A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 6, 2009

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 1:08 am

One interesting wrinkle to reading Infinite Jest on its tenth anniversary is that we’re now more-or-less living in the “near future” in which the novel appears to be set. And we can tell that, for example, the short-lived video-telephony revolution that Wallace forecast never came to pass. At the same time we can also tell that Wallace didn’t foresee the actual communications revolutions of the past ten years—things like the rise of IM and SMS to a position of ubiquity.

But what I found fascinating about the passage on the rise and fall of the video phone was that despite its inaccurate (and outlandish) account of technological progress, I thought the depiction of the psychology of communications technology was dead-on. And when we think about what new ways of dealing with one another have become popular in recent years, I think in part they’ve become popular precisely because of the same underlying issues that Wallace describes as causing so much anxiety around the video phone. What we’ve wanted out of communication isn’t more interaction with our interlocutors, but less. The ability to communicate while substantially obscuring what we’re really doing—to reduce our interaction to a think strand of text—has proven immensely popular.


  1. I completely love that section of the book.

    Comment by G C — July 6, 2009 @ 1:12 am | Reply

  2. This is most likely the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. 2009, that is.

    Comment by Trevor J — July 6, 2009 @ 1:57 am | Reply

  3. Since we’ve crossed the spoiler line in my piece of the planet I can now link to a longer post I’ve just put up on the use of time in this section of the novel.

    Comment by G C — July 6, 2009 @ 4:05 am | Reply

  4. The video phone has, in fact, arrived. If you ever enter an internet cafe in any large foreign city, you will find a handful of young Americans, headsets in tow, chatting away in Skype, SightSpeed or Messenger video calls.

    Comment by Gabor — July 6, 2009 @ 12:20 pm | Reply

  5. As a kid, I was a fan of the Mad Magazine paperbacks that (I realized later) were re-prints of the ’50’s and ’60’s classic Mad Magazine features. One of them was about fake backdrop screens you could use when talking on video phones – making it look like you were at the office when at the beach. And it seems there really is such a thing for video conferencing:

    Comment by John I — July 7, 2009 @ 5:04 am | Reply

  6. I was just talking back and forth with an old friend about our Facebook photos. She has a photo of herself as a child. I had no photo for the longest time, thought that was lame, finally opted to face up to my vanity and take a photo of myself, than I ran it through an image altering program to cartoonize it. Spent way too much of my limited endless days fretting over it. Matt is exactly right–the details are off target, but the psychology is dead on.

    Comment by Ralph — July 7, 2009 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

  7. Why IJ Doesn’t Really Count as Science Fiction…

    Before reading Infinite Jest, I had not heard it described within the framework of quote science-fiction. But naturally there are a number of relevant characteristics that emerge, such as the “advanced” technological gizmos (many of which …

    Trackback by Infinite Tasks, Infinite Summers, & Philosophy — July 10, 2009 @ 4:35 am | Reply

  8. I think you could pretty well argue the exact phenom Wallace described with videophones HAS happened, in a sense; not a short-lived burst of popularity but total non-popularity for precisely the reasons Wallace described. I’m not sure what the situation is in the US but here in Europe, we’ve had video-calling on our mobiles for several (at least five I think) years. And nobody uses it. The mobile network (3) that based its whole appeal around it didn’t make any progress till it about-turned and focused on offering dirt-cheap voice calls instead. Partly this is because video calls are expensive, but it’s not just that – voice calls were expensive at first, after all. Largely I’m sure because of exactly what Wallace is describing. I use my mobile phone when I’m on the bus, in the street, washing dishes – on the toilet, for heaven’s sake. I jam it under my jaw to use both hands to do things. These things are in no way compatible with video.

    (Skype is a bit different, because you’re sat at a PC anyway, so you can’t be doing all that much else. But I bet a tiny proportion of Skype’s calls are video, even when people have the relevant tech; and Skype’s future is surely as a service on mobile phones).

    The funny thing is that if Wallace had been more confident in his view of human nature, he’d have got it more right, not less. It was widely assumed in the early-90s that video calling would come along – indeed, a very expensive early version was available by then in the UK. I don’t think anyone considered for a second – except Wallace – that it wouldn’t take off. He obviously realised it wouldn’t, but figured hype and curiosity would ensure a short-lived boom at least. Pleasingly, it seems people have just realised from day one that this is a technology that’ll never be good for more than occasional use.

    (Final thought – recall how in Star Trek, formal, diplomatic-style communications are always ‘on screen,’ but informal day-to-day chat between crew members is always audio-only on a chest-communicator? What does that tell ya?)

    Comment by Rav Casley Gera — August 25, 2009 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

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