Erik Davis on 28 Feb 2001 04:44:22 -0000

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<nettime> Posthuman Condition 4

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Remote Control
Erik Davis ponders wireless technology and the erosion of place.

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 
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 
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 

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 caf=E9s 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 Canon's 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, 




Erik Davis       +1-415-541-5016 vox
Contributing editor, Wired magazine
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