The Mask of Social Media

An Analysis of David Foster Wallace – Infinite Jest

Social media is a facade designed to embellish reality. This phenomenon was discussed in Infinite Jest, a critically acclaimed novel released in 1996. Wallace predicted humanity will choose to misrepresent themselves through video-telephony, and eventually regress to older technology. A synopsis of Wallace’s fiction, how video-telephony’s eradication is contrasted with social media’s success, similarities between social media filters / high-definition masking and the divergence in societal attitudes towards beautification through technology is discussed. Despite Wallace’s foresight not all his predictions became true, as aesthetic enhancement through social media shows no signs of slowing down.

Video-telephony is technology in Infinite Jest that enabled users to video call each other. Initially the product is successful, however after 16 months the market crashes and the demand is non-existent. Following this customer’s regress to audio calls. Why the sudden loss of consumer interest? Why the regression? Wallace provides 3 reasons.

Stress

Vanity

Redundancy

Video calling exacerbated emotional stress, as phone calls permitted an illusion of undivided reciprocal attention. Audio conversations allowed participants to clean the house, wandering aimlessly or make faces at others present. This provided callers with the sense they could do as they pleased to an attentive listener. However, the inclusion of video undermined this delusion. Once callers ‘’bilateral illusion of unilateral attention’’ was discovered to be equal inattention, it revealed an uncomfortable truth that increased stress levels.

Video-Telephony required engagement levels reserved for in person exchanges. Those who continued absent-minded audio habits were considered rude. One is not free to complete chores with a camera on them. Interpersonal social norms were demanded by video-telephony users. The constant vigilance required of users, combined with realities misalignment with consumer fantasy stressed users.

Vanity contributed to the fall of the video-telephony. Audio calls were performed without concern for appearance. However, video communication required scrutiny for ones looks. Video-telephony decreased user’s self-esteem, due to their disdain for their appearance on the device. They claimed their visages were ‘’unflattering, evasive, furtive, untrustworthy and unlikeable’’. The inability to deal with reality and increased emphasis on appearance unsettled consumers, which intensified anxieties.

Mass stress was classified Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria (VPD). How could companies rectify this catastrophe? Consumers used technology to communicate with each other face to face, but despised their own looks. Development of high-definition masking was the answer. An ability to improve appearance through technology. Virtual plastic surgery.

Sound familiar?

ayy

Smoothed skin, pink complexion, larger eyes, thinner jaw and nose (1)

Masks presented an idealized version of oneself and reduced symptoms of VPD. However, consumers became dissatisfied with improved versions and progressively demanded exceedingly unrealistic, beautiful avatars to take their place.  Stronger jawlines, straighter teeth, whatever the consumer demanded the market supplied. Soon realistic, albeit improved masks were obsolete and unable to compete with technologies beautification.

Evolution continued with full body imaging. Users could present heavily edited photographs of incredibly attractive human beings. Six pack abs and model proportions were available to anyone with a wallet. Despite looking nothing like the user. This did not concern consumers as their only focus was quelling anxieties and projecting the most attractive versions of themselves possible.

Optimistically Misrepresentational Masking (OMM) was the result of societies desire for beauty. Users became terrified of interacting in person, to reveal their natural flaws. Instead they preferred online communication, letting masks speak on their behalf. Ironically these enhancements allowed users to resume inattentive audio habits, as they hid behind masks. The video call was now an audio call with two extremely beautiful, avatars conversing. Desire for beauty superseded truth, which continued disdain for realistic portrayal of oneself, elevating stress.

Market compensation for consumer stress eradicated video-telephony. Once consumers reverted to carefree habits behind body doubles, users were free to do as they pleased.  A return to audio calls was heralded by consumer common sense, and became culturally approved ‘’chic-integrity’’.  So called proponents of anti-vanity shunned video-telephony, and those who were ‘’utterly lacking in self-awareness continued to use videophone’’. Societies supposed ‘’enlightenment’’ regarding narcissistic values, was nothing more than a flimsy scapegoat to discard useless technology, granting a free escalator onto moral high ground.

