In your ear


A quarter of all e-commerce will be conducted by mobile devices by 2016. Our Sunday Comics columnist, after a repulsive dream, tracks the various intrusions into his life via his phone

Jim Gabour
21 July 2013

This story is going to start off crudely, I warn you now.  And it will probably end that way.  But I assure you that I have a philosophical/historical point to make that justifies the next sentence.  

Last night I had a dream about a river of shit.

It started innocuously enough, with me walking through an urban environment.  Coming upon a tough-looking street dude.  A camouflage-clad fellow with red spiky hair, purposefully groomed to make him look both intimidating and overtly dangerous.  I approached cautiously, intending to give him wide berth. But then he stepped quickly into my path, stopped, dropped his pants, squatted on his heels there on the street corner, and let loose with a terminal biological function.  Right in front of me.   He got up, rearranged his clothing with some efficiency, and disappeared into the crowd. But the result of his action remained, instantly growing in bulk enough to first fill the sidewalk, then the street, and then to glut and flow in a deep earth-colored liquid wave through the entire neighborhood.  This was not a pleasant experience, nor one that I wished to continue.

I woke myself up, tried to clear my head of the imagery, tried to meditate, worked hard to stay focused within my own breathing to the exclusion of everything else.

But the burden of the repulsive dream sequence was too powerful and unsettling to allow a return to sleep.  The power of the river haunted me.  The physical results on the rest of my night was to render it into disjointed, fitfully waking, episodic bits of shallow dozing and sudden starts.  My favorite cat, Mister B, one of few of the herd at this address who actually tolerates me, jumped off the bed with a hiss early on, angry that I kept flipping and changing position and waking him up.  

It was a bad night all around, B.

When I spoke – cautiously -- of the dream the next morning to my partner, a woman  of great intelligence who has done and continues to do intensively esoteric research into the unconscious mind, she told me that she thought the dream was about “getting rid of something”.  That interpretation sounded reasonable, and was well-rooted in the actions and motivations of my immediate past life.  It was a sensible synthesis of my biography and my emotional state.  “Getting rid of something” sounded rational.

Me, I think the dream was about telephones.

* * *

History surely reinforces my case.

Born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alexander Graham Bell became an expert in sound and public speaking. His understanding of sound helped him to teach the deaf and then invent the telephone.  He made what is said to be the first telephone call on March 10, 1876, a phone solicitation that invited his friend Watson to join him.

Bell created many other groundbreaking inventions, including the “photophone” in 1880. This first wireless telephone transmitted sound on a beam of light. It is the forefather of the cordless phone and the eighty percent of today's telephone systems that use fiber optics.

That development has of course finally brought us to this ubiquitous “cell” phone-oriented world, the device itself being called “cell”, according to The Atlantic, because “The basic layout of a mobile phone network… is composed of ‘cells’ - which are defined by the transmission ranges of the towers at their vertices…”

About a week ago I found myself caught up in the 21st century cosmos of just such a cell while walking down a street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Two well-dressed teenaged women turned the corner a few feet in front of me and proceeded to walk up the street a few paces ahead.  They were both talking on their cell phones, walking side by side, unconsciously in step, and holding the devices with their left hands while gesturing with their rights. They were proceeding slowly with the intensity of their calls, so I was walking past them when I overhead their conversation.  They were talking to each other.  Their voices were being reproduced on their cell phones, rather than directly mouth to ear.

* * *

You may have also heard that here in the A.D. 2013 there is this thing called the world wide web.  Despite claims by the ever-increasing corporeal and egotistical size of a creature named Al Gore, for whom I once had the misfortune to vote, the web was started in 1991 by a fellow named Tim Berniers-Lee at CERN, the large particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.  The same gent also a hand in getting the internet, on which the web rides, started over the preceding decade.

But at a large particle physics lab?  Odd to imagine those subterranean scientists, with their decidedly non-large teeny bits of matter flying miles and miles around the heart of a gigantic circular tube.  A gaggle of goofy-looking geeks  are at the controls there, heroically seeking the Big Bang, in an effort directly forged from the metal of billions of dollars and euros.  It would seem odd that they, as remote as their quest, would have any real connection whatsoever to we more mundane surface folk.  

But then came yet another development.  On February 4, 2004, Mark Zuckerberg launched "Thefacebook", originally located at thefacebook.com. At this point I must admit that it is hard to believe it has been fewer that ten years since that world came into being.  Seems it has been here forever, such is its power.

Because of course I am forced to recognize that between Bell, Berniers-Lee, and Zuckerberg someone was directly responsible for my favorite chef sending me his mother’s recipe for hard-boiled eggs this morning, via a Facebook posting.  A fact that sends me into a mental frenzy.  This trivial intrusion into my life was a direct result of three strangers’ meddling.  Telling me how to boil eggs.

* * *

It only gets worse.  There is the omnivorous Global Positioning System.  If you leave your GPS activated, “they”, the trackers, can find you anywhere. Google tracks where both your body and your phone go, using the information to build a complete file on who you are, where you go and what you want.   If you haven’t been extremely careful in choosing which defaults you want while installing applications, and if you have not disconnected certain requirements, over half the apps available on the Googleplay marketplace will track you via GPS.

As a direct result just this past weekend The New York Times announced that department stores are using phones to gather information on you while you are in the store as:  “part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behavior and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.

All sorts of retailers — including national chains, like Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mothercare, a British company, and specialty stores like Benetton and Warby Parker — are testing these technologies and using them to decide on matters like changing store layouts and offering customized coupons.

