Trinny in Jozi

How my new netbook led me back to David Foster Wallace

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Have finally ditched my clunkety junkety Toshiba laptop, or rather, it hasn’t been ditched so much as downgraded to desktop status, which is all it was ever good for anyway.

Instead, I am typing this on a shiny new LG X120G netbook, and is it shiny! And it cost significantly less than my last computer purchase!  And all the keys are in the correct place! And it has XP, not Vista! And it can do everything I need it to! And I have a webcam!

Just been on a bit of a download mission: AVG, iTunes, Chrome, Firefox, and Skype so far. The latter is technically illegal here, but I don’t see the point of blocking the actual site when it took me all of 30 seconds to find a mirror.

What this means is now I can videochat, which is superexciting! Or is it? I am feeling more than a little trepidation about this. I don’t think I can explain quite why anything near as well as David Foster Wallace did in his videotelephony riff in Infinite Jest, which is why I’m going to quote the passage at length.  And if this makes you want to read  his hellacious materpiece of a novel in its entirety, so much the better!

“WHY — THOUGH IN THE EARLY DAYS OF INTERLACE’S
INTERNETTED TELEPUTERS THAT OPERATED OFF LARGELY
THE SAME FIBER-DIGITAL GRID AS THE PHONE COMPANIES,
THE ADVENT OF THE VIDEO-TELEPHONING (A.K.A ‘VIDEOPHONY’)
ENJOYED AN INTERVAL OF HUGE CONSUMER POPULARITy —
CALLERS THRILLED AT THE IDEA OF PHONE-INTERFACING
BOTH AURALLY AND FACIALLY (THE LITTLE FIRST-
GENERATION PHONE-VIDEO CAMERAS BEING TOO CRUDE
AND NARROW-APERTURED FOR ANYTHING MUCH MORE
THAN FACIAL CLOSE-UPS) ON FIRST-GENERATION TELEPUTERS
THAT AT THAT TIME WERE LITTLE MORE THAN HIGH-TECH
TV SETS, THOUGH OF COURSE THEY HAD THAT LITTLE
‘INTELLIGENT-AGENT’ HOMUNCULAR ICON THAT WOULD
APPEAR AT THE LOWER-RIGHT OF A BROADCAST/CABLE
PROGRAM AND TELL YOU THE TIME AND TEMPERATURE
OUTSIDE OR REMIND YOU TO TAKE YOUR BLOOD-PRESSURE
MEDICATION OR ALERT YOU TO A PARTICULARLY
COMPELLING ENTERTAINMENT-OPTION NOW COMING UP ON
CHANNEL LIKE 491 OR SOMETHING, OR OF COURSE NOW
ALERTING YOU TO AN INCOMING VIDEO-PHONE CALL AND
THEN TAP-DANCING WITH A LITTLE ICONIC STRAW BOATER
AND CANE JUST UNDER A MENU OF POSSIBLE OPTIONS FOR
RESPONSE AND CALLERS DID LOVE THEIR LITTLE
HOMUNCULAR ICONS — BUT WHY, WITHIN LIKE 16 MONTHS
OR 5 SALES QUARTERS, THE TUMESCENT DEMAND CURVER FOR
‘VIDEOPHONY’ SUDDENLY COLLAPSED LIKE A KICKED TENT,
SO THAT, BY THE YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT
UNDERGARMENT, FEWER THAN 10% OF ALL PRIVATE
TELEPHONE COMMUNICATIONS UTILIZED ANY VIDEO-IMAGE-
FIBER DATA-TRANSFERS OR COINCIDENT PRODUCTS AND
AND SERVICES, THE AVERAGE U.S. PHONE-USER DECIDING THAT
S/HE ACTUALLY PREFERRED THE RETROGRADE OLD LOW-TECH
BELL-ERA VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONIC INTERFACE AFTER
ALL, A PREFERENTIAL ABOUT-FACE THAT COST A GOOD
MANY PRECIPITANT VIDEO-TELEPHONY-RELATED
ENTREPRENEURS THEIR SHIRTS, PLUS DESTABILIZING TWO
HIGHLY RESPECTED MUTUAL FUNDS THAT HAD GROUND-
FLOORED HEAVILY IN VIDEO-PHONE TECHNOLOGY, AND
VERY NEARLY WIPING OUT THEE MARYLAND STATE
EMPLOYEES’ RETIREMENT SYSTEM’S FREEDIE-MAC FUND, A
FUND WHOSE ADMINISTRATOR’S MISTRESS’S BROTHER HAD
BEEN AN ALMOST MANICALLY PRECIPITANT VIDEO-PHONE-
TECHNOLOGY ENTREPRENEUR . . . AND BUT SO WHY THE
ABRUPT CONSUMER RETREAT BACK TO GOOD OLD VOICE-
ONLY TELEPHONING?

The answer, in a kind of trivalent nutsell, is: (1) emotional stress, (2) physi-
cal vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the micro-
economics of consumer high-tec.

(1) It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual
telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only inter-
faces. 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 com-
plete attention to you while also permittin 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 attnding 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
thought 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, tihgtly compressed, and vectored right into your  ear, enabling
you to imagine that the voice’s owner’s attention was similarly compressed
and focussed . . . even though your own attention was not,  was the thing.
This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratify
-ing 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, almos: literally
fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and 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.
Even worse, of course, was the traumatic expulsion-from-Eden feeling of
looking up from tracing your thumb’s outline on the Reminder Pad or ad-
justing the old Unit’s angle of repose in your shorts and actually seeing your
videophonic interfacee idly strip a shoelace of its gimlet as she talked to
you, and suddenly realizing the whole infantile fantasy of commanding
your partner’s attention while you yourself got to fugue-doodle and make
little genital-adjustments was deluded and insupportable and that you were
actually commanding not one bit more attention than you were paying,
here. The whole attention business was monstrously stressful, video callers
found.”
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, pp 144-7

I have spared those readers who couldn’t care less from continuing any further, but if you’ve made it all the way to this point, congralations! If you liked it, and want to continue reading, there’sl more than 1,000 pages of Infinite Jest out there waiting for you.

For now though, you can get on Skype and give me a call. Ask me to videochat, if you dare… I promise I won’t subject you to an image of me conducting a tactile blemish-scan!

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