This claim is bolstered by consumer behavior. Despite proclaimed anti-vanity callers still preferred online communication and retained symptoms of OMM and VPD, unable to leave home. If there was truly a shift, why fear real interaction? The non-existent cultural shift was a weak rationalization to circumvent ownership of an absurd technology. The band-aid of moral righteousness did not alleviate psychological trauma inflicted by video-telephony.

The parallels to today may seem unclear, but certainly exist. Instagram and Snapchats main features are presenting an idealized version of oneself, like high definition masking. Enhancement of facial features by widening eyes, thinning face, smoothing skin, reducing noses, improving complexion, contouring and removal of freckles are all available. Instagram is guilty of the same crime, with users being able to embellish reality through a variety of filters. The difference is that instead of stress, vanity and redundancy destroying this technology, it is enhancing it.

While video-telephony died due to a realization of its futility under a guise of moral righteousness, the reverse is true today. Modern social media is a necessity of communication, propelled by our vanity. Stress levels are minimized due to reward systems. Redundancy is impossible with the nature of instantly accessible tech and emphasis on desire rather than efficiency. Instead of a regression to audio calls, technology is exceeding expectations. The statement ‘’Utterly lacking in self-awareness’’ is applicable to phone calls users.  Preferred communication is through Instagram, Snapchat and FB Messenger. This choice is not from a productivity standpoint, as they are inefficient compared with calling.

If productivity isn’t the driving force, what is?

Vanity

Why audio call when you can snap yourself with a message? (Complete with flattering filters and best angles.)

Why call when Instagram lets others see filtered selfies, with the ability to contact you?

Why call when through Messenger a display photo (your best picture) is forever present?

Elevated stress levels are circumvented through cheap gestures. The ‘’bilateral illusion of unilateral attention’’ is manifested with like systems. Perception of uninvested friends is rectified by hearts, likes and 10 second images. Feelings of inadequacy are minimized by meaningless gestures that take seconds to perform. The juxtaposition between how great you feel receiving a like, contrasted with how apathetic are when giving one, is the same naïve belief of commanding complete attention through audio, despite minimal reciprocation.

Video-Telephony was confined to one on one communication, whereas current social media outwardly displays one to a broad audience. Combined with a system that rewards users for displays of vanity it creates a machine that thrives off users abusing aesthetic enhancement, for meaningless rewards that feel amazing. Wallace’s prediction of erratic stress is replaced with irrational highs. Cumbersome products required to enhance oneself are streamlined, while maintaining a semblance of self.

Redundancy seems unlikely due to a disregard for efficiency. Regression to prior technology is a ridiculous notion, with only clueless, poor or old people solely communicating through audio calls. How can something be redundant if it does not need to be efficient to thrive? Or rather it only needs to effectively stimulate human desires. Human affinity for beauty is enacted through these applications. Each offers superficial enhancements to one’s appearance with minimal energy expenditure. Why choose flawed reality over virtual perfection?

The difference between video-telephony and current social media is the extent to which it misrepresents reality. In Infinite Jest technology reached a point where two people communicated through astoundingly unrealistic avatars, complete with body doubles. Current filters do not have this ability, however modern filters are synonymous with high-definition masking.  Will society remain content with slight beauty enhancements, or will they demand more? It depends on their current satisfaction of self-perception; however, it seems inevitable.

Social media and video-telephony have striking similarities. Both enable users to enhance their features virtually with money. However, what destroyed video-telephony empowers current social media. Vanity and stress are cured through easy filters and like systems. Emphasis on feeling good rather than efficiency removes potential for regression. Society is content with enhancing beauty online, and progression seems not only inevitable but encouraged. The fall of social media and a wave of reversion of societal and technological methods of communication is a fantasy, and the desire for more will override truth.

Photo Sourced:

Assiduous anxiety

Anxiety is giving a definitive interpretation of an ambiguous event.

