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Transmissions from a Lone Star: The Tower of Babble

© PhotoDaniel Kalder
Daniel Kalder - Sputnik International
The other day I was filling up my car at a gas station, when all of a sudden I heard a weird, squeaky voice coming from somewhere close behind me. Unnerved, I looked around. First left, then right, but I couldn’t see anybody. It was bizarre: as though I had a talking cricket on my shoulder.

The other day I was filling up my car at a gas station, when all of a sudden I heard a weird, squeaky voice coming from somewhere close behind me. Unnerved, I looked around. First left, then right, but I couldn’t see anybody. It was bizarre: as though I had a talking cricket on my shoulder.

Listening more closely, I realized the cricket was chatting about Lindsay Lohan and a terrible dress she had worn to a premiere. I was being haunted by the ghost of a microscopic E! channel talking head.

Suddenly I realized where the voice was coming from: the gas pump. For located inside the bit that shows you how much fuel you’re buying was a small TV screen that displayed a tiny wee man who was giving the latest celebrity news, in that cloying, super chummy way of entertainment TV news hosts: OMG BFF aren’t those shoes, like, totally fierce?

What fresh hell is this? I thought. Am I going to have to listen to this inane rubbish every time I fill up? But then I noticed the mute button. I punched it, and the little man jibbered away in silence.

Driving away I was rather disturbed. Whose idea was that little screen, barking at me, giving useless information I didn’t ask for? It had been a good gas station: cheap, and the coffee was even drinkable, but now it had joined Satan’s legions. Then I remembered a short story by Philip K. Dick in which a space traveler reenters earth’s orbit and advertisers beam babble directly into his consciousness. That was fiction, but they’d do it if they could, you know.

Indeed, this gas pump screen was probably the most offensively unnecessary one I had seen since attending a wedding in Dearborn, Michigan around six years ago. The fancy hotel had tiny little TV screens at the reception desk. In the minute or so it took for me to check in I had to listen to a tiny CNN presenter chattering away about something or other. Again, I was shocked. Can’t I be left alone for a minute at a reception desk?

Perhaps the hotel manager was inspired by the American airport experience, where for some reason screens are usually blasting CNN at passengers in the departure area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody watching one of them. Has anyone ever carried out a survey to find out if people want America’s most banal news channel up there? A few years ago I was catching a late flight out of Moscow and they had a primitive Charlie Chaplin short flickering away overhead. It was pretty dire, but it was still better than CNN.

As it is, I can’t really see the purpose of these screens in an era when almost everybody has a tablet, laptop or smart phone. If somebody wants to watch the news, or visit a jihadi website, satisfaction is but a few clicks and taps away.

But these personalized screens can also become intrusive and overwhelming. I vividly recall that when I moved to my small town north of Austin I visited my local grocer’s and watched in horror as a hippo-sized woman in pajamas pushed a shopping trolley with a two year old sitting in it, who was gazing at a portable TV balanced on a couple of crates of Coke . Crikey, I thought, that’s an absolutely ridiculous Jerry Springer type stereotype only it’s completely real. 

Fortunately I haven’t witnessed anything as bad since, though driving around I often see big SUVs with kids in the back staring half-hypnotized at tiny TVs in the backs of the head rests. That would have been paradise for me as a kid, but as an adult I have come to believe that boredom is good for the imagination; a constant drip feed of CGI excitement numbs the soul, shrinks the attention span, and fills the head with drivel.

I know that I am pretty much King Canute railing against the incoming tide on this topic, for we are about to reach the apex of our civilization’s hunger for constant access to unnecessary jibber-jabber everywhere and forever. Google is about to start selling special glasses that will connect you to the wonder of the World Wide Web wherever you go. I’m not entirely sure how they will work, but I’m guessing that if you stare at a fire hydrant you will somehow be able to look up the history of fire hydrants on Wikipedia and have the info appear inside the glasses. Or watch porn, every waking moment of the day.

So many screens; so much information; so little wisdom- but the worst thing is the sensation that you’re never alone or out of reach. There’s always somebody telling you what they think you need to know. It’s enough to make a man want to throw all his screens away.
Except not really- I rather like my laptop. Also I just got an iPad and can’t put the darn thing down.

Oh well.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”

Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.


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