Listening to Yesterday: Conference Call

"You don't have to put on the red light. Those days are over."

  1. conference call
  2. user interface


The conference call lasted a little over an hour, four people in four different buildings on two different coasts. The discussion was mediated by a software interface. The software allowed for screen-sharing, but especially prominent on the interface, this being a live conversation, were markers for various aspects of the audio. A little microphone symbol was situated next to each speaker’s name — that’s speaker as in human, not as in sound-emitting technology — and a horizontal meter registered how loud someone was talking. Whoever spoke, their name appeared prominently next to the word “talking.” This was an imperfect approach, since had someone been sharing my laptop with me, my name would have appeared when they spoke. On this call we all knew each other well enough that the names were unnecessary.

I’ve seen variations on this speaker-identification model over the years. One that particularly stuck in my memory used a spatial relationship for the voices, so you’d see them on the screen in a manner that suggested they were, in essence, in different seats. It was a bit like an ambisonic Jedi Council: If you listened on headphones, the voices were also situated spatially across the stereo spectrum. You had the option to move them to where you wanted them, so you could group them according to role or organization. It seemed particularly useful as a means to evenly distribute the people who talked too much.

On the conference call tool yesterday, the microphone button was red when someone had muted it, green when they had it live. Color is a whole other ball of wax from sound. There are especially strong cultural associations with color, though the associations also vary widely around the globe. In the west, red is often seen as an admonition (stop, warning), whereas in Asia it can suggest happiness (good luck, joy). On this call, red was intended as neutral, a simple “off” in an on/off binary world, but it seemed to still carry some cultural baggage. I had it on red/mute most of the time so that my typing of notes didn’t fill up the sonic conversation space. I couldn’t help but think, though, that the red next to my name was unintentionally signaling disinterest. I also wondered if any of these whiz-bang digital conference-call tools could just filter out keyboard clatter.

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