"Close! stand close to me Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God.”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
A computer’s webcam is centered on the top of the monitor, just above the screen itself. When video conferencing, there is always a choice: look at the person on the screen, or look into the camera. By looking into the camera, I can, for the other person, simulate eye contact; on his screen, it appears as if I am looking right at him. However, for him to simulate eye contact with me, he would have to look into the camera too. In this case, we would both be simulating eye contact – simulating what the field of oculesics (the study of eye movement) has termed the “mutual gaze.” But neither of us would be able to enjoy the simulation – we’d both be looking at a shiny black camera lens. Instead, we opt to look at each other’s image on the screen. There is something of security camera effect, watching someone who doesn’t appear to be watching you. But of course, he is watching you, just as you are watching him – twin Peeping Toms, a voyeurism without scandal. The technology industry's term for this phenomenon is the “Skype gaze.”
A number of recently released products have attempted to address and correct the “Skype gaze.” One is called eTeleporter, a device that fits over an iPad running Skype and uses a series of mirrors to simulate eye contact. Another is a software program that digitally corrects the video image of your interlocutor, shifting his eyes from the screen to the camera to give the appearance of a mutual gaze. 3D video conferencing is also in the works. Regardless of their success, investments in these technologies indicate that the Skype gaze has been identified as a problem that needs fixing.
But why? A 2006 study on the “effect of gazing at the camera during a video link” has shown that retention of information is negatively impacted when the listener does not feel that the speaker is looking into his eyes (even if he knows that the speaker would, in fact, only be looking into a camera lens): “perception of gaze aversion over a video link (a consequence of...not looking into the camera) has a negative impact on information recall.” But more than “information recall” is lost.
Against traditional metaphysics, Emmanuel Levinas considers the face-to-face encounter to be the ground of ethics. It is in this encounter where each subject achieves the recognition of the other. Upon recognizing the other, I am beholden to him – the face, in its infinite vulnerability and significance, demands my obligation, just as a guest is owed hospitality. Eye contact is, in a sense, the active ingredient of the face-to-face encounter:
This gaze that supplicates and demands, that can supplicate only because it demands, deprived of everything because entitled to everything, and which one recognizes in giving… this gaze is precisely the epiphany of the face as a face. The nakedness [nudité] of the face is destituteness [dénûment]. To recognize the Other is to recognize a hunger. To recognize the Other is to give. 
In a face-to-face encounter without eye contact – a simulated face-to-face – the face is emptied of its significance. The “hunger” of the other goes unrecognized. This is a casualty of the Skype gaze. The question “who?” – the question which the face, without speech, both answers and asks – goes unanswered. Here, anonymity begins to creep into the primal scene of accountability, and my obligation to the other, to the face on the other side of the video link, is thrown into question. The ethics that follow from this impoverished encounter are destabilized.
In a sense, video conferencing is the apotheosis of the various forms of social media that dominate online life. Unlike email, instant messaging or tweeting, video conferencing simulates the “real” physical encounter. It’s “live.” With other platforms I can share pictures and words; with video conferencing, I can share my self, in real time. I can be with you. We can have some “facetime."
But what does it mean to “share”? As evidenced by the new parlance that has cropped up around it, sharing via social media is different than other types of sharing: Where once I would share something with you, now I share something to you. Like a radio broadcast, it is asymmetrical – from me, to you, my “followers." In this sense, video conferencing is no different than other forms of social media: I am sharing my face, my realtime life, to you. And you are sharing yours to me. But are we together? Is what’s mine, yours?
While in retrospect the progression might seem like it was inevitable, it is not by accident or fate that social media and “sharing” has become the dominant online activity. It’s what we chose. Whether or not these types of online “sharing-to” are felicitous in the same way as the historical sense of “sharing-with,” the rapid adoption of social media’s sharing technologies, and the proliferation of the word “share” itself, are evidence of a deep collective yearning – not only to share my experience with others, but, even more vitally, to simply know that I am capable of sharing experience at all. Or, in other words, to know that I am not totally and irrevocably alone in the world. We might say we desire a third type of sharing: not sharing-to, not sharing-with, but sharing-in. A mutual immanence where our experience requires no translation. A return to the Tower of Babel, when we were one. All types of sharing are an expression of the desire to return this original state, or at least to know that such a return is possible.
