Hello there 🙂

Welcome to issue nine of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered.

Grab yourself a suitable beverage and enjoy…

Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online

If, like me, you’ve been struggling to understand why Zoom meetings (or whatever video conferencing platform you’re using) are leaving you feeling quite so exhausted then you might be interested to hear that communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has been examining the psychological consequences of spending hours a day on these platforms.

I originally came across this research via the write up on Stanford News, which links to Bailenson’s original peer-reviewed article.

Bailenson identified four possible explanations for Zoom Fatigue:

  • Constraints on physical mobility – Audio (phone) conversations, and in-person meetings allow people more freedom of movement. But with video conferencing, most cameras have a set field of view, meaning a person has to generally stay in the same spot. Movement is limited in ways that are not natural. “There’s a growing research now that suggests when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said.
  • Cognitive load – Bailenson notes that in regular face-to-face interaction, each of us makes and interprets gestures and nonverbal cues subconsciously. But in video chats, we have to work harder to send and receive signals. (NB I’m not sure the extent to which I agree with this – lots of people struggle to interpret nonverbal cues in-person too, however I’d acknowledge that it’s probably nevertheless easier to send and receive these cues in-person, versus via Zoom).
  • Increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself – We do not typically wander through our days staring at our own reflections. If you’re in an in-person meeting, you don’t see your own face the whole time. But on Zoom, you do. Bailenson cited studies that have demonstrated that when we see reflections of ourselves, we’re often more self-critical.

The increased self-evaluation problem definitely resonated strongly with me; but Bailenson’s final observation is eye-opening, and suddenly a whole bunch of the things I’ve been feeling make more sense.

Bailenson noted that if you’re having a one-on-one conversation on video, you’re seeing a person’s face at a size which simulates very close in-person proximity:

When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict.

Dear reader, I think he’s suggesting we’re all spending hours a day in fuck or fight mode.

Or, perhaps more accurately, because we know we don’t want to fuck our fellow Zoom meeting-goers, at some level, we’re just in fight (or perhaps fight or flight) mode.

I feel this point is worth exploring and explaining a little further – so here goes:

For just a moment, let’s imagine COVID-19 doesn’t exist, and therefore, being physically close to other people represents no risk of infection.

You walk into a crowded lift (or elevator for my American friends). You are in unavoidably close proximity to other people in the lift. All of these other people are strangers.

Do you face the person nearest you? Or do you turn your back to them?

If at all possible, you turn your back to them, right?

But this lift is really crowded and you can’t position yourself with your back to everyone, and so maybe you’ll look upwards at the ceiling, or watch the floor numbers change as you ascend or descend, or if you’re like me, you’ll cast your gaze down and study your own shoes intensely.

Why do we do this?

Turning our backs and averting our gaze helps to ease our discomfort.

But where does the discomfort come from?

Situations where we’re in close physical proximity and making eye contact feel intimate; and if that intimacy feels inappropriate (i.e. if it makes us feel vulnerable or otherwise uncomfortable) we do whatever we can to diminish those feelings. Most of the time we’ll physically move ourselves away. But in situations like crowded lifts, where we can’t fix the close physical proximity problem, we’ll typically avoid eye contact.

Essentially, I think we do this to avoid falling into full-blown fight or flight mode.

The problem is, on Zoom calls we can’t fix the proximity problem, and neither can we avoid eye contact. Actually, we’re subjecting each other to far more eye contact than we would normally:

In an in-person meeting, people will variously be looking at the speaker, taking notes or looking elsewhere. But on Zoom calls, everyone is looking at everyone, all the time. A listener is treated nonverbally like a speaker, so even if you don’t speak once in a meeting, you are still looking at faces staring at you. The amount of eye contact is dramatically increased.

In short, in Zoom calls we feel like we’re in closer proximity to other people than we’re really comfortable with, AND we’re making more eye contact than usual, AND we’re doing it for hours and hours every single day.

Plus there’s additional weirdness right? (Bailenson doesn’t highlight this but I think it merits a mention.)

Prior to the pandemic how many of your coworkers, clients, or bosses had you invited into your home? Not many, right? But they’re all invited now.

Moreover, many of us are working out of our bedrooms; a space which ordinarily, only people who we’re comfortable being intimate with, would gain admittance to.

Everything about it is unnatural and uncomfortable, and as a result many of us are spending hours a day in this hyper-aroused fight or flight state.

Those feelings of exhaustion make a little more sense now, huh?

Moar serendipitous finds:

This twitter account is really great and I particularly enjoyed this tweet:

Wikipedia’s delightful page on the history of Spite Houses:

A spite house is a building constructed or modified either to irritate neighbours, or any other party with stakes in the land. Because long-term occupation is not the primary purpose of these houses, they frequently sport strange and impractical structures.

Here’s an example:

The Skinny House

The story behind the Skinny House in Boston, Massachusetts (pictured above) is disputed. Some say it came about like this: two brothers inherited land from their father. While one brother (let’s call him Bob) was away serving in the military, the other (let’s call him Brian) builds a large home. Brian assumes that his brother Bob won’t bother building a house on the tiny plot of land that’s left, and essentially, he’ll get the lot. Bob however, has other ideas. Rather than abandon the plot of land, he builds the skinny house (which blocks the sunlight and ruins Brian’s view) in order to spite his brother.

Others contend that its unnamed builder built the house to shut out air and light from the home of a hostile neighbour (also nameless) with whom he had an ongoing dispute. 

