Skip to content

The Uncanny Valley of Conversation

Justin Barber
5 min read

I had a day last week where I was on video calls (without a break) from 10AM–3:30PM. After five and a half hours straight of talking to people through a screen I was drained. That evening I spent another hour or two doing the same with friends.

The total amount of conversation time that day was probably average (at least for pre-COVID times), but doing it all through video was so much more exhausting than normal, in-person encounters.

Right as I started to wonder why video calls tire me out so much, a post titled A Theory of Zoom Fatigue popped onto my twitter feed.

The author takes a fairly deep dive into the “theory of perception” (at one point they reference philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty 🤷‍♀️), but their basic hypothesis is that video calls wear us out because

the full range of what the mind assumes should be available to it when it perceives a body, simply isn’t there.”

In other words, when we see a face our subconscious expects all the other subtle signals we pick up from body language and physical space to be there as well. But that’s not the case in video calls. Even though our brains keep trying,

“because we are not actually sharing the same physical space, we can’t quite achieve the optimal grip we’re accustomed to achieving in conversation.”

While video calls are the closest medium we have to a real face-to-face encounter, the way our brains try to process the situation is at odds with reality.

And that’s what makes video calls so tiring — the face on the other side is just a mirage.

The author concludes:

“I suppose we might think of [video calls] as something like a conversational uncanny valley.”

What a killer line!

While it was the first time I’d ever heard of that phrase, it felt instantly familiar.

Because “a conversational uncanny valley” is exactly how I’d describe prayer – a conversation with someone who is both invisible and nonverbal.

(Suddenly a detached, pixelated face reacting on a slight delay doesn’t sound so bad 😏)

So here are a few thoughts on what the uncanny valley of video call conversations has been teaching me about my approach to prayer.

Already have an account? Log in