The Uncanny Valley of Prayer

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.

Self absorption

And yet Silicon Valley designers have decided this is exactly what the optimal video call experience should be like.

Being able to see yourself during the call is a helpful reference for knowing whether you’re “in view” or “out of view,” but having to rely on a digital mirror to monitor your own visibility is abnormal. It’s a lazy design solution.

It would be fairly simple for our favorite companies to train a low level image recognition algorithm to notice when you’ve moved offscreen and subtly prompt you to get back in view (the edges of the app window could glow red, for example).

But I digress.

Repeatedly glancing at a small version of myself in the corner of the screen while talking to someone else feels, at worst, like a benign form of narcissism. But it also makes me reflect on other ways in which I can become preoccupied by my own image, and how that prevents me from being fully attentive to my conversation partner.

In the context of prayer, this kind of self-centered behavior feels a little more serious. What percentage of my prayers begin (and even end) with the topic of myself?

Distraction

We all know the telltale signs — shifts in the luminosity of the screen glow reflected onto their faces means they’ve opened a new window. When their eyes glance to the edge of the screen every time you talk it means they’ve minimized your face to make room for whatever else they’re looking at instead.

Witnessing the attention of your conversation partner wax and wane in real time is like slowly pushing a sword into your gut. But if you thought my pain as a victim would prevent me from committing the exact same crime to others, you’d be wrong.

I’m so guilty.

The moment I feel my undivided attention is no longer mandatory in a video call, I’m off to browse open tabs or triage Slack messages (all under the guise of multi-tasking, of course).

While I’m typically not browsing the internet while I pray, at times it feels like I’m just as prone to seek distraction. My prayers will trail off into thinking about what I need to do for the day, or replaying memories, or simulating social situations.

But I should practice a little more self discipline. Close the tabs, be present.

Intentionality

Create a calendar invite. Copy the link. Paste the link. Click the link. Wait for the microphone and video to load. Click enter. Wait for the other person to join. Can you hear me? Great. Yes, I can hear you.

Even though I miss being able to strike up casual conversations, a friend pointed out that there’s something valuable about the intentionality required for video calls. Having to “enter” and “exit” a conversation requires purpose. It can only happen through planning and consent. That kind of effort means a lot in relationships.

One of my favorite aspects of prayer is that I can pray anywhere, any time. I believe that God is always accessible and that prayers don’t need to be long (my go-to prayer before meals with guests is “God, thanks for this food and for these friends, amen.”)

But my prayers shouldn’t only be fast and casual or limited to when it’s convenient for me. I’m reminded that there is deep relational value in intentional prayer — for setting aside time, entering a room, testing the connection, and staying on the call longer than five minutes.

Patience

Even the slightest delay in response is enough to make me question my entire existence — did they hear what I said? Should I repeat myself? Did my joke bomb?

Particularly bad delays are sufficient grounds for aborting the call.

But because of these delays in connection my friend told me that he is becoming a better listener. He’s more patient. Instead of jumping in right away with a response, he’ll stay silent for a tick or two longer than usual to ensure his conversation partner has had time to complete their entire thought.

He speaks. He waits. He listens. And then he listens a little more.

Several years ago my concept of prayer was completely inverted: I started speaking less and listening more. I finally gave God a chance to respond instead of talking over him and it worked 😅 I started to hear from God in real time.

Though God never guarantees an immediate response to prayer, it’s still up to me to ensure that I’m giving him the time and space to do so. Speak. Wait. Listen. And then listen a little a more.

This post was originally published in The Valleyist, my newsletter exploring the intersection of technology and spiritual faith. You can subscribe below:

This newsletter is published ~2x/month

Designer, born and raised in Tokyo.

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