Thinking about iPhone’s 4 Facetime, Kottke noted that in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, there’s an in depth essay about videophone technology and why it had failed to be adopted by the majority of people. If I remember correctly, the essay is written by one of the fictional characters called Hal Incandenza. While Infinte Jest is based in some far off future, the essay reads like something any real thought leader on technology would conclude.
Which brings me to a post Kevin Kelly wrote a year ago about the “inevitable-ness” of some technologies. He tackles the videophone, a technology we have thought we will have. A no brainer. Like the flying car.
In 1964 I visited the New York World’s Fair as a wide-eye, slack-jawed kid. The inevitable future was on display and I swallowed it up in great gulps. At the AT&T pavilion they had a working picture phone. The idea of a video-phone had been circulating in science fiction for a hundred years earlier in a clear case of prophetic foreshadowing. Now here was one that actually worked. Although I could see it, I didn’t get to use it then, but photos of how it would infuse our suburban lives ran in the pages of Popular Science and other magazines. We all expected it to appear in our lives any day. Well, the other day, 45 years later, I was using a picture phone just like the one predicted way back in 1964. As my wife and I gathered in our California den to lean toward a curved white screen displaying the moving image of our daughter in Shanghai we mirrored the old magazine’s illustration of a family crowded around a picture phone. While our daughter watched us on her screen in China, we chatted leisurely about unimportant family matters. Our picture phone was exactly what everyone imagined it to be, except in three significant ways: the device was not exactly a phone, it was our iMac and her laptop; the call was free (via Skype, not AT&T); and despite being perfectly useable, and free, picture-phoning has not become common — even for us. So unlike the earlier futuristic vision, the inevitable picture phone has not become the standard modern way of communicating.
Kelly’s post is worth reading completely.
My take? I’m more with David Foster Wallace’s “fictional” essay. There’s an intrusiveness in a camera that people are not ready for. Even the most extroverted. At least not to live talk. That’s why Twitter will always be more popular than Seesmic. Why text will be the predominant form of communication online for a long time. And why “nexting” will always be the default behavior on Chatroullete.