There is something in eye contact that, however briefly, however unverifiably, satisfies the desire to share-in experience. I look into your eyes, and I believe that we have made eye contact. In fact, because there is so little I can verify about the experience, believing that we have made eye contact and making eye contact are one and the same. And you must believe it too — it must be a shared experience of belief to be happening at all. I certainly can’t make eye contact by myself. It’s complicated, then: To believe that we have made eye contact requires me to believe that you believe that we have made eye contact; which in turn requires you to believe that I believe that we have made eye contact. Mutual faith in eye contact, then, is the condition of eye contact.
Without this faith, what is the difference between making eye contact and looking at someone’s eyes, disinterestedly considering her pupils? If there is a difference, it lies in this shared belief. In this way, our belief in our eye contact precedes the physical experience of eye contact – if you can call the experience physical. It is an experience made true by the belief that our belief is shared. It is phenomenon and phenomenology, all at once.
The stakes are high: If my belief – our belief – is somehow true – which I feel it to be, even though I cannot verify it (and I believe you feel the same way) – then we together have received some special knowledge: That contained within our mutual gaze – within our belief of this shared secret – is the very possibility of “mutuality” itself, of what Paul Ricoeur would call intersubjective experience. That despite your otherness, your alien-ness, we can share something. That the void can be bridged. That we can overlap. That it is possible that I am not alone. As Melville wrote, the opening of this possibility is “better than to gaze upon God.”
There is something miraculous about how video conferencing allows you to see a loved one or a stranger across a great distance. It is like God’s eye. But it is ultimately disappointing. There is something of a synecdoche for all of social media to be found in the fact that video conferencing technologies like Skype allow for the miracle of face-to-face conversation, but, in its inability to allow its users to achieve eye contact, strip that primary encounter of its most essential feature – of that which makes a face-to-face encounter worthwhile in the first place. Similarly, through social media, we are able to share more than ever before, able to multiply our image and share it with world in an instant. But there is no contact. The “sharing” has become impoverished, no longer containing within it the liberating possibility of mutuality, of sharing-in.
By “sharing” without contact – sharing without recognition of the other– social media simulates the forms of accountability we see in the physical world, and in doing so expands the reach of anonymity. Online, we are more able to be anonymous than ever; in fact, we cannot escape it. In an ephemeral world of pixels and light, this anonymity feels strangely permanent. In the absence of eye contact in video conferencing, we see that even the primal scene of accountability – the face-to-face encounter – is shot through with anonymity, with the sense that the experience is unreal, that it doesn’t count, that both parties retain some plausible deniability that it is happening at all. We cannot answer the question “who?” This anonymity is not simulated; it is an experience native to an internet which, rather than finding some authentic source for its ethics, relies on – and is subordinate to – metaphorical approximations of the physical world. Rather than finding something other than eye contact to ground our online ethical relations, we are trying to digitally correct our eyes.
“Solve the eye contact problem and you have the new email,” writes telecommunications analyst Steve Blum. “No eye contact, nothing new. It’s no different from Second Life, and at least there you can look like anyone you want.” But solving the eye contact problem does not seem like enough. Whatever the solution that is eventually devised, eye contact via video would still be skeuomorphic, still a simulation. And, consequently, so too do online ethics remain a skeuomorph of those we find in the physical world.
Perhaps, then, it is not eye contact that the internet needs, but some other currency of trust and recognition. The bitcoin of responsibility. A ground for ethics that is not simulated, but wholly its own – an experience that is as vitally native to the internet as eye contact is to the physical world. Something new for us to share.
 Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Alphonso Lingis, translator. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969. 75.
Ricoeur, Paul. On Translation. New York: Routledge, 2006.
"Microsoft Viewport" image and thumbnail found here.
"Conference Room" image property of author.
"Share" image taken from here.