Saturday, May 5, 2007
A Nextel advertisement that aired in January 2007 appeals to a desire to travel within a personal enclave, one that permits access to the world on one’s own terms. Within this ad, we see the virtue of this miniature world, particularly when that artificial world is compared with the threats of the real world outside. The ad begins with a man who pulls into a rural filling station. A dog is heard barking in the background. Briefly the frame reveals a couple of raggedy folks residing among a grove of trees ahead. With his white dress shirt the driver appears to be on a business trip. His phone, hooked into the car dashboard, reports in a feminine voice that he is eight miles from his destination. The driver then uses the phone's walkie-talkie feature to tell a colleague that he'll arrive within ten minutes. The phone emits the well-known Nextel chirp. The driver exudes calm.
A station attendant -- slightly unshaven, his hair somewhat disheveled, his shirt stained with grease -- leans into the car and asks: “Where ya headed?” The driver appears to stifle some annoyance; the question is unnecessary: “Uh, the processing plant.” The attendant smiles and asks with the confidence of one fulfilling a well-practiced performance: “Need directions?” The driver’s answer fails to follow the script: “Uh, no thanks. I've got Nextel GPS.” The frame reveals a close-up shot of the phone, its screen displaying a turning arrow indicating the path necessary for the driver to return to the road. The screen’s version of the world is geometrically precise and ordered, distinctly different from the rougher terrain outside. We then see attendant once more, his eyes narrowing. He asks with growing menace: “What’d you call me?” The driver responds nervously, “What? No. This is, uh, turn-by-turn directions.” The attendant drawls through a clenched jaw: “We give the directions around here.” The moment seethes with violence, suggesting a scene from the 1972 film Deliverance. The driver swivels and notices a third person wiping the car window. The second attendant stares at the driver in shock and growing anger, his rag squealing and smudging the glass. The driver says, “I'm OK,” and turns the ignition. He’s done with this place. We hear the sound of an automatic window as our view snaps to a bright and uncluttered yellow background. The scene ends with a slogan extolling the virtues of Nextel.
This advertisement illustrates the personal enclave as an evolved realization of omnitopia: the potential to collapse the entire world into a structural and perceptual singularity that is itself mobile. The personal enclave allows its user to possess a version of the world, one that reflects that individual’s needs and desires, and to navigate through social spaces “outside” that world with little or no need for interaction with its inhabitants. The phone’s GPS technology models the town through which the visitor passes. It is a mobile manifestation, a dynamic map that does not necessarily “replace” the territory so much as it elides the territory, making it irrelevant. The viewer of this advertisement is persuaded, or at least inspired to consider, that such a personal enclave marks a necessary advancement in mobile technology. Thus the mythical gasoline attendant, the one with directions and friendly advice celebrated in nostalgic recollections of early twentieth century road trips is now deemed a threat to be avoided. Of course, readers will recall the well-worn trope of the clueless and parochial gas station attendant who always offered bad directions to outsiders. He (almost always he) is a stock character in the road trip mythology. But this figure has rarely been viewed as so completely unnecessary, even dangerous, as he is now since new technology has appeared to render him superfluous. When we carry a world of voices and places in our phones, passing through supposedly dangerous surroundings -- whether these locales marked as “rural” or “urban” -- within our climate-controlled vehicles, we hardly need to open our windows. We might even learn to fear open windows altogether.