David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest is, for my money, the greatest novel ever written. It appears regularly near the top of “best novels of all time” lists such as Time Magazine’s. It has inspired a generation of imitators—as well as sour-grapes detractors, including Wallace’s formerly close friend Jonathan Franzen.
Fans of Infinite Jest mostly love it for its wildly inventive, comprehensive use of language—Wallace, like his teenage tennis-playing protagonist Hal Incandenza, seems preternaturally familiar with the complete Oxford English Dictionary—and for its complex, fractured, postmodern narrative. It demands multiple readings, and rewards them handsomely. But Infinite Jest also features prominent, key elements of science fiction. One influential article argues that it’s “clearly not science fiction because it isn’t branded as science fiction in the marketplace nor is it consumed as science fiction by ‘science fiction fans.’ IJ pulls in dollars under an entirely different brand, mainstream literary fiction.” That’s true; but that only means readers don’t primarily experience IJ as science fiction. They don’t think of IJ as inhabiting the same category as sci-fi classics such as Dune or I, Robot; rather, it is “literary fiction” above all.
However, Infinite Jest functions as science fiction in many sections. Like classic science fiction, IJ engages Big Ideas directly in its created world and its plot; specifically, IJ explores in fine detail the nature and function of addiction and entertainment, and those forces’ complicated relationship to happiness. Wallace’s gargantuan novel (about 1000 pages plus 100 pages of endnotes) also provides sharp-edged satire. It may not be a primarily “futurist” novel, but like sci-fi classics Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, it employs visions/predictions of a dystopian future to critique the present: “Here’s the horrible place we’re headed.”
The plot, created during the first half of the 1990s, is set around twenty years later—that is, right about now. The USA has joined, or more accurately annexed, Canada and Mexico to form the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). (Yes, it’s intentionally funny.)
To fix chronic national economic woes, we no longer call years by numbers—2014, 2015, and so on; now each year’s name is purchased by the highest corporate bidder—hence, “The Year of the Whopper,” “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” “The Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar,” and so forth. I expect this innovation any day now.
The combination of Wallace’s pointed satire, and our currently living in the time he imagined in detail twenty years ago, makes his visions/predictions pertinent and worth scrutiny. How accurate was he? What did he not see coming? What might we learn from the disparity between that imagined future and the actual one (our present)? Future articles in this series will examine other sci-fi-related issues from Infinite Jest; this one addresses videophony.
Wallace explores the subject of videophony in a five-page, self-contained description (i.e. prediction) beginning on page 145. This little analysis dissecting “what happened” boasts the novel’s longest chapter heading, a full page of all-capital, all-bold type to the effect that, in the future (our time now), there would be a precipitous mania for, and then turning virulently against, our ability to see the person we’re talking to on the telephone. When Wallace wrote about it, videophony was futuristic, Jetsons-like fantasy technology; the internet itself was in its early days, employing newfangled dialup connections via America Online. Cell phones were not yet ubiquitous, and smartphones didn’t exist. There was neither Skype nor FaceTime.
What happened in real-world history was: videophony was greeted with very tepid enthusiasm or outright predictions that it would flop. It has since then steadily, slowly gained ground. It is used but not much loved. Most people use it for one of two reasons: they want to see their loved ones’ faces while physically far from them; or else, for business reasons, a virtual videoconference is desirable for its efficiency. Few people use it enthusiastically, voluntarily, and often. A graph would show a small-scale, slowly-developing, grudging acceptance.
Wallace was right that most people don’t choose to use it. His detailed, fanciful prediction was considerably more complex and philosophically exploratory of human nature. The progression he imagines is as so:
First, videophony became readily, cheaply available via “teleputers,” which as the name suggests are combined televisions and computers through which all information and entertainment spews forth. (Wallace was quite right about their function if not their name—see, for example, the enormous popularity of streaming video on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and the like, via computers and smartphones.) The future had arrived! People adopted the new way of phoning immediately and en masse.
But then, secondly, they quickly grasped videophony’s biggest drawback: yes, you can see the person you’re talking to, but they can see you too. “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.” With an old-style phone, you could,
“enter a 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. . . . 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 fugue-like activities, you were never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided. . . . It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported.”
The fact that a typical aural telephone had 6 small holes in its speaker (at your ear), but 62 holes in its mouthpiece, was quite telling in this light. Then videophony yanked away this comforting fantasy, rendering it insupportable. It was bound to happen: “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.”
The horror of being seen by your conversation partner “was even worse if you were at all vain. I.e. if you worried at all about how you looked. As in to other people. Which all kidding aside who doesn’t.” The medical establishment coined a name for this problem: “Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria,” or VPD. This aspect of videophony then brought about the next development that, thirdly, people rapidly began inventing and marketing ways to improve their appearance on the videophone. Whereas one great thing about sound-only phones was the ability to answer “as you are”—with cold cream on, tousled, naked, carrying on an exaggerated silent sign-language conversation with people in the room with you, etc.—suddenly answering the phone was equivalent to answering the door; one had to make oneself presentable as if in public. To get around that, people cycled quickly through plastic, animated, and finally computer-enhanced versions of masks. Then came whole staged tableaux complete with good-looking actors impersonating you. Before long videophone calls became, effectively, one invisible person hiding behind a prettified simulacrum of herself talking to the same on the other side. Fourthly, as people twigged to this reality, Phone users decided, pretty much universally, to go back to aural-only calls since that was in effect what they were doing anyway. It was cheaper, simpler, and way less stressful. It even had its own sort of neo-Luddite chic, “a kind of status-symbol of anti-vanity,” a “retrograde transcendence of sci-fi-ish high tech for its own sake.”
In David Foster Wallace’s imagination, videophony’s popularity follows a pointy mountain peak on a graph: quickly taken up by all, then quickly dropped by all. How much more interesting and insightful his version is than real-world history! Fiction isn’t only stranger than truth, it’s also more revealing! Truer, in its way! Although Wallace’s predictions were a bit off—specifically, a bit extra-rococo (and hilarious) in imagining the particular lengths to which people would go in order to look better for each other on the videophone—he articulates some important truths about human nature. Infinite Jest’s science fiction-inflected sections make original, pointed observations about marketing, fads, herd thinking, human vanity, and our tendency toward wishful, almost-willfully-self-deceiving thinking.