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The knowledge Zoom

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We all agree that meeting with people in the real world is better than videoconferencing with them. The evidence for that semi-bold statement is that once we’re all back in one physical conference room, we’re not going to start up a Zoom session to talk with the other people there.

Still, there are things I’ll miss about Zoom, starting with working from home. But our global Year of Zoom may have taught us some positive things about the pursuit of knowledge.

For example, typical real-world meetings are held in spaces purposefully kept agreeable to all, which almost always means they are at best bland. But in a virtual meeting, everyone selects the background they want to display. Some use their real background, others pick a background that says as much or as little about them as they want. Either way, your choice of a background says something about you.

How we’re thinking about knowledge

In fact, it even says something abouthow we’re thinking about knowledge these days. We used to think that knowledge was a result of rational thinking, and that rationality is the same for all of us. Some are better at it than others, of course, but rationality doesn’t change with a person’s character or quirks. Indeed, that’s a major reason we have searched for rational knowledge: It serves as a basis for decisions, independent of the interests of the individuals making those decisions.

But in choosing to disclose something, even a little, about one’s personality and interests—even though it’s kept literally in the background—people are acknowledging that personality and personhood matter to the discussion. The personalizing of the conversation doesn’t mean that people are saying that knowledge itself depends on one’s personality. Rather, it acknowledges that the discovery and development of knowledge does not happen solely on the universal, shared grounds of pure reason.

After all, we recognize these days that diversity helps the knowledge process come to new ideas and to steer away from old, bad ideas. But that diversity does not end with a diversity in backgrounds or standpoints. It goes all the way down to the diversity of personalities. Virtual backgrounds let us inhabit a shared space within our own distinct space.

In line with this is the fact that Zoom sessions not infrequently include a little child running into a room, requiring a participant to break off, engage with the child, and move them out of view and earshot. That’s a good reminder that there are some things more important than knowledge and certainly more urgent. Not to mention that seeing how a parent deals with a child can tell you something profound about the personality that parent is bringing to the discussion.

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