David Foster Wallace at the New Yorker Festival in 2002
David Foster Wallace at the New Yorker Festival in 2002 Keith Bedford/Getty Images
While reading "China's Selfie Obsession," a recent New Yorker article by Jiayang Fan, I was reminded, once again, that the late, great, brilliant, and troubled author David Foster Wallace correctly predicted a future he didn't live long enough to see.

In Infinite Jest, Wallace's giant 1996 masterpiece, America, now united with Canada and Mexico (an entity called the "Organization of North American Nations"), is a place where everything is for sale, including time itself. It's not 2017; it's the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment. In Wallace's imagining, much of New England is a toxic waste dump, Quebecois separatists terrorize the southern states (often in wheelchairs), and President Limbaugh has been recently assassinated. Wallace's predictions are extreme, ludicrous, and sometimes shockingly prescient: Sure, we don't have President Limbaugh, but we do have President Trump.

It was this passage about the development of video chatting, however—what Wallace called "video telephony"—that seems the most predictive of all:

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 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, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end's attention might be similarly divided.

[...] Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener's expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those caller who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking extra rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.

[...] And the videophonic stress was even worse if you were at all vain. I.e. if you worried at all about how you looked. As in to other people. Which all kidding aside who doesn’t. Good old aural telephone calls could be fielded without makeup, toupee, surgical prostheses, etc. Even without clothes, if that sort of thing rattled your saber. But for the image-conscious, there was of course no answer-as-you-are informality about visual-video telephone calls, which consumers began to see were less like having the good old phone ring than having the doorbell ring and having to throw on clothes and attach prostheses and do hair-checks in the foyer mirror before answering the door.

In Wallace's world, the stress of seeing yourself on video chat (what we now call FaceTime) is solved by wearing high-grade masks during conversation:

The proposed solution to what the telecommunications industry's psychological consultants termed Video-Physiognmoic Dsyphoria (or VPD) was, of course, the advent of High-Definition Masking. Mask-wise, the initial option of High-Definition Photographic Imaging — i.e. taking the most flattering elements of a variety of flattering multi-angle photos of a given phone-consumer and‚ thanks to existing image-configuration equipment already pioneered by the cosmetics and law-enforcement industries — combining them into a wildly attractive high-def broadcastable composite of a face wearing an earnest, slightly overintense expression of complete attention.

In the real world circa 2017, Video-Physiognmoic Dsyphoria is solved not by masks but by apps. In the U.S., selfie retouching may be in its infancy, but in China, it's huge, mostly due to app developer Meitu, which means "beautiful picture" in Chinese. Take this passage, from Jiayang Fan's New Yorker piece:

The apps are installed on more than a billion phones—mostly in China and the rest of Asia, but also increasingly in the West, where Meitu seeks to expand its presence. The company sells a range of smartphones, too, designed to take particularly flattering selfies: the front-facing selfie cameras have more powerful sensors and processors than those on regular phones, and beautifying apps start working their magic the moment a picture has been taken. Phone sales accounted for ninety-three per cent of Meitu’s revenue last year, and the company is now valued at six billion dollars. Its I.P.O., a year ago, was the largest Internet-company offering that the Hong Kong stock exchange had seen in nearly a decade.
Worldwide, Meitu’s apps generate some six billion photos a month, and it has been estimated that more than half the selfies uploaded on Chinese social media have been edited using Meitu’s products.

Jiayang Fan goes on to write that in China, it's considered rude to post or send an unedited selfie, as though exposing the world to your actual human face is too much of a burden on the eyes. In Infinite Jest, people eventually give up on High-Definition Masking and go back to regular old talking on the phone. The stress of looking at themselves is just too much. Is that in our future as well? Personally, I doubt it. One thing Wallace failed to predict was the rise of texting. Who talks on the phone anymore? Still, it makes me wish Wallace, who killed himself in 2008, had stuck around long enough to that see President Donald Trump, the selfie obsession, and the dystopian future he predicted has come to pass.