“…’the idea that you’re being stalked in a store is, I think, a bit creepy, as opposed to, it’s only a cookie — they don’t really know who I am," said Robert Plant, a computer information systems professor at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, noting that consumers can rarely control or have access to this data.

Eight years ago, before GPS and hi-def video were installed as a matter of course on every phone, I was working a concert shoot in Tokyo, where in spite of what guidebooks had told me, there were absolutely no signs in English on the trains.  I resorted to taking my digital camera and taking a picture of every corner as I left the train and walked to my destination.  Then I could play the pictures back one at a time in reverse, and retrack my way back to the train and the hotel.  A trail of electronic breadcrumbs.  I thought myself so clever at the time.

And now global positioning is so prevalent that the Nordstrom’s advertising department knows when I have gone to the loo in one of its stores?

* * *

Bad enough that there is passive observation, but then there are the marketers and/or their minions who actually call me.

To keep the invaders off my cell, I maintain a decoy land line.  I find it useful in trying to filter the schlock.  I give this number to governmental agencies, creditors, social organizations, to every entity that demands to have at least one phone number before it will operate on my behalf.  The decoy line costs twelve dollars a month.  I do not listen to the messages on my answering machine, but when I am in my office I do occasionally monitor the calls for amusement purposes, to see how many electronic fish have fallen in my net.

Because in spite of my placing even the decoy line on every federal and state “do not call” list, I still get dozens of robo-calls a week.  One of the biggest offenders is the lame-brained ethics-deprived hooker-chasing US Republican Senator from Louisiana, David Vitter loves to call me.  And he is allowed to. This is because when the members of the legislative branch of the American government were formulating the “do not call” legislation, they exempted themselves.

Telephone numbers placed on the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry remain on it permanently due to the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007, which became law in February 2008. The 2007 Act did not really improve the efficiency of the Do Not Call legislation.  It just lengthened it.  As for the politicians building their own loophole, the fact is confirmed on the government site itself:  “Political solicitations are not covered by the TSR at all, since they are not included in its definition of “telemarketing.”

Vitter even had a say in ensuring that the Louisiana state DNC laws would allow him to make his home state constituents miserable, and was -- I am sure -- delighted at the inclusion of exemption number six, exemptions being awarded to entities allowed to continue making unsolicited robo-calls. Number six exempts any call “Constituting political activity.  For the purposes of this Order, calls constituting political activity are defined as calls made for the sole purpose of urging support for or opposition to a political candidate or ballot issue provided that the callers identify themselves…”

And that is legal.  Even when the pitches are following me away from my home, on the cell.

To keep it that way and identify himself, the bombastic lawmaker likes announcing his importance at the head of his phone message, probably much like he would announce himself upon phoning the brothel madame he once so frequently engaged: “This is Senator David Vitter!” he cries out as you pick up the phone.  It is not, of course, it is an unresponsive electronic representation of his voice.  And when his campaign staff employs a live, supposedly responsive caller, they mimic his high announcement of royalty: “This is a message from the office of Senator David Vitter!” they cry, and then ask for money.   Thus the morality-impaired buffoon (recently re-elected) continues to send annoying, but legal, calls during my dinner, looking to raise funds, and lobbying for commercial interests from which he benefits.

A few days ago, my black-eyed peas cooled as I traipsed to and from the phone.  Yet another result of bad politics.

In his and/or his hired spokesperson’s spiel, Vitter even uses many of the same catchphrases, if not methods, for which consumers are warned on the government DNC site:

“… scammers who operate by phone don’t want to give you time to think about their pitch; they just want to get you to say ‘yes.’ But some are so cunning that, even if you ask for more information, they seem more than happy to comply. They may readily direct you to a website or otherwise send information featuring ‘satisfied customers.’ These customers, known as shills, are likely as fake as their praise for the company.  

“Here are a few red flags to help you spot telemarketing scams. Say ‘no, thank you,’ hang up, and file a complaint with the FTC if you hear a line that sounds like this:

•  ‘You've been specially selected.’ (for this offer)

•  ‘You'll get a free bonus if you buy our product.’

•  ‘You've won one of five valuable prizes.’

•  ‘You've won big money in a foreign lottery.’

•  ‘This investment is low risk and provides a higher return than you can get   anywhere else.’

•  ‘You have to make up your mind right away.’

•  ‘You trust me, right?’

•  ‘You don't need to check our company with anyone.’

•  ‘We'll just put the shipping and handling charges on your credit card.’”

* * *

Part of all this is because the culture vultures know that we are indeed spending money, much more money than ever before, from our phones:  “…eMarketer predicts that by 2016, mobile will be $87 billion, or a quarter of all e-commerce.

“The shift is significant for a type of shopping riddled with challenges — like small screens that make it hard to view items and type. It reflects the consumers’ shift to doing everything from work to play on mobile devices.”

And if there is money to be made, the vultures will be there.  As will the river.

So this coming Spring 2014, I intend to teach a University class on how to make phone films.  The smallest screen is where entertainment is headed, after all, and every student seems to have a device that shoots hi-def video and then posts it for the world to view via YouTube.  So maybe we should at least try and teach the next generation how to piece together a series of images that is a tad more worthwhile than yet another dumb cat trick.  

My apologies to Mr B, who is after all, of the species.

When I mentioned this bit of speculation to him this afternoon – I often try out my logic on the wise old cat – the old boy looked me right in the face, tilted his head to one side, then licked his ass.  I know the signal.  He does this to communicate disdain, to show me his disapproval when I have done or mentioned something that he considers unworthy of his feline sensibilities.  

Having experienced the dream and its actualization in real life, I now find Mr B’s sentiment, and his means of displaying it, perfectly appropriate.

I may be getting rid of something.  

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