Example,

You attempt to give change to a cashier and drop everywhere. They roll around on the floor and you spend an embarrassing 15 seconds picking them up. Immediately you infer that this person thinks you are an idiot who can’t even perform simple tasks correctly. You believe this without a doubt.

Why?

It’s one thing to be embarrassed about a situation, but to wholeheartedly believe you know what this person thinks of you is another. Constantly I recall embarrassing situations in which I behave like some mind reader, assuming I know what people thought both then and now.

So what’s the solution?

It’s arrogant to have total confidence in your interpretation of events. Most rational people don’t hold such strong convictions in other contexts, so why believe them regarding others perceptions?

Familiarity and friendship

You know when you hear a song for the first time and think nothing of it? You may even criticize it. Too repetitive, boring instrumentation and a lack of rhythm. Then you hear it 5 more times and begin to enjoy it. None of those things seem to bother you and you may intentionally play it.

I reckon familiarity is the key behind this. When something is new it requires effort to understand. Listening to something for the first time puts a challenge for you to question yourself. Do I like this? Why? Why not?

Eventually when you hear something regularly it becomes welcoming. No need to exert any brain power hearing a song you know back to front. The song is something you can choose at any time and know the experience you’ll get.

I believe the same principles apply to friendship. For me personally I’ll meet someone for the first time and usually think nothing of them. Maybe I’ll even focus on their flaws to justify my beliefs. Too loud, opinionated and boring. Then I meet them on other occasions and these prejudices slip away. Hey, they aren’t that bad after all.

Familiarity. Hanging around someone you know is a lot like listening to a song you’ve heard dozens of times. You know what you’re going to get and you can relax. No need to watch what you say, you understand how they will behave and the potential for surprises is minimal.

Another application is hearing a new artist, enjoying one song, downloading their album and feeling uncomfortable hearing their other songs. Most people prefer listening to the one they already know, despite the potential for their other songs to be better. Contrast that with meeting a new friend and being apprehensive in meeting their friendship group. They are the one song you know, their friends the ambiguous 11 tracks.

What do you think? Can friendship and human interaction really be boiled down to a poor analogy about music taste?

Ignorance is bliss, knowledge is agony

If you believe you know everything (ignorant) you don’t need to question your beliefs. Everything is known and there’s no need to strain yourself trying to learn more. New information bounces off an impenetrable wall of confirmation bias built up over the years. People can happily close off their minds once they have cultivated a belief system, which assists them in interpreting life.

On the flip side if you try to have an open mind it’s difficult to sift through information. Constantly comparing how new knowledge stacks up against old is draining. It takes effort not to dismiss something as bullshit because it doesn’t coincide with what you think you know. It’s also uncomfortable hearing new contradictory information, in the fear that you’ve been caught believing something that isn’t infallible.

Usually people double down on their beliefs once threatened. They cede deeper into echo chambers and read information that appeals to them to get away from this nasty feeling. The internet accommodates this, with websites that seek to undermine other ideas and promote theirs.

I’m so sick of watching people get into political arguments. All they do is spout something they have read/heard without critically thinking about it. These people aren’t interested in discovering solutions to problems, they want to feel smart berating others.

If you’re confident in what you know, chances are you don’t know anything.*1233123.png

Source: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2475

*Unless you are exceptionally educated on it, in which case you have internalized opposing views and have appropriate counter arguments.

Two rights make a wrong

Imagine an argument. Two people and their unique ”truths”. Both believe they are right and are unwilling to change. Both will argue for hours and get nowhere, creating a wrong.

On a side note: A trend I’ve noticed lately is people changing the nature of an argument once they feel uncertain, in an attempt to maintain the illusion they are constantly correct.

In my mind a good argument should proceed as:

Point > Counterpoint > Resolution

Both parties establish their views, hear either side and come to a conclusion.

However in reality:

Point > Change Subject > Change Subject > Change Subject > Change Subject….

