This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
August 10, 2011, pgs 144-156. I’m sorry I feel like I have to keep saying this, but don’t let this stop you from reading, this being the page-long headline that opens the section on video-telephoning.
Now that we’ve reached the age of actually being able to see each other over the phone — admittedly just getting off the ground via Apple’s Facetime and Skype and whatnot — this section feels a bit like a relic of those imagined near-futures we saw a lot of in the late 90s. Kind of like those sunglasses from Back to the Future II. That in itself is interesting — looking back from today to what people yesterday imagined today would be like makes me nostalgic, now, for the ‘then’ when people were doing a lot of hopeful imagining about what ‘now’ would look like. I suspect these visions of the future are a pretty good gauge of national mood, considering that these days we’re back on that Bladerunner/Mad Max cycle where any proposed near-future is pretty much focused on how messed up things will be, rather than all the cool new consumer gadgets and hoverboards we have to look forward to. At any rate, Wallace gives a pretty good absurdist shot at explaining why people would go bonkers for then quickly abandon, with some steps in between like masks and avatars, a visual interface during their phone calls. I’m sure there are entire graduate seminars taught about evolving technology and consumer behavior and visual culture and everyone reads Phillip K. Dick and Ray Kurzweil and Really Learns A Lot, but that isn’t what I think is the point here. Because while Wallace gets the technology wrong, he gets the people right.
Then, it’s hard not to love old Michael Pemulis, a smaller but far more successful entrepreneur than the video phone people, who is here selling clean urine in Visine bottles to students who require it to pass certain athletic conference purity standards. Pemulis is a hard-edged Max Fisher, and ETA is his Rushmore — as we learn via note 21/211 “Pemulis’s deepest dread is of academic or disciplinary expulsion and ejection…” Plus he gets a lot of the best lines in the book, here “Urine trouble? Urine luck!” and, regarding his hardscrabble upbringing in Allston, MA, “an old joke in Enfield-Brighton goes ‘Kiss me where it smells’ she said so I took her to Allston.”