Monthly Archives: April, 2020

Old technology and “videophonic stress”

Seven years ago, I worked for a startup in Chicago’s West Loop. We had the stereotypical setup – open floor plan, huge Thunderbolt monitors for our MacBooks Pro, and lots of cold brew coffee in the office refrigerator. The whole company presented itself as being very modern, but our project was at its heart super old-fashioned – marking up PDFs.

PDF was initially released in the summer of 1993, or not long after I finished the first grade. No document extension has achieved anywhere near the universality of the classic .pdf, with the possible exception of Microsoft Word’s .doc(x). (Another story: When applying for a job in the desperate times of 2011, I once got pinged for not sending my resume as a .doc because the recipient’s computer couldn’t open .docx).

The PDF dinosaur is hardly an exception, though. Old tech is everywhere, despite the software industry’s unending focus on What’s Next and Disruption and any other number of Capitalized concepts (pun intended, I suppose, for all the Marxists out there):

  • Email is over 50 years old.
  • The x-86 processor dates to the Carter administration.
  • The Internet as we know it is built on top of a bunch of protocols that are mostly 20+ years old…
  • …including Wi-Fi (1997) and Ethernet (the early 1980s).

Maybe what’s even more impressive than the age of man seemingly “new” technologies is how their actual day-to-day use was foreseen decades ago. The portions of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” on video meetings are notably famous for exploring the anxieties of video meetings (popular now among the white collar set during the Covid-19 pandemic):

“It turned out there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces…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 full attention to her…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…Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found that they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges…And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all vain.”

In the novel, video calling actually falls out of fashion because of how it forces participants to perform the part of the interested listener/viewer. That hasn’t happened in the real world just yet, although I do find that a lot of people enable video by mistake on webinar and online meeting platforms, only to disable it later after they either don’t like the look of their own face or don’t want others to see what they’re doing (presumably).

Now that online meetings are “normal” – even though they’ve been around for years and were imagined to their logical extremes by a novel written in the early 1990s – videophonic stress is everywhere, especially for companies that can’t settle for anything less than a full-on simulation of How Things Used To Be (meaning, video conferences, just like everyone was around a table – the “good old days” of wasting tens of hours collectively on something that could have covered over email, and should have been covered over email considering that it’s the only way most remote workers communicate at all). Ultimatley, so much “new” tech – video conferences, workplace chat like Slack, etc – are there to recreate the semblance of something old – the in-office meetup, mostly.

Looking to join in on the fun, I once turned on video on a call when using a 2010 vintage laptop that I had outfitted with a new solid-state drive, more RAM, and a fresh install of Ubuntu. (Lots of old tech here, too: optical drive [early 1980s], VGA connector [1987], USB-A [late 1990s], Linux kernel [1991]). The frame rate was abysmal – I looked like I was in slow motion, perhaps in a bunker on a different planet. It helped with my vanity – since it didn’t look like me much at all, the distorted image seeming more like a painting – but also discouraged me from using video at all since it felt like such an Uncanny Valley to look at myself in 30 FPS or lower. Audio-only, then, using the 100 year-old headphone jack. It’s old technology all the way down…