David Foster Wallace Predicted Our Selfie Anxiety Back in 1996

Beauty-enhancing apps like the recently-launched Skinneepix are so predictable that they were actually imagined by David Foster Wallace in his 1996 epic novel Infinite Jest, which takes place in a near-future dystopian North America.

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Last month saw the launch of SkinneePix, an iPhone app by the company Pretty Smart Women that "helps you edit your Selfies to look 5, 10 or 15 lbs. skinnier in two quick clicks on your iPhone." According to the app's description in the Apple store, the app, "makes your pictures look thinner. SkinneePix makes your photos look good and helps you feel good. It's not complicated. No one needs to know. It's our little secret."

According to Susan Green, who co-founded Pretty Smart Women, the app is just a way for selfie-takers to make sure that they're showing their best selves. "Cameras add additional weight to photos and when you're taking a selfie you're also dealing with bad lighting, angles, close-ups and a lot of other factors that make people complain that the photo isn't an accurate representation of themselves," Green told Reuters. Naturally, the app struck a chord with critics, who say it encourages body-dysmorphia tendencies and feeds into body-related insecurities. 

Though this app has stirred the media into a minor frenzy this week, it's certainly not the first of its kind. Apps like Facetune and Pixtr allow you to quickly edit your selfies for imperfections, a la Photoshop. The new apps are not just common, they were entirely predictable — an unsurprising manifestation of our collective vanity.

The beauty-enhancing apps are, in fact, so predictable that they were actually imagined by David Foster Wallace in his 1996 epic novel Infinite Jest. The book takes place in a near-future dystopian North America where years are sponsored by corporations and we have turned much of the continent into a toxic wasteland.

As some of you might recall, 1996 would have been just around the time that average American families were first considering dial-up connections to the Internet. AOL's relentless discs were still fairly new to the mailbox and webcams and videoconferencing was still mostly seen in corporate board rooms and not private homes. Skype, which proliferated international video-chatting for individuals, didn't launch until 2003, the same year that Apple added a video option to its iChat service. 

In one passage of the famously long, meandering book, Wallace writes about the fictional rise and fall "videophony," or video-chatting. A report points to three reasons videophony failed to take off: "(1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the micro-economics of consumer high-tech." Though FaceTiming and other forms of visual communication haven't picked up quite the way Wallace imagined, his prediction of the types of anxiety we face when constantly confronted with our own photographs is spot on, especially with respect to physical vanity. He writes: 

The real coffin-nail for videophony involved the way callers' faces looked on their TP screen, during calls. Not their callers' faces, but their own, when they saw them on video. 

As anyone who has ever video-chatted today knows, this is a real problem. Wallace continues: 

This sort of appearance check was no more resistible than a mirror. But the experience proved almost universally horrifying. People were horrified at how their own faces appeared on a TP screen. It wasn't just 'Anchorman's Bloat,' that well-known impression of extra weight that video inflicts on the face. It was worse. Even with high-end TPs' high-def viewer-screens, consumers perceived something essentially blurred and moist-looking about their phone-faces, a shiny pallid indefiniteness that struck them as not just unflattering but somehow evasive, furtive, untrustworthy, unlikable.

While SkinneePix addresses the supposed bloat, other apps help you deal with phone-face, shininess, pallidness, and all the other things that make you appear unlikeable to yourself. Facetune encourages you to "just swipe for perfect skin" An app called Plastic Surgery Simulator is self explanatory.

Via the iTunes Store.

In Wallace's reality, the market dealt with this anxiety in nearly the same way: by offering consumers a virtual mask.

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.

Which is basically where we are now.

Wallace, however, suggested that even our enhanced images wouldn't be beautiful enough to broadcast during video chats. In Infinite Jest, the virtual masks are replaced by actual masks:

It turned out that consumers' instinctively skewed self-perception, plus vanity-related stress, meant that they began preferring and then outright demanding videophone masks that were really quite a lot better-looking than they themselves were in person. 

Which are then replaced by full body masks, which are eventually replaced by still images of attractively bland out-of-work actors that serve as a stand-in for our average selves. In the book, this method of communication is eventually discarded and consumers return to traditional telephones, opting for aural-only communication, instead. Which would be a hopeful note to close on, if it weren't for Wallace's also-true conclusion to the passage:

Even then, of course, the bulk of U.S. consumers remained verifiably reluctant to leave home and teleputer and to interface personally, though this phenomenon's endurance can't be attributed to the videophony-fad per se, and anyway the new panagoraphobia served to open huge new entrepreneurial teleputerized markest for home-shopping and -delivery, and didn't cause much industry concern.

Sound familiar? Welcome to Wallace's America.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.