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Zooming Away from Privacy

Nonstop Video Conferencing Puts Our Once-Secret Sanctuaries on Display

It’s gutting the economy, ravaging health care, and battering education. But fewer are talking about the ways this pandemic may be impacting our culture, taking things from us — lovely things — that we might never get back.

Rock concerts. Open-office floor plans. Fro-yo toppings bars.

You know what else is likely to be rendered obsolete in a post-COVID world? Curtains. Shutters. And blinds.

While our homes were once sacred spaces where we were free to let down our guards, the new dangers of the outside world have forced us to invite the outside — awkwardly and perhaps ill-advisedly — in.

Now, between Zoom, FaceTime, Teams, BlueJeans, and Google Hangout, there are more ways to bring strangers into your home than there are good excuses to leave it.

Day or night, I find people gazing into my kitchen, living room, or backyard on screens large and small, their pixelated peepers peering into the unkempt corners and intimate alcoves of the hopping virtual concourse that used to be my private sanctum.

Oh, look, there’s my kid’s Biology Teacher—with a direct line of sight to the drying rack where my underwear is on display. And hello, Distant Colleague I’ve Never Met in Person — I didn’t realize I had grabbed the coffee mug bedecked with Ruth Bader Ginsberg flipping the bird; I hope this won’t affect our team presentation this afternoon? Wow, lovely to see you, Guy Who Supervises My Son’s Internship, I assure you that beer bottle on the counter is mine, and it’s from yesterday; we may be slow to recycle, but we rarely chug pilsner before noon.

And I’ve had it easy! Consider the Mexican senator who appeared bare-breasted while changing her shirt during a virtual call from home with 15 other politicians; she didn’t understand how the tech worked. Then there was the Sacramento TV reporter whose segment on DIY haircuts, broadcast live from her bathroom, was upstaged by the reflection of her remarkably nude husband in the mirror. And who could forget the viral video of “Poor Jennifer,” that unlucky lass who took her laptop into the loo during a company meeting … and accidentally left her camera on.

It seems only yesterday we were all paranoid about Siri and Alexa eavesdropping on our conversations so they could serve us ads about the very things they heard us discussing. Now, hunting for discreet, uncluttered backgrounds in homes that we’ve been sloshing around in for months, we’d gladly return to the days when the world outside our front door could only hear our most hush-hush moments.

And yet … as uncomfortable as it’s been allowing the world’s judgy eyeballs into our confidential cribs, something interesting is happening, too. Each time we jump up and reveal to a webcam that we’re wearing pajama bottoms with our fancy blouse, or unmute ourselves just as a family member begins cursing at their video game, or discover too late that our dog has been entertaining the masses by licking himself senseless in the lower corner of our screen … we’re forced to acknowledge a shared circumstance, a common vulnerability, a mutual humanity. To throw up our hands, shrug, and confess that we’re all just muddling haphazardly through this insanity — wobbling between “freaked out” and “managing” on any given day.

So as our virtual walls vanish, it seems our pretense does, too. And as we stretch further and further from a life in which we donned makeup, jewelry, and chic-but-mercilessly-unstretchy outfits to forge our public personas each time we left the house, we’re now settling into a sort of sublime authenticity. One that I hope will last beyond this moment.

The amount of loss we’re facing as a society is staggering. Lives and livelihoods. Weddings and funerals. Hugs and handshakes. One has to think about it in bits and pieces to keep from being overwhelmed by the ache.

But the fact that we’ve all invited the big, scary world into our safe, cozy havens may ultimately prove this particular batch of humanity is tougher than we look. Think about it:

Collectively, and during the scariest moment of our lives, we gave up our only place to hide.

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