An inadvertant ode to letters

Voice and video chat are hell. There, I said it.

Thankfully, we’re beyond the giddy craze of ten years ago when everyone thought that video chat was going to obsolete real-life communication, but we’re still clinging to the zombie of that idea. At the moment we use a mixture of text, emojis, memes, photos and parasocial media try and replicate human contact, with very mixed success.

When you’re in person, everything is so much more negotiable. Shall we go for a coffee? Nah, not feeling it. Let’s walk around until we find somewhere. Oh, seeing that dog reminds me of a funny story…

When you’re chatting to someone with voice or video it’s like, oh shit, I can’t interrupt, suddenly I’m unable to think of any stimulating topics of conversation because my bedroom wall isn’t inspiring me, ooh this ball of fluff on my knee is suddenly far more interesting than what they’re saying, and the quality’s gone really bad anyway…

After more than an hour of this I start to melt. I can feel my sanity slipping away as the conversation, which may well be very important, stretches out into eternity. There are so many little things: my ears buzz from the poorly-compressed audio, Interet cutting out makes it staccato, not being able to move around for fear of noise makes it stifling, not even being able to talk over each other negates the flow of any real communication.

David Forster Wallace, in Infinite Jest, provided a shockingly prescient condamnation of video chat:

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.

Telephones, as he notes, are a step above laptop voice calls – you can walk around your kitchen while taking them, except… Is that still true? Smartphones are getting eternally crappier at phone calls, at least the non-flagships, and the possibility of taking calls outside leads to the bewildering situation of people ringing me and then complaining they can’t hear me. Well, why don’t we just hang up and I’ll ring you from home?

As I noted before when talking about slow communication, just by existing the technology to talk wherever imposes itself on our lives, forcing us into Skype interviews and being randomly assaulted with Facebook and Whatsapp calls by near-strangers.

The title of this post is jocular, but the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to think that letters were just the ultimate form of communication. In trading physicality and cumbersomeness for instancy and digitalisation, we’ve lost something very human.

No one will remember our Skype calls. There will be no monuments to recall funny incidents and conversations. The only photos will be cludgy and ephemeral. They will take up space in a decaying harddrive, rather than sleeping in a shoebox, waiting to be joyfully discovered decades later.

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