San Francisco-based filmmaker H.P. Mendoza had 24 hours before he left Japan. He asked for a week, or a few days, but was told that no, within hours he would have to be on this particular plane that would fly him and his partner back to the United States. The reason, of course, was the Covid-19 pandemic, so the new life Mendoza was building in Japan came to an abrupt end. But not before he caught a virus.
No, not the coronavirus. Mendoza made a short film spoofing the awkward video conferencing meetings that have now become a regular part of millions of Americans’ lives. It showed four people trying to talk, turn on their mics, fail to face the camera, and talk over each other. The video went viral, even ending up on Good Morning America. It was a good viral reaction, but Mendoza tells me he actually created the video before the shelter-at-home Covid-19 experience. It was just a video spoofing the online meetings he was holding with clients; once Covid-19 hit, he reposted the video and then it started getting attention around the world.
What was once a niche experience for a few is now a near-daily reality for almost everyone. We are using a variety of apps — WebEx, GoToMeeting, Hangouts Meet — but the video conferencing service that has risen to the top is Zoom, a company many people likely had never heard about before March.
If the coronavirus had arrived in 1978 instead of 2020, it would have been a different experience. (For one thing, the president would not have offered crackpot medical advice.) Everyone who was required to shelter in place would have been relying on phone calls (including a lot of expensive long-distance calls, all through Ma Bell), mail, and perhaps — if it was available to them — courier pickups. Even basic email through CompuServe was a year away.
So companies today that are trying to adapt to virtual existences are relying on these video calls, and for the most part, they are working well, even with the pitfalls Mendoza parodied.
Zoom is also being used to entertain and inform people outside of work (and millions of people are stuck at home with no work to do, having been laid off or furloughed).
Teachers are reaching students with this technology; I recently was interviewing a local politician via Zoom; she had to pause at one moment and apologize for some background noise — her grade-school daughter was also in the room Zooming a class with her teacher. Doctors are making telemedicine a familiar practice. Real estate agents are showing homes virtually.
But we’re not just Zooming for business. People are gathering online for virtual happy hours with The Palm House and other establishments, family gatherings, mental health check-ins with distant relatives and friends, the Exploratorium’s virtual Earth Day celebration, virtual visits to the Presidio (presidio.gov/presidio-at-home), online arts events from the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (fortmason.org/events), and even online weddings and funerals.
The Commonwealth Club — where I oversee the media and editorial departments — quickly switched from holding live, in-person events to presenting live online programs. I recently jumped at the chance to interview a best-selling author who had blogged about his canceled book tour; he participated from Ohio via Zoom and our audio-video staff pushing out the program via YouTube live stream. Other cultural organizations such as City Arts & Lectures, San Francisco Ballet, and many places of worship have also turned to online conferencing or video streaming to present programs.
No doubt, some people will begin to feel that they are trapped in a virtual, computer-generated world. I recently joked with colleagues on a call that we were all becoming Max Headroom, the fictional 1980s artificial intelligence character who even fronted his own short-lived TV show.
So sometimes people are leaving behind the high tech and looking to comfort themselves in other ways. On April 25, San Franciscans were rallied by singer Tony Bennet and San Francisco’s chief of protocol, Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, to head to their balconies and front porches at noon to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in honor of the frontline workers in this pandemic.
Others have sung a different tune, combining tech with community fun. A week before the Tony Bennet-endorsed sing-along, Lady Gaga and a cadre of famous musicians around the world performed music from their homes for a virtual “One World: Together at Home” concert that raised more than $125 million for Covid-19 relief.
And H.P. Mendoza, now sheltering at home in San Francisco, had another idea recently. Sad that he couldn’t gather with friends for his birthday, he invited people to a Birthday Quarantine Sing-Along of “Mister Blue Sky.” He then compiled the dozens of contributions into a video and posted it online.
Hoping for another viral hit.