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Infinite Jest: how David Foster Wallace’s classic nineties novel foreshadowed the Year of Zoom

Nine people in a zoom meeting.
It was fun for a while, but people quickly got sick of video calls during lockdown. Cabeca de Marmore via Shutterstock

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), even the years have their price. They have been sold off and named. Year of the Whopper. Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Time has been reduced to another opportunity for corporate sponsorship, as if it were a Premier League football stadium.

The characters who inhabit Wallace’s world feel the pernicious grip of consumerism even more acutely than we do. They battle with the same addictions: to entertainment; to drugs and alcohol, of course; to sporting success at any cost. Sadly, we recognise each of these in our society. But at least our years haven’t been put up for sale. Yet.

Infinite Jest narrates a vision of the near future, which is now our recent past. The novel depicts a conjectural North American superstate during the first decade of the 21st century. But what if we were we living out Wallace’s speculative fiction? In a number of frightening ways, we are. One thing is for certain: there would be a clear contender for 2020 sponsorship. It would be the Year of Zoom.

Or Teams. Or Meet. Since the COVID-19 restrictions on our lives began in March, these platforms have become household names. Many of us have had to grow familiar with their distinct idiosyncrasies in order to work or socialise. Infinite Jest provides something of a user guide to handling video calls. However, it is not a ringing endorsement of them. Quite the opposite.

That Infinite Jest predicts video calls is hardly noteworthy. Communicating at a distance through a screen has long been a staple ingredient of science fiction. What is so eerily prescient about video calls in the novel is not its description of their rise. It is the reasons Wallace gives for their demise.

Bearded man giving lecture with microphone and lectern.
Ahead of his time: the late author David Foster Wallace. Steve Rhodes/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Wallace calls it “videophony”. This nascent video-telephonic technology enjoyed “AN INTERVAL OF HUGE CONSUMER POPULARITY” before demand “COLLAPSED LIKE A KICKED TENT”. A capitalised passage of faux media analysis concludes that phone users “ACTUALLY PREFERRED THE RETROGRADE OLD LOWTECH BELL-ERA VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONIC INTERFACE AFTER ALL”. It then asks: “WHY THE ABRUPT CONSUMER RETREAT BACK TO GOOD OLD VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONING?”

Wallace’s narrator answers the call. People rejected videophony because of “(1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech”. The pandemic has proven Wallace right on all three counts.

Fancy a Zoom later?

At the beginning of lockdown, we flocked to video conferencing. It was – and remains – an invaluable means of staving off boredom and loneliness. But we have begun to feel the effects of what Wallace identified more strongly in recent months.

We held pub quizzes, then we stopped. We agreed to Zoom every week, then we didn’t. As Wallace puts it: “it turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces.”

Plenty of people had been regularly making video calls long before the COVID-19 outbreak. Back then, however, the technology wasn’t serving as a substitute for face-to-face interaction to the same extent. In Infinite Jest, consumers have the luxury of rediscovering an earlier technology, the merits of which passed them by the first time around. We are not in the same position. We know full well the value of what we lack in lockdown – and every call has been coloured by the mourning of its loss.

We continue to use video calls in part because we know that this is as good as it’s going to get for some time. Socialising indoors is once again illegal for millions of people across the UK and elsewhere. So we have developed the videophonic coping strategies that Wallace envisioned.

Thankfully, we have been spared the “emotional stress” of realising that – as Wallace puts it – “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.” Each of us had that earth-shattering realisation midway through our first Skype call, however many years ago. Incredibly, up till then we had never been “haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided”.

Lockdown has been more troubling for our “physical vanity”. Wallace foresaw the “shiny pallid indefiniteness” of seeing our own faces on screen. They are “not just unflattering but somehow evasive, furtive, untrustworthy, unlikeable.” To combat what Wallace terms “Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria”, the telecommunications industry devised “High-Definition Masking”. What started as composites of “flattering multi-angle photos” culminated in “a form-fitting polybutylene-resin mask”. We are not quite at that stage. Yet.

Background information

Our vanity extends far beyond our faces. Or rather, behind our faces to the backdrops that frame them. The early weeks of lockdown were littered with stories mocking politicians and journalists for their carefully curated bookshelves. But who among us cannot empathise with these contrivances? Wallace knew we would want to communicate “the sort of room that best reflected the image” of ourselves that we “wanted to transmit”. In my experience, this means having to resist the urge to tailor the spines on display to match the reading habits and political allegiances of every caller. The call ends up beginning well before the scheduled time.

The alternative isn’t much better. In Infinite Jest, people cover their videophone lens with a “Transmittable-Tableau”. These are “high-quality transmission-ready photographs, scaled down to diorama-like proportions”. Not such a ridiculous idea, given the wide range of video call backgrounds currently available.

The artfully staged bookshelf and the digital backdrop both run risks. The former can be construed as being horrendously self-involved. The latter invites the inference that there is something to hide behind whatever high-resolution facsimile the disembodied head is looming in front of. The key is to find the sweet spot between not appearing too concerned with one’s appearance, while shielding the call participants from the chaos lying slightly out of frame.

Which brings me to Wallace’s third reason for the failure of videophony. In its final throes, there emerged a “chic integrity” in rejecting videophony as “tacky vain slavery to corporate PR and high-tech novelty”. I have noticed a similar trend in recent weeks. Some callers now take a wonderful stance against vanity.

The messier the background, the better. Unsuitable lighting now trumps precisely directed anglepoise lamps. Which begs the question: why bother with the video component of video calls at all? Is the “self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech” starting to take hold, as Wallace prophesied?

Wallace’s narration announces that videophony is “less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair-checks in the foyer mirror before answering the door”. These inconveniences would be a small price to pay if it meant our doorbells would ring again. And I don’t mean for another Amazon delivery.

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