Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria

Jillian C. York writes a short thread on looking presentable for video calls.

This reminded me of a passage in Infinite Jest where David Foster Wallace describes the phenomenon of Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria, the anxiety at having to present yourself on a video call.

But the real coffin-nail for videophony involved the way callers’ faces looked on their TP screen, during calls. Not their callers’ faces, but their own, when they saw them on video. It was a three-button affair, after all, to use the TP’s cartridge-card’s Video-Record option to record both pulses in a two-way visual call and play the call back and see how your face had actually looked to the other person during the call. This sort of appearance- check was no more resistible than a mirror. But the experience proved almost universally horrifying.

In his dystopia, an industry catering to people’s vanities rises in response, allowing people to present stylised versions of themselves through masks and dioramas. Eventually, everyone realises that audio-only phone calls are just better.

The full sequence, in its glorious Wallace verbosity, is here.

Infnite Jest was published in 1996. Until recently I thought that this technological prediction was pretty much spot-on. Video calls have been around for years, but few people prioritise them over telephone conversations… for precisely the social awkwardness Wallace describes.

In fact, in recent years, I would say that the trend has been in the opposite direction. Its not ‘Skyping’ (as the verb used to be called) that is causing the demise of the phone call, but text messaging. Many people report an aversion to telephone calls when an asyncronous email or text message can usually get the job done.

The COVID19 crisis has clearly brought a renewed interest in domestic video conferencing. The stock price of Zoom has doubled since December (ZM on NASDAQ was 68.93 on 2 Dec 2019, and 149.05 on 27 March 2020). I wonder how much of that uptake will stick once (or, if) things go back to normal?

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