¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Infinite Jest was prescient in understanding that some form of convergence between the computer and television was in the offing, and in foreseeing that more and more of the entertainment we consume would be delivered on demand through the network to which this hybrid device would be connected. But the novel did not have the opportunity to fully consider the radically different technical possibilities and affordances of the computer and the television, as well as of the networks that tie them together. The television is by design only a receiver of signals; without the addition of video recording devices, it cannot produce new programs, and even with those devices, it cannot publish what it produces. Accordingly, the network that the television is connected to is a centralized, unidirectional, one-to-many broadcast network; signals come in, but they don’t go out. The teleputer of Infinite Jest similarly receives signals from a centralized agency through a one-way network; it is capable of generating some signals of its own, but those seem limited to the ability to request more information or entertainment.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 5 The computer, by contrast, is at its core a read/write device, and the internet a distributed, multi-directional, many-to-many network. These technological differences have given rise to a profound shift in the function of mediation over the last ten years, a shift that Infinite Jest was simply too early to be able to recognize: the social connections produced in a media environment governed by a logic of many-to-many networks, rather than one of one-to-many broadcast or one-to-one cartridge distribution, can produce precisely the kinds of human interconnection, the kinds of conversation, that Wallace’s vision of the novel meant to foster.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Those human interconnections, as we see in the case of Infinitedetox, are bound up in the need to understand something about one’s life by identifying with the stories told by others. This mode of understanding is closely related to Wallace’s argument about the imaginative identification fostered by the novel. However, by virtue of taking place within a two-way medium, with actual human beings rather than fictional characters, the identification that can be produced online takes on a quality that exceeds merely “relating” to a story and instead becomes part of a deeply ethical process of engaging with the other. The possibility of such ethical engagement was one of Wallace’s concerns across his career, surfacing in numerous aspects of his writing from The Broom of the System forward, but it’s given the most focus, perhaps for obvious reasons, in the AA sections of Infinite Jest. Ennet House residents, for instance, are encouraged to sit close to the speakers at meetings in order to “try to Identify instead of Compare,” with “Identify” immediately glossed as “empathize” (345). However, through the AA scenes, it becomes clear that this mode of identification is not merely aimed at understanding one’s own situation, or simply relating to the situation another is in, but instead a deeply ethical process of opening oneself to the utterly unimaginable situation of another by genuinely listening to what they share.
And yet so many contemporary novelists have resisted the Internet, as journalists have, kind of scoffing at the whole thing–Franzen determinedly using a non-connected computer for writing, or Wallace’s own avoidance of email, even. I’ve been arguing for over a decade with journalists who rail against each new development–email, blogging, Facebook, Twitter–only to succumb, way after the adoption would have done them the most good. What is up with that?
What is up with that, indeed. If it’s true of journalists, it’s even more so of mainstream academics (by which I mean to say academics who aren’t explicitly working in digital arenas). The resistance of print-based folks to new digital means of communicating runs deep.
On this point, I wonder if it’s simply that many of them are simply too tired/scared-of-failing to take the time, make the effort and learn this new stuff, and as a result feel threatened and take solace in decrying innovations (often using predicable and lazy cliches – if I hear one more person say that they don’t use Twitter as they “don’t want to know what some pop star had for breakfast” I may scream).
Not sure that point assists in the crafting of this essay (which I’m enjoying very much by the way, as someone who, as you alluded to earlier, came to and devoured Infinite Summer both after it was all over, AND after I’d read Infinite Jest entirely ‘on my own’!)
Man, I need to write shorter sentences…
Potentially useless comment, but one touching on Infinite Jest‘s “vision” of the communications future: I didn’t really begin to understand the book (or apprehend its power) until I switched from reading it on paper to reading it on my iPhone. (A switch that was initially just a matter of convenience–wanting to carry the book around and have it available whenever I could dive into it.) For me, it is a completely different, vastly more accessible, more powerful book when read (and reread) on that device. It’s hard to believe that some (likely unconscious) vision or intention on the author’s part is not behind that circumstance. (Also hard to believe that I’m the only reader who has had this experience.)