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Comic novelist explains why iPhone 4's FaceTime app is for lovers and meetings only

A comic novelist predicted more than 15 years ago why videocalling apps like FaceTime won't go mainstream. It's not technology, it's human nature.

You can't create better demo-ware than what Steve Jobs showed yesterday with iPhone 4's front-facing camera and FaceTime app. But a literary novelist correctly predicted almost 15 years ago why videocalling services like FaceTime are still going to be a niche app.

I have David Foster Wallace's celebrated-but-unreadable 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, on my bookshelf. I bought it because of his magazine articles, like this profile of a journeyman tennis player for Esquire, and his then-growing reputation. But I gave up somewhere before page 100, cowed by its Infinite Length (1079 pages) and the prose that was denser than the center of a black hole.

Jason Kottke apparently got to the creamy-filled center of Infinite Jest. He posted on his blog an excerpt in which Wallace predicted the quick rise and demise of videocalling. Why? For one, because video calls require too much work:

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.

As a result, video calls are too intellectually and emotionally draining:

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.

That adds up to emotional unpleasantness - and who needs that?

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.

Double that unpleasantness if you were vain or unattractive:

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.

In his novel, Wallace suggested that videocallers would adopt a comic solution - hide their faces with "form-fitting polybutylene masks."

Obviously, something that ridiculous won't happen. But I think Wallace was ahead of his time. When Wallace wrote this in the mid-1990s, the Internet was just taking off. The lucky few with connectivity had 56K modems.

David Foster Wallace thought the stress of looking good for videocalls would cause people to don masks like this. I don't think he was that far off.

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace predicted that the stress of looking good for videocalls would cause people to don ugly plastic masks. I don't think he was that far off.

Ma Bell had been trying to push videophones since the 60s. She was unsuccessful, but everyone assumed that it was a problem of bandwidth, and the network effect (i.e. videophones were expensive so few people bought them, turning off other potential buyers).

Everyone assumed that broadband and cheap webcams would change that. Did it?

In fact, videocalling is popular, but only for certain scenarios:

1) for grandparents and relatives to coo over new babies;

2) for troops deployed overseas to keep in touch with their spouses or families;

3) for young lovers, whether separated by 10 miles or 1,000, to keep the spark alive;

4) for adult entertainers;

5) for crucial business meetings. I'm not talking about the weekly catch-ups with 10 of your co-workers. I'm talking about meet-and-greets between potential business partners separated by distance and/or language. Late-stage job interviews. M&A deals. Near-final contract negotiations. Etc.

Otherwise, we prefer to talk on the phone. Actually, the late Wallace didn't anticipate this: the more bandwidth we get, the more we would choose low-bandwidth options like texting and tweeting, and eschew even audio calling.

It's all because in today's Attention Economy, where human brain cells not money are the fundamental currency, phone calls take too much time, planning and energy-sapping small talk.

FaceTime is a neat app, and will be immediately useful for some, even with its Wi-Fi-only limitation. Just don't count on it taking videophones to the masses. Unless Jobs includes a complimentary polybutylene mask with every download.