NS Internet column
Written 16 September 1999 for the New Statesman
I think I have just found the most evil, pointless, and antisocial piece of software ever written. It will come as no surprise that it was Swedes who were responsible for this crime against humanity: you will find it on the web page of LM Ericsson, the electronics company now locked in a death struggle with the Finnish Nokia to dominate the world cell-phone market. At the moment, Nokia is winning thanks to such amazing technological innovations as pop-on plastic colours which change the colour of a phone. At the top-end of the market, it also makes a tiny, chromed, phone which has an inbuilt modem and an infra-red link, which proves that the only thing more chic than being wired is being wireless. I lusted hopelessly after one of these until I happened to find myself on a train to Liverpool street, opposite a fat city lawyer who spent about fifteen minutes gazing at his reflection in the shiny chrome while he orated confidently into a little hands-free set about the need to sack some hapless person connected to Clifford Chance.
I resolved to buy an Ericsson phone instead. Besides, it was a quarter of the price. This also works as a wireless modem so I can use it to check my email and to experience the web on the minute monochrome screen of a Psion organiser. It is not what they call a rich media experience, but that hardly matters. There is still a lot of textual information on the web; and in general what is not text is either a waste of space, or actively harmful, as I was to discover.
Whenever I buy a gadget, I like to make it work properly. This is a habit which has got me into a lot of trouble. I read manuals. I wander round the manufacturer's web pages before buying things; most of them are simply full of marketing hype, but that is in its way information as valuable as anything you will find in the manual, for it tells you before you start that the thing is not going to work properly.
This explains how I found myself looking at Ericsson's technical support pages for advice on "tuning your phone". They mean it literally. To "tune your phone" does not mean to improve its performance but to give it a ring pattern that will be even more upsetting to your fellow passengers than the conversation you are about to have.
The phone I have bought will allow me to choose or compose my own tune by pressing the number keys in the right sequence. Because this is difficult and complicated, most people won't ever do it; I certainly wouldn't. That is what has given the evil genius in Ericsson tech support his chance. On their web pages is a shockwave application: a little, automatically downloaded program, that puts a piano keyboard on screen. Beneath it is a little picture of the telephone keypad and as you click on the piano keys, the corresponding phone digits light up. In this way it is possible to pick out the me-lo-dee of your choice and hear it jerk out of the speakers in an authentically slimy digital toothpaste.
Of course it's irresistible. Within minutes I was deeply frustrated that it wouldn't manage chords, and wishing I had brought a phone that had proper midi capabilities. Why have a ring at all when you could have blast of Wagner? But no love is blinder than the love of software gadgets, and soon I could not notice how hideous were the noises that emerged from my machine because of the wonder that they emerged at all. Then I spent half an hour trying to teach it to play the opening phrases of "Dark Star". Originally, I suppose, my aim was to have a noise that was unmistakably my own but if ever this things works properly I will have signed my own death warrant.
The Israeli Shin Bet murdered one Palestinian bomb maker by wiring his mobile with plastic explosive and then ringing him. When he flapped the flip, it blew his head half off. But with a properly tuned phone you would need no plastic explosive. Last month a man was lynched in Hamburg for using his mobile once too often in a pub but the joy of this software is that the lynching can be precipitated by remote control. Just ring my number three or four times as the train is stuck in the wastelands east of Liverpool Street and my fellow passengers will do the rest. No jury would convict them but I hope my surviving descendants would sue the man who wrote that web page.