David Foster Wallace On Video Phones


The iPhone 4, which was announced earlier today (7 June 2010), comes with a HD camera and videophone functionality. This reminded me of a passage in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest in which he writes at length about the rise and fall of videophony. This in turn reminded me that I still need to finish and upload a brief appreciation that I'd begun writing shortly after I had finished reading the novel, which reminded me that I had intended to do so after migrating to a new server and upgrading my site, which reminded me that I really need to do so soon so I can get on with all the stuff I'm now postponing.

In the novel video phones "enjoyed an interval of huge consumer popularity", but within 16 months "the tumescent demand curve for 'videophony' suddenly collapsed like a kicked tent". The reason, "in a kind of trivalent nutshell", was: "(1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech."

I just reread the entire passage, which occurs on page 144-151. It is such totally amazing writing, so rich in imagination. Here's another fragment:

"It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn't been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they'd been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They'd never noticed it before, the delusion — it's like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation — utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes — let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end's attention might be similarly divided. During a traditional call, e.g., as you let's say performed a close tactile blemish-scan of your chin, you were in no way oppressed by the thought that your phonemate was perhaps also devoting a good percentage of her attention to a close tactile blemish-scan. It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line's other end's voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear, enabling you to imagine that the voice's owner's attention was similarly compressed and focused . . . even though your own attention was not, was the thing. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody's complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time."

"Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener's expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those callers who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril-explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress."

Now when I read this I feel guilty about cutting it short somewhere in the middle. I also feel like rereading the whole novel.

By the way, the iPhone 4 looks pretty cool. I want one too, if only because it will allow me to also send those "sent from my iPhone" messages to my friends, who have one. Right now I feel like I'm way behind the curve.

Category: Books