal Data from or about you when you use or otherwise interact with our Products.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a well-known NGO that defends civil liberties in the digital world, has noted that a lot of the digital platforms and tools that facilitate connection and productivity in this extraordinary situation of social distancing and quarantines – video conferencing, messaging apps, healthcare and educational platforms – are premised on detailed tracking of users, and sometimes has rather extensive surveillance mechanisms built into them. Zoom is one case in point, where the software for example allows administrators to see things like the operating system, IP address, location data, and device information of each participant in a video conference call.

In terms of business management, as with the amoeba-like surveillance Borg outlined and duly criticized by Zuboff and many others, Zoom forms part of the surveillance-industrial complex, as it does use certain standard advertising tools which require personal data (for example, Google Ads and Google Analytics). They use these tools to help them “improve your advertising experience” as the euphemism goes (f.ex. for serving advertisements on their behalf across the internet, serving personalized ads on their website, and providing analytics services). This is all pretty vanilla today, to be honest – I strongly doubt that many internet users would be upset these days by this form of “taken-for-granted” surveillance with a happy face – just because it’s become exactly that: so very common, so very taken for granted.

In other words, the company still admits it shares some of their users’ data with third parties. Online tech magazine Mashable concludes by noting that privacy sticklers might argue that such activity counts as selling personal data.

More worrying is how much information Zoom allows its meeting hosts to gather. “Depending on what tier of service – from a free option to advanced levels for big companies – a host can make a recording of the conference, have it transcribed automatically, and share the information later with people who aren’t in the meeting.”

In attention-grabbing headlines, Mashable points out the lack of consent that Zoom seems to be OK with among its users: Are meeting participants really notified if and when hosts enable attendee attention tracking, for example? For European users (and users in other legislations with similarly solid privacy protections), how compliant would the potential uses (and abuses) of Zoom be with the GDPR?

To their defence, Zoom’s own communications team points out that “the attention tracking feature is off by default – once enabled, hosts can tell if participants have the App open and active when the screen-sharing feature is in use. It does not track any aspects of your audio/video or other applications on your window.”

Ultimately, privacy sticklers, web mavens with time on their hands and freedom to tinker, and internet hipsters all have the ability to pick up some of the more esoteric, lesser known alternatives to Zoom: Unhangout from MIT Media Lab, for example, or Whereby, a Norway-based, privacy-friendly, and thus more GDPR-compliant video conferencing tool. In the open-source community, Jitsi has become a real competitor to Zoom, with quite good capacity, resilience and user-friendliness.

And of course, we have all the corporate alternatives from already existing, big players like Microsoft (Skype), Google (Hangouts), Apple (Facetime), and so on.

All in all, one very tangible factor is the capacity of digital media tools like these to be compatible with the everyday needs and desires of its users. Network effects mean that whatever service a critical mass of people use will be desirable simply through that popularity appeal. Once certain tools and services become embedded in everyday life, they are sometimes hard to unmount from public and private imagination.

This whole Covid-19 situation is a true crisis. Crises, as we all know, give us researchers of society and culture ample material to ponder upon; simply observing the state of exception in contrast with the normal situation is rewarding in itself.

From within the actual factory of higher education, there is a systematic to be observed, where digital tools for remote teaching and learning in an optimal situation (let us call it the normal mode, mode 1) would always be used in combination with physical, face-to-face meetings. That would be an example of an inclusive logic, a logic of “both-and.” In this crisis situation (let us call it the exceptional mode, mode 2) we are forced to use distant-learning tools only. That, in itself, makes a huge difference!

At the same time, this state of exception also means that we are forced to learn these tools in a much more thorough, engaged sense of the word. We are made to become much more acquainted with them, which in many ways strengthens our abilities within these tools, and hopefully also makes us more attentive, wary of their inherent features, shortcomings, biases, and so on. In the long run, I believe that this will be useful when we ultimately return to mode 1 and want to (keep) using these tools, however in a hopefully much more mindful way! That time, they shall be used as a complement, their uptake will take place in parallel with embodied, situated, offline teaching and learning conditions –not as a 1-to-1 substitute for the real thing, as we see now.

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