Originally appeared in Feed, January 9, 2001
A couple of months ago, after flying into Chicago on assignment, I rented a car. Since it was on someone else’s dime, I got a Chevy Impala, a smooth ride with cool bubble curves and a dashboard that glowed like the console of a shuttlecraft. Making my way from O’Hare to the Doubletree Inn in Skokie, I turned on the radio, stumbling across the city’s peculiar “progressive rock” station KXRT (“like dungeons and dragons on your radio”). Styx’s “Come Sail Away” soon forced me to abandon ship. Then I tuned into a Christian station, where I spent the next twenty minutes listening to one of the most awesome sermons I have ever heard. Between throaty bursts of songbird glossalalia worthy of Al Green, the preacherman filled the rent-a-car with a powerful blend of joy and dread. “My God, my God, I don’t wanna die!” Indeed.
The next evening, I was returning from Evanston to my hotel. For some reason, the car’s interior light wouldn’t shut off, and I fumbled for the proper button. (Like many Americans, I challenge the interface designers of cars — not to mention software — by not bothering to figure out how anything works before I hit the road.) I noticed a cluster of buttons lining the bottom of the rearview mirror. Accordingly, I aimlessly swatted them until the light blinked out. However, I also seemed to have triggered the car phone I didn’t know I had, as the familiar drone of a dial tone came across the “entertainment system.” Not knowing how to turn off the phone, I simply turned the volume knob on the radio down, figuring that, in the absence of a dialed number, the phone would simply shut off after the “If you would like to make a call” lady had her say. I remember feeling restless. Though the drive was short and I try to avoid switching on the radio simply to manage nervous energy, I turned up the volume dial and discovered the radio already on. I heard a droning male voice, which I assumed was another Christian preacher, although this guy sounded moralistic, boring, and white. Feeling vaguely displeased with myself for my inability to drive fifteen minutes without sonic distraction, I immediately turned the volume knob down, still unsure about how to shut off the radio itself. But after a few moments, my restlessness got the better of me and I yanked the knob on, enabling me to hear the following:
“If you do not respond immediately, we will automatically dispatch a police vehicle to your location.”
A spine-trembling beat. Hesitantly, though without logically processing the action, I said, “Are you talking to me?”
“Whoah!” I shuddered. “What’s going on?”
“This is the OnStar advisor. You have activated the emergency system. It’s our policy to contact an emergency service if we don’t hear a response. Is everything OK?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m in a rent-a-car. I didn’t know what I was doing. You freaked me out. Sorry.”
“That’s OK. If you have any further questions, just press the blue OnStar button on your rearview mirror. Good night.”
The radio stayed off the rest of the way.
Now, you may pay more attention to car ads than I do, so you may already be hip to OnStar: an onboard, location-based information and safety service available for GM cars. OnStar pumps out a strong three-watt GPS signal which supposedly works even if your antenna gets ripped off. With this location info-streaming into their computers, OnStar advisors can give you real-time directions, tell you about nearby hotels and restaurants, or direct emergency services to your car if an airbag is deployed or if you happen to press that little button on the rearview mirror with a red cross on it (duh). Later this year, OnStar’s “Virtual Advisor” will also enable you to personalize a speech-activated flow of sports, stock, news, and weather data from the Internet — you know, kind of like the radio used to do.
It was only later that I found out about OnStar’s GPS technology, their one million customers, and their ridiculous marketing tie-in with DC’s Bat Mobile (an ad campaign that forced them to include the following passage in their FAQ: “Q. Why can’t I buy the Bat Mobile? A. Batman and the Bat Mobile are used solely for advertising purposes and are not available through OnStar.”). But though this information explained what happened to me, it did not entirely eradicate the blast of the uncanny that my unwitting encounter with OnStar uncorked inside the confines of my rented Chevy. For a few seconds, I had entered Philip K. Dick land: my radio suddenly and pointedly spoke directly to me. Moreover, the voice knew exactly where I was — in Evanston, Illinois, heading east on Golf toward Skokie Blvd. In a beat, reality seemed to fold inside out, the general became particular. This is what paranoid schizophrenics might feel like at the beginning of an episode.
