As Darren sits on another endless zoom call twiddling his pen and waiting for the pain to end, he starts to wonder exactly why he’s on this call. Bronwyn is rabbiting on about timesheets and how important it is to track time accurately for the purposes of reporting and blah blah management blah.
He clicks the end of his pen and wonders what would happen if he walked off-screen. Surely there’s some plugin to Zoom calls that would use deep-fake technology to just make it look like he’s still there? He looks at his face as seen by others. A perfect little square of shoulders, head, and a goofy galactic starbase backdrop for fun.
Darren opens up a new tab and starts googling. One of the first entries is the Zoom support site and this very question, with a surprising reply from a Zoom support zealot:
Zoom already employs cutting edge facing recognition software that can alleviate that bored face look. We are constantly releasing new features which can be accessed via the Advanced -> Features menu.
And of course, the first reply was a Simpsons meme.
Cool. Darren dived into the depths of Zoom. He loved to play with tech. He was about 10 menus deep and had enabled anything that looked slightly interesting when he heard his name.
“…from Darren, thanks, Darren.”
Shit, what? He wasn’t supposed to be speaking on the call.
“Sorry didn’t quite catch that, you dropped out for a second there,” he said. Good old trusty excuse #1 – “the internet flaked”.
But someone else was talking at the same time, which happens occasionally on these calls and he kindly waited for the other person to stop.
“… and these market movements are going to mean that our quarterly goals become achievable before the end of Q3,” the voice said.
Wait. What? That made no sense. Who the hell was even speaking?
Given then stunned silence from the entire call he guessed the others were having the same thoughts. Bronwyn unmuted.
“Sorry Darren, we’re not quite following what that has to do with the July birthdays luncheon?”
Oh yeah. I was supposed to organise that, wasn’t I? Time to turn on the bullshitometer and bullshit my way through this one.
“Um, July birthdays, yeah-” he began, but again that other person spoke over the top of him. Who the heck was it?
“…organised for the 13th at The Well and the luncheon will be paid for by the head of the sales department for doing such a stellar job this quarter,” the voice stated.
It sounded like a tinny version of his brother’s voice. But Greg hadn’t worked here for years. No matter, the fact that he had organised the luncheon and managed to do it on a departmental head’s credit card was great news. Otherwise, it would have been up to Darren to “whip around” and drum up volunteers to supply cakes for the event. This was one of the drawbacks of working in the public sector. No free anything. You had to bring your own damn cutlery. So he was extremely happy to hear someone had done something, skirted the rules somehow, and by the sounds of it, everyone else on the call was happy about it too. He decided to keep his head down despite the one nagging thought trying to make a SWAT team entrance into the conscious he’d worked so hard to dull: what the hell was “the sales department”? It was a government job, they didn’t sell anything to anyone. But he was willing to let it slide, and so was everyone else it seemed.
Oh, bloody hell. Except for…
Janet was speaking on mute.
“You’re muted Janet,” some people shouted in unison.
Darren smirked as he thought about how natural it was to shout when you can’t hear someone else. Like they’re further away. Except they’re not. Janet winced and spent a good 5 seconds finding the right window to unmute herself.
“Sorry, um, that’s great news Darren, but what is the sales department?” she said, speaking Darren’s concerns before muting herself quickly in a failed attempt to hide the wailing of her only child in the background. How’s lockdown treating you Janet? he thought, relishing the stressed look of Janet’s face now blown up at full 4k resolution.
Hang on. Did she say Darren again? They’re getting him confused with this other guy. Oh! Silly him. There must be another Darren. Who would that be though? He hadn’t heard about a new employee. He again started to scroll through the list of attendees on the call.
Jeepers how many people were on this damn call?
While he was scrolling he was very aware that no other Darren had spoken up. Maybe he was the only one? The silence stretched.
“Um, you OK big Daz?” said Ben, his branch manager and a top-quality bloke. “Big Daz” was definitely in reference to him. The chances of the new Darren also being called “Big Daz” were pretty slim, though not inconceivable. There must be some crossed wires.
“I’m fine, I’m just a bit-” he began, but again the other Darren cut him off. What the heck.
Feeling angry now, he decided he’d had enough of this guys bullshit.
“Excuse me. EXCUSE ME. Darren? Hey? Am I on mute? Can anybody hear me?”
Nobody else seemed to have noticed that he’d even said a word. Darren started working furiously to bring up the right box to see who the speaker was.
“…yeah mate yeah, was watching the Tigers the other night, did you see they got up? Great game-” the voice said, the tone an entirely unprofessional level of engaged and enjoying life.
“Ahh Darren that’s not entirely appropriate to this call,” interjected Ben, “let’s finish up here. Bronwyn do you want to send through that … slide pack thingo and we’ll all read it offline. Right guys? Darren, I’ll call you in a sec champ.”
“Bye, Later” came the chorus of voices.
“Peace out!” shouted that strange voice.
Darren hung on the line. He was still trying to work out who it was. He watched the little rectangles wink out until there was just one. Himself. He looked at his face blinking back at him. Now writ large on his 4k screen as the only participant of the call.
“What on earth just happened?” he said to himself, quite literally.
“Not quite sure, something to do with Janet’s boring timesheet presentation?” came the reply. FROM HIS OWN MOUTH. He had watched himself on the screen form those words. Did he actually speak them? As in IRL? He wasn’t even sure. Maybe he did.
He leaned back in his chair, his eyes on his own picture – the Zoom version of him leaned back in the chair too. “I’m going mad” he said.
He, the other him, burst out laughing, throwing his head back “Hahaha, that makes two of us!” and was quiet again, seamlessly blending the movement back into the position and facial features of the IRL Darren.
The Darren on-screen was looking very surprised. He moved around a bit and the onscreen Darren moved as well. Surely it’s no coincidence that this happened after he’d messed around with the depths of Zoom settings.
I delved too greedily and too deep he thought, paraphrasing Gandalf. He was quite impressed by the “Deep Fake”. Even the way it laughed was exactly how he laughs, throwing his head back like that. I’m referring to it as “it” now?
The thing was that he never laughed like that on a work Zoom call. So it has obviously been listening to far more than he knew. That was sort of scary.
He wondered how many others had found these settings and were using them. Not many he wagered based on the fact that the content his avatar spouted was absolute rubbish. In fact, there was a good chance the AI will get him put on some sort of performance management plan.
His mobile started to ring. It was Ben. He had some explaining to do.
He waved his hand in front of the camera, his face deadpan, and the avatar Darren also waved, but with a maniacal grin and a glint in his eye and said “Bye Bye Darren, I’ll see you later” with a theatrical wink before blinking out from the call. Darren sighed and took the call.
“Hi, Ben. No, I’m fine really. You’re going to have a hard believing this but -“