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 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 Icon 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 Curve 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 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 Al, 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 the Maryland State Employees’ Retirement System’s Freddie-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? This chapter provides a three-part answer to the long question in the chapter title. Firstly, people find “videophony” far more stressful than audio-only calling. On an audio call, you can do other things while pretending that your attention is entirely devoted to the person on the other line. With video calling, people have to show that they are giving the other caller their full attention or else seem rude. The second problem is that video calling is also disturbing for image-conscious people (which the narrator argues is pretty much everyone). People tend to be horrified by their own image during the video call, leading psychologists to define a new condition called Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria (VPD).
Reading this account of the problems with “videophony” is fascinating from a contemporary perspective, given that—unlike during the time when Wallace was writing—video-calling is now widespread. The problems this chapter describes are accurate, although perhaps not as extreme as is suggested here. On the other hand, while “VPD” may not exist in reality, cosmetic surgeons have recently coined the idea of “Snapchat dysmorphia,” which basically amounts to the same thing.
In response to the issue of VPD, a new technology arose called High-Definition Masking, which began as a way of making a flattering composite image of users’ faces but then turned into actual masks people would wear while video-calling each other. However, ultimately the masks themselves ended up causing more psychological distress. They were replaced by something called a Transmittable Tableau, which was a doctored image of someone who slightly resembled the caller but who was extraordinarily attractive.
Again, this is something like an exaggerated version of what is happening in our contemporary reality. In the age of virtual reality, Snapchat filters, and photo editing apps, what Wallace is describing doesn’t really seem so far-fetched.
In the end, however, videophony was a failure. This demonstrates a trend wherein a new form of technology is initially greeted with enthusiasm, before customers have an issue with it that is then solved by further technological fixes—yet these “fixes” undermine the original technological development such that consumers ultimately abandon it. In this case, returning to audio-only calls became “a kind of status-symbol of anti-vanity.” At the same time, people’s evident resistance to interacting with one another face-to-face allowed “teleputerized” shopping and home delivery services to flourish.
This part of the chapter is where the description of videophony’s trajectory diverges most from reality. While there may be negative side effects from new technological developments, in reality it is rare for the new technology to be abandoned in favor of a return to existing methods. People usually adapt to new technologies no matter how dystopian they might first appear—in part thanks to companies’ strong financial interest in them doing so.
All junior tennis players ranked above #64 are subject to urine tests four times a year. This includes many E.T.A. students, and about a quarter of them would not be able to pass the urine test, and thus buy clean urine from Michael Pemulis. Pemulis attends E.T.A. on the “coveted” James O. Incandenza Geometrical Optics Scholarship, and is more talented at math and science than at tennis. He gives Hal clean urine for free in exchange for Hal’s help with the verbal side of academics. At 17, Hal is ranked the fourth-best American under-18s tennis player and the sixth-best on the continent.
This passage explores the multiple ways in which E.T.A. students are subjected to evaluation. Each student is ranked in tennis, and in addition is subject to academic assessment. Then their behavior is also monitored, for example through the drug tests they are made to take. While none of this is unusual or unique to E.T.A., it does illustrate that life as a student there means being constantly monitored and judged.