David Foster Wallace was wrong about video calling

It’s been nearly fifteen years since Skype introduced video calling, and nearly nine years since FaceTime popularized the mobile version — so it’s as good a time as any to revisit one of the most well-known modern predictions about video calling, and pin down exactly what it got wrong.

The prediction comes from David Foster Wallace’s 1996 epic Infinite Jest, which imagines a future in which information glut and corporatization have ravaged human consciousness. There are lots of surreal predictions, with the videophone bit coming about 150 pages in. In the Infinite Jest timeline, the video calling boom lasted just over a year, collapsing with dire economic consequences and the majority of the population moved back to regular telephones. Technically, this part is in all caps for weird stylistic reasons (it’s all title?) but I’ve down-capped it to spare your eyeballs:

Within like 16 months or 5 sales quarters, the tumescent demand curve collapsed like a kicked tent, so that by the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, fewer than 10 percent of all private telephone communications utilized any video image fiber data transfers … the average US phone user deciding that s/he actually preferred the retrograde old low-tech Bell-era voice-only phone interface after all.

The problem, according to Foster Wallace, is that video calling made people self conscious about how engaged each side was in the conversation, fundamentally changing the social implications of a call. As he puts it:

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 … video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable.

There’s also a concern about how you look on the video call, so while you can roll out of bed and take a regular audio call, the basic requirements of vanity are a lot higher for video. That leads to a whole tangent about HD masking, which for some reason involves a physical plastic mask of your face that hangs next to the phone. Those masks evolve into more attractive versions of the caller (“stronger chins, smaller eyeballs, airbrushed scars and wrinkles”), eventually replacing the caller’s physical form entirely, until the disjunction between our real bodies and online presentation becomes untenable, causing the whole thing to collapse.

Obviously, there’s a lot going on here about self-presentation and alienation and so on, but he pivots the whole thing into a fairly specific prediction about technology:

There’s some sort of revealing lesson here in the beyond-short-term viability-curve of advances in consumer technology … First there’s some sort of terrific sci-fi like advance in consumer tech — like from aural to video phoning — which advance always, however, has certain unforeseen disadvantages to the consumer; and then but the market niches created by those disadvantages … are ingeniously filled by entrepreneurial verge; and yet the very advantages of these ingenious disadvantage-compensations seem all too often to undercut the original high-tech advance.

He was writing all this before the internet hit its stride, so I don’t want to be too harsh, but this is really not what happened at all. The biggest missing piece is texting, which has almost completely overtaken voice calling for roughly the reasons Foster Wallace describes. Not only don’t you need to pay attention or look good, you don’t even need to be consciously present at the same time as the person you’re talking to. The read receipt is our only best technical mechanism for telling whether a person is on the other end at all, and it’s seen as invasive to the point of rudeness.

At the same time, the easy distance of texting has arguably made video calling more important. FaceTime lets you escalate beyond the world of texting into uncomfortable, attentive intimacy. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need. It’s become a central part of nearly every smartphone and mobile platform, even without getting into parallel formats like Snapchat and Instagram Stories, which are basically video calls atomized into shareable media. There are lots of face-filtering animations (again, for mostly the vanity reasons that Foster Wallace talks about), but they make you look like a cartoon dog or a CGI alien instead of a more attractive version of yourself, so there’s no future-shock alienation to bring the whole system crashing down.

There’s still something eerily familiar at work here, particularly in the idea of endless technology cycles trying to fix what was broken by the previous cycle. We create apps to distract us, then more apps to help us focus. But occasionally, we really do make systems that bring us closer together, and texting is a prime example. Luckily, the face filters aren’t quite as soul-destroying as they seemed.

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