Now that we have concluded our necessary oohing and aahing over iPhone 4's new physical design I wanted to highlight a great connection that Jason Kottke made between the new FaceTime wifi videophone function and a piece from David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel Infinite Jest. His assessment (and anyone who has used Skype or gChat Video can agree to this) is spot on.
In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote that within the reality of the book, videophones enjoyed enormous initial popularity but then after a few months, most people gave it up. Why the switch back to voice?
The answer, in a kind of trivalent nutshell, is: (1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, and (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.
First, the stress:
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. A traditional aural-only conversation [...] 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 attending 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 suspicion that the person on the other end's attention might be similarly divided.
[...] 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 caller who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking extra 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.
And then vanity:
And the videophonic stress 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. Good old aural telephone calls could be fielded without makeup, toupee, surgical prostheses, etc. Even without clothes, if that sort of thing rattled your saber. But for the image-conscious, there was of course no answer-as-you-are informality about visual-video telephone calls, which consumers began to see were 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.
Those are only excerpts, you can read more on pp. 144-151 of Infinite Jest. Eventually, in the world of the book, people began wearing "form-fitting polybutylene masks" when talking on the videophone before even that became too much.
Willem Van Lancker is a product designer (UX) at Google with a passion for ethnography, maps, data visualization, and producing delightful user experiences.
Willem came to Google from IDEO where he worked as a communication designer focusing on understanding business systems and organizations through visual communication. Previous to IDEO, Willem worked for Apple, where he designed user interfaces for products including iPhone and iPad, and adidas, where he created new brand identities for various major league sports teams respectively.
Willem is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a degree in Graphic Design. While at RISD, Willem teamed with a small group of Brown and RISD students to create A Better World by Design, a now-annual three-day conference encouraging social and environmental impact within educational policy. He also served as a researcher and core member for RISDâ€™s Strategic Plan, charting a new course for RISDâ€™s academic programs and student life initiatives focused on how students of different disciplines can innovate through collaboration.
When he is not working on new innovations for Google, Willem can be found writing, sailing, playing squash (both the sport and the gourd), following English (and American) football, and occasionally regretting the decision to eat that bacon-wrapped hotdog from a food-cart in the Mission District.