A 1996 novel predicted Zoom fatigue

Many would agree that David Foster Wallace was ahead of his time.

Over the holidays I received the infamous book, Infinite Jest -- and have loved every page so far. Never have I encountered so many words I don't understand or laughed as hard.

The book takes place in a not-so-distant future, and describes a time where video conferencing rises and falls in popularity, partially due to what we would describe today as "Zoom Fatigue".

It turned out that 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 other 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 [...].

Beginning on page 145, Wallace goes on to explain how both parties would act as if they had the other's undivided attention, "like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time. Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable."

After a day of Zoom calls, we are much more tired than we would be after a day of phone calls -- keeping up the facade of paying complete attention to others is exhausting, forget the fact that we can see ourselves in the call. Wallace had considered this as well.

But the real coffin-nail for videophony involved the way callers' faces look on their TP screen, during calls. Not their callers' faces, but their own, when they saw them on video. [...] This sort of appearance-check was no more resistible than a mirror. [...] People were horrified at how their own faces appeared on a TP screen.

The book goes on to talk about how users began using filters to enhance their appearance, of which we are all familiar nowadays.

The chapter concludes by asserting that the general public did away with video conferencing in favour of plain-old phone calls. Personally, this is my preference and believe we should do voice-only more often.

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