I suspect that most of us have had similar encounters with technology, especially over the last decade — moments when our media, for whatever reason, momentarily deliver us into some uncanny zone that lingers on the edge of the Real. Usually we sweep these experiences — strange radio static, surreal computer shenanigans, the snafu synchronicities of the cell phone — under the rug. But I don’t think we should so readily dismiss the feelings that accompany these experiences, because they have their own truths to tell. For as media increasingly colonize social reality, they scramble the space-time boundaries of the self. And this always feels a little weird.
Of course, we quickly assimilate these mutations in subjectivity. The human mind seems to naturally adjust itself to perceive its current reality as normal and mundane (and often vaguely dissatisfying, to boot). Nowadays, we can hardly believe that our great-grandparents experienced Ford jalopies as demonic speed machines, or that the bodiless heads of the cinema screen triggered nausea. These perceptions become normal, even though, in some basic sense, they are not.
One reason that these uncanny experiences are important, then and now, is that they speak to the conflicted and ambivalent feelings that technology provokes — feelings we usually bury beneath the quotidian stage of getting and spending. In this sense, they are like the symptoms in a dream, except that they arise in the midst of the everyday. Even more importantly, though, they have the almost oracular ability to reveal the new and often rather disturbing social realities that are emerging beneath the veneer of business as usual. In this sense, the technologically uncanny — in both fiction and paranormal “fact” — is a gateway to the new mutations of the Real.
Consider the oft-noted resemblance between businessmen barking into their cell phones and crazy homeless people talking to their invisible companions. Late-night comics have already milked this one dry, but what does it actually tell us? Wireless technology, by removing physical connections, erases one of the last signs that our communication technologies are material and not etheric. Though we “know” that electromagnetic modulations of the spectrum are no less material than waves of electrons cruising along a wire, wireless nonetheless amplifies the experiential sense that we live and move in a world of invisible intelligences, a magic world verging on telepathy. Simply put, the more the physical apparatus disappears, the more we are simply listening and responding to voices in our heads.
I am not saying that the mobile hordes of demon-haunted suits prove that our society has gone insane. The world is subtler (and crazier) than that. Instead, technology is colonizing zones of cultural perception previously occupied by madmen, drug fiends, and religious fanatics — fringe dwellers who long ago found their own way to tune into electronic media. Everyone knows that many schizos fear nefarious mind-control microwaves, or tune into visionary messages through their TVs and radios. But few of us recognize how old this phenomenon is and how fundamental it is to the social phenomenology of electronic media. Shortly after the telephone was introduced, for example, Thomas Watson — Bell’s famous partner — met a man who claimed that two New Yorkers had connected his brain to a telephone circuit, and used this device to give him various diabolical orders.
Unlike madmen, of course, cellular users are speaking to other people. But even these legitimate signals have their own uncanny stories to tell. Bad connections on copper lines were often noisy or faint; satellite signals introduced delay. Now, because of cross-talk, bounced signals, and who knows what, millions of people routinely hear the voices of their friends and colleagues spliced and diced through hideous Lovecraftian Cuisinarts of sound. Our cell phones have become effects boxes worthy of the headiest dub or industrial music, and they render our intimate communications trippy.
Once, I heard the distant voice of my friend Christy multiply into scores of slightly off-beat sonic doppelgangers, so that the telephone call sounded like a thousand Christys were talking to me at once. It was one of the most psychedelic things I’ve ever heard. That is, until my radio talked to me.
As with so many technologies, the penetration of wireless into global society will be simultaneously convenient, weird, banal, and deeply disturbing. We already accept the little antisocial wormholes that cell phones open up in the midst of public space, a phenomenon that, while further cranking up the knob on individualism, at least adds another wrinkle to the boundaries that define our social interaction. But the growth of wireless access to data may have a very different effect, because it erodes the sense that the world we wander through has any real variation at all.
