Lucy in the Sky with Zoom meetings

Lately I came across a rumor about the famous Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. The song, so the rumor goes, actually references to the substance Lysergic acid diethylamide – better known as LSD. Although the Beatles denied the rumor for that particular song, they never made a secret of the fact that hallucinogenics were involved, especially in the production of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Browsing around a bit I fell into the rabbit hole of research around therapeutic use of LSD for psychotherapy of PTSD or depressive and anxiety disorders. One of the most important requirements to keep in mind, so the overall opinion, is called Set and Setting. Set is the mental state you yourself should be in if you undergo this form of therapy. The intrinsic motivation, if you want. It basically means that if you are not open and receptive for the experience the best trip won’t bring you any relief. Setting on the other hand is the environment that you are in while tripping. It’s all the extrinsic factors. The room you are in, the company you are with, the clothes that touch your skin and the scents your nose smells. If one of these or other things are not right, your trip might go terribly wrong.

When you think about some debates you had lately, don’t discussions about Zoom meetings sound a little like a trip as well? What is going on in front of me? Where does that sound come from? Your background cuts out your hair! Where are you guys? I can hear you, but I can’t see you! So I played around a bit with the rules of Set and Setting, put them out of the hallucinogenic context and applied them for online meetings. Turns out: It works!

Let’s start with the setting. Imagine yourself sitting in a Café in a train station. You are waiting for your train to take you somewhere and you use the time to catch up with your colleague. But something doesn’t feel right. The internet connection is not super stable, there is always someone passing with their luggage behind your bag and the constant noises of the coffee machine producing coffee after coffee make it hard to understand what your colleague is saying. The headphones can only do so much… How comfortable do you feel in that setting? How much can you really concentrate on the other side? 

But let’s, for one second, imaging all these distractions weren’t there. You are in a perfectly predictable and quiet environment. Everything around fits your personal needs perfectly. You are not distracted by any external factors. And then you go into a video conference call and you don’t get the results you wanted. It was too distant, you say. It was too impersonal, you say. There was no established connection – although the WiFi worked perfectly. Where does that come from? Here’s where Set comes into play. 

Humans are highly social animals. We need the connection to other people, the feeling of belonging. If we don’t get that, we might get ill or even die. If you break it down, we all strive for love and acceptance. Some more than others, some differently than others. But in the end this is where we are all going for. Depending on different factors, such as interpersonal relationship, hierarchy or status, these connections are sometimes deeper or more superficial. Determined by how deep the connection is and how we want to present ourselves, we carry ourselves differently.

Most of us have really experienced the power of digital relationships during the COVID crisis. Staying in touch with your loved ones, working together apart with colleagues or getting to know people all over the world in you online sports class. The digital age has changed, how we see relationships. We can now be friends with a person on the other end of the world, although we never met them! It has become way easier to find one’s own tribe. The people who get you. Who understand you. The people that are like you. That bring the basis for a connection with them. But Digitalization has not changed how we establish connections in their core: with curiosity and the willingness to connect. Digitalization is so successful because it enables connection on such a grand scale.

So how do we evaluate the value and the benefit of the tool for our connections? One criteria is our exposure to it. How much, how often, which context. What use case do we mostly connect it with? Most people were thrown into the world of online connectivity through their workplace that handed them a laptop with a camera and asked them to work from home. To stay in touch, companies came up with the wildest ideas – from being online on Zoom for eight hours straight so your supervisor can see you, to celebrating online cocktail mixing classes as a team event to keep the culture. What most of the interactions we had while sitting in the discomfort of our quarantine homes have in common is that they originate from a professional setting. And most people act differently in a work environment than they would at home. 

Set and Setting is not just reliant on your own situation and preparation. The organizer’s set is the participant’s setting. So, if we don’t like work zoom meetings, because they don’t allow for connection, chances are, your workplace setting was never built for deep and meaningful connections in the first place. Being asked to have your camera on and having everybody else see your safe space aka your home is not really a comfortable feeling when you don’t see your work environment as a safe space. And not having the freedom to deny a meeting request when your homeschooled kid is throwing a tantrum doesn’t really help to relax either. 

I don’t expect you to love Zoom meetings. Some people always did, some people never will. But with a bit of willingness to approach each other with respect, decency and an open mind, video conferences can be less draining and more fun for everyone involved. 

In the Beatles song Lucy invites the listener to follow her into a world where everybody you pass smiles. You are invited to climb in the back of a newspaper taxi with your head in the clouds. Maybe we should approach our Zoom meetings with the same energy. We assume, everyone is approaching us with well intentions. And we can fully immerse in the experience. Maybe our digital connections become less of a bad and exhausting trip, but more of a deep, meaningful and connective experience. Because every party involved cared about establishing the right Set and Setting.