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Zooming in on the background

With the pandemic moving a large part of human interactions online, the little video window that people use to beam themselves assumes heft. Beyond personal preening, everyone pays attention to the visual real estate overall, and the importance of background forces itself to the fore with its implications hard to ignore.

It was different for video calls from the office. For all participants, a shared workplace standardised the background which remained passive without acquiring additional visual stripes of implied meanings about the individual persona they framed.

But when work moved home and occupied personal spaces around the world, choices of background started to haunt. What should one show in the background of their video window? Will my political ideology displayed on the walls mean trouble? Will I be judged by my furniture, lights, wardrobe? If my room reflects my religious faith, will that cause prejudice?

The subject in the frame is text, while the background is context. It is the basics of semantics that context can interfere with the meaning of text. Therefore, the concern about the background.

In television debates when all speakers went to the studio, they shared a common background that did not intercept the discussion. Now, when they participate from home, inordinate attention goes into the background for which choices are plenty from tiling it up with their party symbol to placing an elaborate bookshelf. The latter surpasses all others in popularity, notwithstanding the likely irony when the speaker’s wisdom comes on display. However, the urge to make a statement with one’s background remains. Those who waste their airtime can wistfully believe their background salvaged some lost message.

That the background is not relegated to its implied physical position is evident when we see it being prone to manipulation by political adversaries who can morph a title in the background of a leader’s bookshelf and hurl allegations against her.

A showcase

As experts of visual culture argue, “each selfie is the performance of a person as they hope to be seen by others.” Even still pictures are performances, and the background is a big part of its choreography. So, everything from an academic webinar to a friend’s hangout cry for orchestrating the background. People choose it to register their “success”, display their taste, showcase their values or simply to parade their passion such as wildlife or retro music. The beholder can interpret them as commonplace, outrageous, snooty or done-to-death.

Considering the chaos of a live background, one may turn to custom backgrounds offered by the meeting apps. They help substitute a given surrounding digitally with what looks aspirational or idealistic like a hyperclean office or an idyllic beach. Choose one to present yourself as a neatnik or a climate activist. Look compassionate or fearless. One problem with custom images is their limited library. You may be slotted. The next LinkedIn article could be on the types of bosses based on their background on team calls!

Another option to substitute the home truth of your surroundings is a picture from your own photo gallery. Choose your recent online course certificate or a snapshot of a charity event in the neighbourhood and make a statement! Digital background replacement has its imperfections, though. When the subject moves, it will be jagged on the edges. If you don’t blend with an acquired background, like in real life, technology will call it out.

That takes one to the interesting choice of blurring the background. You make your location irrelevant as all surrounding objects, patterns, and compositions go out of focus into a blur, inviting attention back to what you say and how you react. It is a quiet declaration of your freedom to be wherever you want. It gives you the ability to turn off all visual cues that are irresponsibly used to judge you. Be liberated from the performance anxiety of the selfie.

Though a part of the weariness attached to virtual meetings made pervasive by the pandemic is thus addressed, the very idea of being on camera remains intimidating to many. The sudden surge in popularity of platforms such as Clubhouse is probably a sign of our subconscious revolt against the excesses of visual distractions.

pksajan@gmail.com


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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 2:46:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/zooming-in-on-the-background/article35513368.ece

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