When Samuel F.B. Morse in 1844 sent the first electronic communication from Washington to Baltimore over the first long-distance telegraph line, he chose as its content the weighty biblical question from Numbers 22: "What hath God wrought?"
But that was a pre-20th-century query. The question for our time is "What hath man wrought?" and in the present communicatory onslaught, the obvious answer is "too much."
Hardly a day seems to pass without further evidence of our assault on what remains of Western civilization. But let us consider the latest transmutation of the mobile phone.
Just the other day it was relatively rare and too bulky to pocket without being mistaken for a handgun. Now it's not only multiplying faster than a flu germ, it's approaching the size of one. And it's infecting all aspects of our lives.
The latest plot by mad cybernerds at something called TeleVend is to use these phones to bond you ever more closely to your vending machine.
In the brave new world of TeleVend, you will approach a vending machine, whip out your trusty mobile phone and dial the number on the machine. Out will come your drink, candy bar, condom, lottery ticket or whatever, which is then charged to your phone bill.
And just think of it: All the while the vending machine will be talking to you, playing music, jingles, commercials, or maybe presenting movie or TV previews. These will not be simply random prerecorded messages. Since the vending machine now has your phone number, and all the data that conveys, some fiendish centralized uberbrain somewhere will be seducing you with a specific mix of videos, soundtracks and commercials--a highly focused message massaged by corporate Skinnerians so as best to motivate potential customers by region, language, culture, race, income and other demographic data.
Like that? Wait. There's more.
TeleVend is already testing a way of gambling by cell phone, in effect pulling the handle of an electronic slot machine via phone and handling the results by credit. Saves lugging all those messy coins around. A TeleVend press release says "increased earnings are projected as close to 50 percent." This statement is not believed to refer to the player.
All of which threatens to make playing the stock market by computer look positively antique. Not to mention lethargic. Your 5-year-old will be able to dial up Las Vegas remotely and run up your mortgage while you duck into the store for a bottle of milk. Except maybe she'll tap by phone right into the cow.
Some 30 years ago a movie director named Theodore J. Flicker (really!) made a film called "The President's Analyst," halfway through which, for no particular reason except hilarity, turns into an attack on the phone company. James Coburn, as the secret White House shrink, discovers that the malevolent forces out to get him are really directed by the Bell System, which wants to plant a telephonic chip in everybody's brain so we can talk to each other without all those messy wires. And so when they call you, you have to answer.
Flicker thought he was making a satire. Silly fellow.