Videophones have been a science fiction staple for as long as I can remember.
I've seen them played up as key elements of the World of Tomorrow along with
silver jumpsuits and food pills, and I've seen them tossed in as background
elements to subtly indicate that a story is taking place, as Max Headroom
put it, twenty minutes into the future. After all, for a long time videophones
have seemed like the next logical invention. Once television replaced radio,
it was only a matter of time before the telephone went multimedia, right?
Apparently not. Decades went by and videophones remained the near-future invention
that defiantly stayed in the near future even as we developed spacecraft and
microcomputers and hoverbikes. (Okay, still working on the hoverbikes.) So what
was the stumbling block the engineers couldn't overcome? No such thing. A few
years ago I was amazed to go to the American Museum of
the Moving Image and see on display a working videophone — from 1927.
Admittedly, it just sent a single, tiny black-and-white photograph along with
the voice, but still, we're talking about the Coolidge Administration here.
There were many more videophones on display from different decades. But none
of them ever caught on.
I am far from the first person to remark upon the videophone's failure to take
over the world. I've read quite a few articles on the topic and they've pretty
much all concluded that videophones could have emerged decades ago... but people
just don't want them. I can relate. Me, I hate regular telephones. Cell phones
have taken over the world, but I've never owned one. When I lived alone
I rarely even had my old 1980s non-cell non-cordless Unisonic hooked up to the
wall jack — I only used the phone to check my voicemail and to make outgoing
calls. I would love to ditch the telephone entirely, if not for the fact that so
many official documents require a phone number.
Telephones are intrusive and demanding. A ringing telephone insists that you
drop whatever you're doing and talk to whomever happens to be calling, often
a complete stranger trying to sell you something or ask why you're not using your
credit cards more often. You can ignore it, but few do. And then once you're on
the line with someone you have to converse in real time. You can't just wander
away for half an hour and then come back and pick up where you left off. This is
not really my style. I am an email person. Email doesn't give you a 30-second
window to drop everything and respond. Email politely sits and waits for you to
get around to it. It even offers a list of authors and subject lines so you know
what you're getting yourself into. Now, okay, you could probably achieve much
the same effect through a combination of ringer switches, caller ID and voicemail.
But, as I discovered before I owned a 4-track (or a cassette recorder), you can
also record songs as the outgoing message of an answering machine that isn't
hooked up to anything and then archive them onto VHS tape. In both cases you're
sort of missing the point of the technology.
Now, sure, sometimes you want more back-and-forth than you can easily achieve
with email, and that's why I also like instant messaging despite the fact that
it has proliferated the use of the letter u as a pronoun. It's less demanding
than the telephone — you don't have to be "on" all the time, and when the
conversation peters out you don't have to choose between frantically casting
about for a new topic or calling a formal end to the connection. Initiating a
conversation is also less of a production on IM than on the phone. Calling
someone on the phone always feels to me like going to someone's house, ringing
the bell, explaining who you are, whom you're looking for, why you've come...
starting an IM chat, by contrast, is like casually striking up a conversation
with someone who's already standing right there in the room. It's surprising
how much more relaxed it feels to set up an appointment with a student over IM
instead of over the phone, for instance.
There've been articles about this too, naturally, and they tend to say the
exact opposite of what the ones about the videophones say. See, the reason
people never really wanted videophones, I have read, is that they're even more
intrusive than telephones. Strangers can call you up and see into your home.
You can use an audio-only telephone when you're naked or disheveled or picking
your nose and your interlocutor will be none the wiser — I have seen
telephones mounted in bathrooms — but that wouldn't fly on video. Sure,
the video part could be optional, but even then there'd be awkward moments...
if your boss or your wife were to ask you to switch on your video and you were
to refuse, it could raise some questions. Videophones, in short, would force
people to be more presentable at any given moment than they really want to have
IM, on the other hand, makes being presentable even less of an issue than the
phone does. You can take a lot longer to reply to someone and proofread your
response before sending it — you're not on the spot the way you often
are on the phone. You lose cues like tone of voice, but that too can be an
advantage. It is no wonder that Kids These Days™ use IM to ask each
other out — she can't hear you stammer when you pop the question and
when she turns you down she can't hear you cry. Communication is much less
scary when it's safely confined to a small text window. But I will concede
that this distance takes its toll. There is not much intimacy to IM —
and the intimacy it does offer is the paradoxical intimacy that allows people
to tell deep dark secrets to strangers. If you are looking to spend time with
someone in a faraway place, IM is not the way.
At least, text IM isn't. What got me thinking about how we relate to different
forms of telecommunication was my recent purchase of a webcam. I first
encountered these things close to a decade ago, in the early days of the net,
when they delivered still photos, updated every two minutes, of plazas on
college campuses and of Jennifer Ringley's apartment. It somehow didn't occur
to me immediately that things would be different in the broadband era —
until I found myself on the receiving end of a streaming video feed from one of
my IM correspondents. It was awesome. I got a webcam of my own the next day.
The webcam I got doesn't have a microphone. Partly this is because it saved
me fifty bucks but mainly it was because I wasn't sure I wanted one. It seems
the pundits were right — given the opportunity to at long last own my very
own videophone, I demurred. But they probably weren't expecting that I'd keep
the video part and pass on the phone part. See, I don't actually find the video
all that intrusive. It's not like it's a spy camera outside my control, after
all: I get to decide what it shows. Usually that's a fairly tight headshot
with a wall behind me, so there's not much opportunity for visual eavesdropping.
A microphone, on the other hand, would be less under my control — not
that there's really anything to overhear around here, but still, I'm sure Jen
is glad that the house isn't on perpetual speakerphone. Meanwhile, having
video rocks. Friends who are never coming to Massachusetts in this lifetime
can see my house. When the cats are engaging in wacky gato antics others can
watch and enjoy. When I have just cooked a delicious meal I can show it off.
Then on the flip side, it is extremely cool to have windows on my computer
showing friends going about their lives. It reminds me of how in Fahrenheit
451, Ray Bradbury, writing just before television became a huge
phenomenon, predicted that 'round about now people would get their entertainment
by watching "parlor walls" showing other families doing mundane things. Good
It's also interesting how seemingly discarded forms of communication spring
back into currency... in the mid-90s, for instance, when email started to
become universal, various commentators remarked upon the way it had brought
back letter-writing, which the telephone had seemingly killed off. Similarly,
I've found that the webcam has brought back, of all things, silent-movie
acting. I type out my "title cards" on the IM client and meanwhile I'm
emoting for the camera like I'm auditioning for
A Corner in Wheat
In any case — I may be a Luddite in some respects, but the webcam is
technology I heartily endorse. I may be most at home in text, but I have to
admit that I've been amazed how much more closely in touch I feel with my
friends when I can see them.
A final observation. A while back I called up my IM client and there in the
video window was a young woman in a teddy, sitting on her bed, knitting. It
occurred to me that if you were to hop back in time and try to explain the
concept of Internet porn to people in 1915, I have to think that's pretty
much exactly what they'd be imagining.
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