Jan 28, 2021 5 min read

#278: The Zoom Gaze

#278: The Zoom Gaze

When I launched this newsletter six-ish years ago, I didn’t think I would be highlighting articles exploring the long-term consequences of video conferencing software. But such is the pandemic, and such is technology, and this week’s smart lead article, “ The Zoom Gaze ,” succinctly summarizes how o

When I launched this newsletter six-ish years ago, I didn’t think I would be highlighting articles exploring the long-term consequences of video conferencing software. But such is the pandemic, and such is technology, and this week’s smart lead article, “The Zoom Gaze,” succinctly summarizes how our digital lives have changed. If you already Zoom enough that you don’t want to read about Zoom, you’re in luck, because today’s issue also includes Isabel Wilkerson on the intractability of caste, M.H. Miller on the recalcitrance of student debt, and John Calapinto on the uniqueness of the human voice. Please enjoy!

+ Loyal readers, I had this thought the other evening: At this point, as The Highlighter has grown, most of you have never met me, and know little about me — and vice versa. First of all, thank you for trusting me to bring you articles every Thursday, and I hope you find value in them. But second of all, please feel free to reach out, say hi, and ask me anything. Our reading community is a tight, thoughtful one, and I’d like to welcome you to it and encourage you to participate in it in the way you find most comfortable.

+ Article Club’s momentum continues to grow, thanks to last Sunday’s discussion of “Motherland,” by Jiayang Fan. We welcomed new members Angie, Bora, Lauri, and Phoebe, and facilitators Sarai and Summer led thoughtful conversations. (Mine was good, too!) What’s funny is that some Article Clubbers don’t know about The Highlighter (but might like it), and many of you don’t know about Article Club (but might like it). Who knows, maybe we should all be friends? Here’s more info if you want to check it out!

The Zoom Gaze

The Zoom Gaze

The reason we’re tired of Zoom is not just because we’re looking at screens all day. According to technologist Autumm Caines, the software has transformed the norms by which we interact with each other and the way we perceive ourselves.

Toni Morrison rejected the white gaze in literature that presumes the white reader’s perspective as neutral. Scholar Laura Mulvey criticized the male gaze in film that centers straight men and objectifies women. In this article, Ms. Caines explores the power dynamics of the Zoom gaze and asks, “Whose perspective does it seek to naturalize? What does it condition us to see?”

By encouraging us to see ourselves being seen, by offering 68 video settings that we can manipulate, by skewing eye contact, by making us work harder to express and receive emotion, Zoom promotes self-surveillance and magnifies performance culture, “opening a gap between how we wish to be perceived and how we know ourselves to actually be.” (12 min)

+ How many hours a day do you Zoom? Do you like it? (I’m kidding.)

America’s Caste System Is 400 Years Old. That Doesn’t Change Overnight.

I deeply admire Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste and The Warmth of Other Sons. In this interview with Kara Swisher for the Sway podcast, Ms. Wilkerson explains the development of the American caste system and some of its effects, including how COVID has ravaged our country’s subordinated caste and how the Jan. 6 insurrection protected our country’s dominant caste. Like Bryan Stevenson, Ms. Wilkerson points out that today’s calls for “healing and unity” sound similar to sentiments that halted the progress of Reconstruction. (39 min)

+ My dream is to convince Ms. Wilkerson to participate in Article Club. You get a prize if you woo her and she says yes.

Keno, who belongs to VIP Vanessa, enjoys drowning his toys in his water dish and thrives on face scratches, but only in the morning or afternoon. Want your pet to appear in The Highlighter? hltr.co/pets

An American Family’s Struggle For Student Loan Redemption

Should we feel compassion for M.H. Miller, who has a cushy job at the New York Times but who at 33 years old still owes $182,000 in college debt, largely because he decided to attend New York University and earn two degrees in English literature? In general, I say yes, because he makes this case well: “The foundational myth of an entire generation of Americans was the false promise that education was priceless — that its value was above or beyond its cost. College was not a right or a privilege but an inevitability on the way to a meaningful adulthood.” (20 min)

+ Do you connect with the author? And what should we do with our country’s $1.4 trillion college debt?

The Day My Voice Broke: What An Injury Taught Me About The Power Of Speech

“The voice,” Aristotle wrote, “is the sound produced by a creature possessing a soul.” Too bad so many of us take our unique, expressive voices for granted. After John Calapinto damaged his vocal cords, he found himself modifying his speech — lowering his pitch, maintaining a monotone, tensing up his neck muscles — in order to get through the day. Over time, this loss of prosody also prevented Mr. Calapinto from expressing a full range of emotions, thereby affecting his personality and making him less recognizable to his loved ones. (19 min)

+ Yes, that’s the first time I’ve ever quoted Aristotle. Impressive given that the article also mentions Adele and Steven Tyler from Aerosmith.

+ Reader Annotations: This week, the hubbub surrounding the bucatini article (#276) continued apace. Correcting the record, VIP Phoebe confirmed her adulation for the article but clarified that she feels less love for the pasta itself. “My 4-exclamation-mark enthusiasm was for the article, not for the pasta,” she wrote. “I like bucatini, but I will save my single and multiple exclamation marks for other types of noodle products.”

Loyal reader Monica, who claims 0 percent Italian blood, nevertheless weighed in on my follow-up prompt about pesto’s proper ingredients. “As for walnuts vs. pine nuts: JUST SAY NO TO WALNUTS,” she wrote. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

Thank you very much for your contributions, Phoebe and Monica. Loyal readers, if an article strikes a chord, don’t keep your feelings trapped inside. Share them by hitting reply!

Unfortunately, what is good must come to an end. Thank you for reading this week’s issue of The Highlighter. I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what you thought by hitting reply or by clicking on the thumbs below.

Also, let’s welcome our reading community’s three new subscribers: Gabriel, Lauren, and Barnabas. I hope you find the newsletter a solid addition to your email inbox.

If you like The Highlighter, please help it grow. I appreciate your support. Here are a few ways you can help:

On the other hand, if you don’t like that this newsletter arrives in your inbox every week, please unsubscribe. See you next Thursday at 9:10 am PT!

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