For women in economics, the hostility is out in the open…

Studies have found that the field of economics is plagued by a problem of gender bias. The latest evidence comes from the types of questions posed at seminars.

Dr. Modestino and Dr. Wolfers, along with two other economists, Pascaline Dupas and Muriel Niederle, recruited dozens of graduate students across the country to attend hundreds of economics conferences to record both the number and the nature of questions levelled at the men and women who were presenting their research.

They found not only that women faced more questions than men, but also that women were more likely to face questions that were patronising or hostile.I’d be fascinated to see a similar study conducted in our industry.

Artist Biancoshock turns abandoned manholes into cramped miniature rooms…

Titled Borderlife, Biancoshock says he created these pieces to highlight the extreme conditions many people are forced to live in – citing the 600 people in Bucharest who were, at that time, living underground in the sewer system. (I rediscovered this thanks to one of my own swipe files, the original installation dates back to 2016.)

Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now

This newsletter is even longer than usual apparently, and Substack keeps on chucking out warnings about reaching deliverability limits.

As such I’ll keep this section short, and just give you my book recommendation of the fortnight – Potiki by Patricia Grace. Set on the coast of New Zealand, this novel tells the story of a small Māori community whose ancestral land is threatened by developers who seek to turn it into a hub for tourism. Told from the perspective of a handful of its Māori characters, the novel offers an intimate insight into this community, their mythology and beliefs and what binds them to their ancestral land.

Despite originally being published in 1986, this novel remains achingly current, New Zealand’s government apparently continues to seize Māori land, even as it simultaneously seeks to provide redress for the land that was taken in the past.

Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching

Dear reader, I have mainly been re-watching X Files. I highly recommend it.

I also watched the much maligned Netflix documentary: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. The documentary tells the story of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian traveller, who goes missing, and was eventually found dead at the hotel in 2013.

Dear reader, you should know that what follows contains spoilers – skip this section if you haven’t yet watched this documentary, but still plan on doing so.

I feel like much of the criticism levelled at the documentary looks like this:

And you know what, in some ways, that’s fair. It probably didn’t need to be four hours long.

But it worries me that this is the most common criticism, because this is not the only direction in which this documentary, and indeed many other true crime documentaries are problematic.

Ellen E. Jones writing for the Guardian asks:

“What is the point of true-crime documentaries? This is the uncomfortable question that those of us who consume them by the bucketload must sooner or later confront. If it’s just someone else’s suffering dressed up as diverting entertainment, then that can’t be OK, can it?

But if there is also the possibility that these documentaries might illuminate an important aspect of cultural history, or human psychology, or even prevent future suffering by bringing perpetrators to justice, then there is some value to our viewing, after all.”

She raises an excellent point, huh?

I feel like all true crime documentaries are to some extent exploitative, and The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is no exception. As Jones notes:

“…various attempts to lighten the mood with historical detours and commentary from cutesy eccentrics such as the general manager with the Veronica Lake wave, feel, at best, in very poor taste.

It is not spooky, it is just sad; desperately sad that a family have lost their beloved daughter and sad, too, that in Los Angeles, as in many other places around the world, the result of human beings in a mental health crisis is avoidable tragedy.”

For the record, I agree unequivocally with Jones.

But, I think this documentary did succeed to illuminate an important aspect of our psychology – albeit by accident, rather than by design.

The Elisa Lam case captured the public’s imagination because it was spooky. That footage of her in the lift was interpreted as spooky. How and where her body was found was spooky.

A bunch of “internet sleuths” came up with a range of spooky theories: she was killed by a Mexican death metal singer, she was the victim of a copycat killing inspired by the 2005 horror flick Dark Water, she was involved in an international conspiracy to spread a new strain of tuberculosis…

I can’t help but wonder if people’s dissatisfaction with the conclusion of this documentary is, (in part at least), that the truth of Elisa Lam’s case isn’t spooky at all.

I suspect that on some level, we’re more interested in spookiness than the unhappy truth.

And I think perhaps, that speaks uncomfortable volumes about our psychology, and indeed our behaviour.

Part IV: Things I’m doing

As mentioned previously, this section is here to keep me honest. I’m hoping that by documenting some of the things I’m planning to do, it’ll give me the extra motivation required to actually do them. So, here’s what I’ve been up to:

Drink Digital

I mentioned previously that I’ll be taking part in Drink Digital, an online meet up organised by Boom Online.

I’ll be giving a talk called “Difficult Second Album Syndrome” which has been occupying what feels like every waking minute of my life for the past two weeks. Right now I have more than 300 slides for what’s supposed to be a 20 minute talk, so I still have a bunch of work to do.

Wayne Barker, and Ian Lockwood (both from Boom) will also be speaking, plus they’ll be a Q&A with Gisele Navarro (NeoMam), Mark Johnstone (Content Hubble), Pete Bingham (Boom), and me after the talks.

It’s happening on Thursday 11th March at 6.30pm UK time. I think it’s going to be aces, and if you fancy coming along you can get tickets here.

Confidence Now

For the past six weeks I’ve been taking part in Kirsty Hulse’s Confidence Now program, which is without a doubt the very best gift that I’ve bought myself this year. Kirsty will be running a new program in April, and I’d strongly recommend you check it out 🙂

So what’s next?

Aside from the talk next week, I’ve no other major plans right now.

I’m going to take a little time to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned from the Confidence Now program, try to exercise a little more, take better care of myself, and attempt to get my disordered eating and sleeping back on track.

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