It’s Official: We OD’d on the Internet
Zooming is to real conversation as smoking is to breathing

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 8 June 2021

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When I was in high school, I was in a play where I got to smoke cigarettes. I say “got to” because back then I was something of a nerd (before nerds were cool) and loved the idea of jocks and other popular kids spying the foil lining of my artfully positioned Marlboro softpack sticking out of my jeans jacket pocket.

I hadn’t quite mastered a natural grip, and couldn’t take more than a few puffs without getting dizzy, so I‘d “practice” smoking after school in the parking lot behind the convenience store, where the kids who I wanted to see me smoking happened to hang out.

When I got home one evening after “rehearsal,” my father happened to notice the pack I was basically advertising from my jacket. He didn’t yell at me. He just said “let’s talk after dinner. On the back porch. Bring the cigarettes.”

When we got out there, he asked me to smoke one. The whole thing. And then another. “You wanna smoke? Then smoke,” he said. “Smoke ’em all.” By halfway through the third cigarette, I was green and ready to puke. My mom made him stop, threw out the cigarettes, and the nightmare was over. But I’ll never forget just how sick I felt back then — and how little I’ve wanted to smoke cigarettes since.

This past year, I’ve started to feel the same way about the Internet. I think a lot of us have. We wanted a life of telecommuting and shared screens, MacBook Pros, and 4k monitors, and now we have it. 24/7. Enough to puke.

Sure, it was a relief or even a thrill to get to do meetings from home on Zoom or Skype. But then came more meetings on Webex, Bluejeans, Teams, GoToMeeting, Hangouts, Zoho, Whereby, Signal, and Jitsi. Days that could have felt “full” with two live meetings and a work session with a colleague became jammed with six videoconferences, two Slack channel collaborations, and an Asana session. All while answering email and staying up on Discord.

Smoke ’em all.

As we now well know, all this online interaction can be as draining, even more draining, than real-life interaction. Video chat to live conversation is like smoking is to breathing. Things are going in and out, but there’s no oxygen. No prana. On a video platform, all of the painstakingly evolved mechanisms we’ve developed over thousands of years for establishing rapport are neutralized. I can’t see if your pupils are getting larger as you accept my ideas, if you’re subtly nodding your head, or if your breathing is syncing up with mine.

You say you agree with me, but without those organic cues my mirror neurons don’t fire, the oxytocin isn’t released into my bloodstream, and I don’t feel truly received or acknowledged. I go into a state of cognitive dissonance. We get off the call, and I subconsciously say to myself “she said she agreed…but I didn’t feel it. Was she lying?” Trust erodes. Relationships deteriorate. The virtual meeting where something was actually accomplished and agreed upon instead feels, on some level, like a fight, a misunderstanding, or an unanswered question. Edgy and unsettled, like one too many cigarettes.

We’re all glad, on one level, to be getting back to live work, in-person with other human beings. I miss people, faces, touching (appropriately), and even smelling other people’s lunch. But do we really want to go back to how things were? I may have this wrong, as I’m mostly a professor and freelance writer, but is anyone really looking forward to going back to whatever work was like before? For me, it meant lots of flying to do talks and going into the city for meetings in conference rooms to hear about people’s new ideas for apps and platforms.

Is anyone really looking forward to going back to some steely office building, all day, five days a week? Especially when so much of the “live” meeting we do is really about the functioning of some organization, bank, public relations firm, or other corporation whose operations are essentially just as virtual and removed from the real world as a Zoom meeting?

Might waking up from Zoom be waking us up from something else just as removed and virtual— like sitting in a sterile glass room to talk about manufacturing in China, customer service in India, and consumers in the midwest? Chances are that meeting is itself happening around three different conference tables connected by screens, anyway. And all in order to set new growth targets for products nobody really wants or needs unless there’s enough advertising to fool them into purchasing this stuff that’s going to end up in landfill sooner than later.

I feel nauseous of everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to work. To teach, to build, to farm, to care for the sick, entertain the lonely, and comfort the distraught. But this other stuff? The pointless stuff we’re being compelled to do so the economy grows for the sake of growth? The flying and churning and spending and polluting that feeds some aspect of the abstracted economy but doesn’t feed people’s bellies or souls? Enough.

This is what it feels like to smoke the whole pack, America. Let’s use this feeling to find another way forward.