Here’s why. Societies have increasingly come to define reality — or, less philosophically, “the action” — by media and information flows. But the old days were very “lumpy” when it came to the density and availability of cultural information, because the city had more access than a cornfield. Nowadays, though, universal wireless access to the Net makes our particular somewhere feel like anywhere — or even nowhere.
We are all familiar now with the non-linearity of the Web, its simultaneously liberating and woozy sense that everything seems connected to everything else. Despite the best efforts of 3D-cyberspace builders, the “distance” between points online is entirely virtual. Once we can use our wireless PDAs, fancy cell phones, and other nomad computers to access this data-dense nonspace from anywhere in fleshland, that flattening all-at-once-ness leaks into the world of trees and cafs and cathedrals. As the Net becomes ubiquitous, the physical world becomes hollowed out in roughly the same way that collective social space is hollowed out by cell phones. It’s like wandering into a heavily touristed medieval city in Europe: the exotic spaces that initially seem to transport you beyond the fields you know turn out to house variations on the same global themes. If authentic travel implies wandering and wondering, which I suspect it does, then travel becomes impossible with a digital yellow pages, map, and guidebook in your palm.
GPS and other location-based services add a new twist, offering at first what appears to be a return to specific locality: You are here. But the global reach and ubiquity of the network ultimately undermines that sense of specific location, supplanting “place” with “space” — the abstract space of information. When I accidentally contacted OnStar, I established a real-time connection between my body and the company’s virtual map of the material world, a connection that, in some fundamental way, brings those two worlds closer together. I was on the grid, and the sudden recognition of my individual capture by a satellite-based system of virtual control partly accounted for my little mise-en-abime. Because I did not consciously initiate the link, I directly experienced the fact that the safety and control we are offered through new technology generally comes with our incorporation into what Foucault might call a “disciplinary order.” The actual content of my uncanny moment was my own translation into a blinking red light in a system designed to, in some sense, remotely control my body.
In other words, the real spookiness of my experience did not come from my schizophrenic encounter with a talking radio but from my close brush with cops. I won’t speculate about what would have happened had some of Skokie’s finest actually pulled my scruffy, ignorant ass over, nor how friendly they might have been had that ass been black. Nor will I bother you with another rant about privacy, fast-track toll systems, and the latest mark of the beast. There is a lot of debate about privacy in the information age, but much less discussion about the profound psychic unease that most of us feel, in our dreams if not in our waking worries. There is a peculiar wooze beneath our willingness to sacrifice anonymity on the technological altar of safety and convenience, and the wooze tastes like an almost psychedelic fear. And fear rarely just sits there: It motivates us, if not to act, then to act out. Paranoia will not disappear, either in popular culture or politics. The psychic dis-ease unleashed by the technological erosion of privacy will not only continue to feed fictions but will cloud the transparency we demand in both our technologies and our political systems, because whatever local clarity we gain depends on a hyperdimensional grid whose depth, extent, and uses exist beyond our ken.
Along these lines, I feel compelled to mention the strangely underreported fact that, thanks to the FCC, all U.S. cell phones will soon be required to pack GPS units (or some equivalent tech) that will allow their location to be fixed the moment that 911 is dialed. Obviously this provision makes a certain sense, and it’s clear that lives will be saved. But I can’t deny that this news didn’t send a little New World Order shudder down this particular spine — even if the most likely abusers are not some nascent info-Stassi, but the real trackers of the digital age: marketeers. Because the FCC has also ruled that wireless carriers, and not users, own GPS location data, and can freely sell it to third parties. So the next time your radio-cum-PDA-cum-cell phone talks to you out of the blue, it may want to tell you about the great deal on Beanie Babies or CanonÕs 15 x 45 image-stabilized binoculars that awaits you two shops down to the right. And if the consumer pigeonholing software is up to snuff, this news may indeed whet your appetite, though the greater cost to our sense of being in the world may be unreckonable. Happy hunting, fellow-nomads.