Both parties change the topic every second to avoid any refutation.

How can you score when the goals keep moving?

I feel as if arguments are nothing more than cheap tools for people to get emotional thrills. Instead of actually trying to debate they just want to get riled up at opposing opinions.

It’s a game of emotional tug of war rather than an exchange of ideas.

Disappointment is the reverse of gratitude

It’s not nice to put other people down to feel good about yourself, yet that’s what being grateful is. Gratitude is looking at others flaws and saying, ”glad that’s not me!” It’s the same principle executed in a different manner. Funny how different methods that lead to the same conclusions can be considered acceptable or unacceptable.

For instance, it would be socially unacceptable to go around insulting other people to feel good about oneself. However gratitude is doing exactly that, just not in a sinister manner. Take for example these two scenario:

  1. A man walks past a hobo with no legs. He looks him and says ”Nice day for a walk”!
  2. A man walks past a hobo with no legs. He thinks to himself ”Glad that’s not me!”

BOTH examples focus on the negative and create a positive. 1) creates a positive through insults and humiliation, whereas 2) uses empathy to achieve gratitude. Pretty interesting.

Relating back to the title,  disappointment is not having your expectations met, gratitude is having low expectations. This was the next thing I thought about.

It’s a funny word cited as many as the key for happiness. What do you think?

Loserdom

Everybody is a loser in some way. Random thought I had the other day, and I think it’s purpose was to bolster my self-esteem. In a sense it’s putting others down to make yourself feel better, but there’s merit to it.

Everybody has something they are really shit at, therefore making them a loser. If you adopt this belief you can walk around, look at people and know they can’t do X (X being any random activity). It’s a negative way perceive the world.

You can’t get away with this mindset for long. Going around believing everyone is really shit in some way is a cheap way to get confident, but wont last long. Quick and easy fixes that feel good are essentially junk food for your brain. I think it stems from inability to deal with uncomfortable feelings, so you resort to negative thought patterns to ego boost.

Funny how the solution to these problems are always boring. Acknowledge that people have both positive / negative traits and see them with an open mind. Basic, fundamental information that you read, nod, then never utilize.

Maybe that’s wrong. People do utilize it but it comes at an effort, as your default setting is always the path of least resistance. Essentially trying to feel good all the time, pleasure seeking.

It’s a constant struggle to be a good person.

Mediocrity

Nobody ever wants to admit that they are mediocre. People always want to present themselves as terrible at something, or really good. Nobody wants to be stuck in that average phase of kind of being good at something while still fucking up a lot. They find it uncomfortable and awkward.

Honesty vs Politeness

Say you are engaged in a conversation with a friend. He begins telling you about something that you have no interest in. You are zoning out, yet put up a facade of listening. He continues and drones on as you nod with mild enthusiasm and insert positive comments when necessary. All the while you have put forth at best %10 of your conscious capacity to engage with him, and are doing the bare minimum.

In our world this is considered polite.

You are lying to your ”friends” face under the guise of politeness. It’s more socially acceptable to pretend to be interested while taking in the bare minimum, as opposed to honestly stating your point of view. Initially I thought it would be more sincere to tell your friend that you don’t care about what he’s saying. This comes across as rude, blunt, abrasive, whatever. At least it’s honest.

My concern with these conversations in which these facades are placed is that they are not kind interactions. They are a set of traffic lights. While my friend is talking it’s a big red light in which I am forced to sit in my car patiently diddling with the radio, before I can floor the accelerator and talk about what I want to. Once I get to go, the roles are reversed.

My first attempt at an analogy. I think it’s okay, nothing special. They are fucking hard to come up with so please appreciate the effort. Or don’t and call me a retard.

A colleague raised a good point though. If someone is droning on about something I don’t find particularly interesting, it’s up to me to make it interesting by asking engaging questions. Obviously emphasizing is the solution to many of these faux pas, however I’d argue that the majority of people in this world are assholes who don’t empathize.