Monday, April 25, 2005


On the front page of the Marketplace section of today's Journal there are some fairly frightening photos of Asian teenaged girls dolled up like futuro Geishas, heavily made up, wearing these fur-trimmed lotus-collar robes, smiling and fawing in an enveloping and submissive relationship with their cell phones. The gist of the story is that Asian consumers allow their portable phones to be all-purpose marketing gadgets that keep them in the warm bath of advertising blather for all of their waking hours. American companies, naturally, want a piece of the action, hoping to make cell-phone users even more zombie-like and inconsiderate in their clueless self-absorbtion.

"Among the Chinese," an Intel flack (oh, excuse me, Intel's "staff anthropologist") is quoted as saying, "cellphones have become such important status symbols that relatives at funeral rites burn paper cellphone effegies, so the dead will have their mobiles in the afterlife." Naturally, from the Journal's standpoint, this is an altogether healthy development, because it seems to open the dead as a new marketing demographic. If only there were a way to measure how many ads the dead are seeing -- perhaps some ambitious market-research firm should hustle up some corpses and focus-group them.

The reason why these ads have taken off in Asia but not in America is that Americans have a stubborn habit of regarding cellphones as utilitarian tools rather than all-encompassing lifestyle managers; Americans even have the audacity to turn them off except for cases of emergency. You can feel the frustration of the anthropologists and the marketing strategy executives -- is there any difference anymore? -- wondering, How will people get their cultural marching orders then? Asians are not embarrassed to be "technosexual," an ad executive tells us, which helps them define themselves as "trend-setters" in their own personal "cyworlds." In other words, these people have surrndered more and more of their privacy, which puts them on the cutting edge of cuturally-mediated identity and which leaves them feeling a more and more devestating emptiness inside when cut off from the cultural ephemera that gives them a sense of who they are. This is why they can't imagine being without cellphones in the afterlife. The cores of their very souls are now defined by what media the cellphone can pipe into them to give them tangible character. I've already got a trend piece waiting to be hatched: Asian teens who commit suicide (seppuku style, perhaps) when they lose their cell phones. The loss of this technosexual repository of their souls will prove too dismaying to overcome, and they will fell there's no other choice but to complete the spiritual death that the cell-phone loss precipitates with physical death.

Once, for youth everywhere, taking things to the street meant agitating for revolutionary change. Now, thanks to cellphone technology, people can be "continuing to do branded activities in the street," acccording to another marketer. This is what technology has made of revolution. We want to storm out in the street doing our "branded activities" with our phones in the view of others, who we can't be bothered to ackowledge, in part because they are already far too involved with their phone to make it worth our while anyway. I can't wait for the future.

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