In the classic 1956 sci-fi thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people in a small California town start complaining that their loved ones have somehow been replaced by impostors — blank-faced, cold-blooded replicas devoid of human feeling. The local psychiatrist ascribes the problem to “epidemic mass-hysteria.” But it soon becomes overwhelmingly clear to a few still-normal townsfolk that their former friends and neighbors have become “pod people,” victims of alien invaders who kill, then perfectly replicate, their human hosts with only one sinister intention: make more pod people.
For years, film critics and sci-fi buffs have argued whether Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an allegory about the loss of intellectual freedom in the Soviet Union or in McCarthy-era America. Like any well-wrought allegory, it remains apposite today. But the film got it wrong on one minor detail: the body snatchers did not come from outer space, they are manufactured right here on planet earth.
Imagine a device — palm-sized, seemingly innocuous — that can turn a loved one into a subservient automaton, a drone, and sometimes, depending on where and when the device commands, a deadly menace. Imagine an apparatus capable of diverting happily occupied adults from such activities as meals with friends and family, romantic dates, enjoying sporting events, or walking their children to school.
There was a time when one might indulge in a little daydreaming, say, riding a train or sitting at the beach. Those days are gone thanks to this cruel contrivance. Yes, try to conceive of an object so insidious that it has all but eradicated daydreaming! Well, that may not mean much to Americans, but how about a gadget that can disrupt a business meeting? Now I’ve got your attention! And while you’re listening, this maniacal little machine routinely distracts drivers who ought to be focused on negotiating neighborhood streets thronged with traffic, cyclists, and unexpected pedestrians.
Did I mention that this ghoulish gadget holds such sway over its thralls that it can interrupt vacations, desperately needed sleep, and even sex?
No doubt, you’ve guessed by now what ubiquitous technology I’m talking about. That’s right: electronic leashes. Mobiles, as they call them in Europe. Cell phones. (Cue a horror soundtrack .) Now get ready for a real shocker: I’m 40, I have a great life, and I’ve never had a cell-phone. What’s more, I’m the normal person here, the lone survivor who has managed to evade the body snatchers, and you’re one of the pod people, a victim of “epidemic mass hysteria.”
Let me try to shock you back to reality with a few real-life examples. On a recent Friday night, my girlfriend and I dined at a popular downtown Princeton restaurant. A young couple, barely old enough to order glasses of Chianti, sat at a table next to us. Their table was also near a door to the outside. The young man’s cell phone emitted some horribly loud recording of a death-metal band. He excused himself and stepped outside through the adjacent door. While he was heeding the call, the young woman produced her cell phone and began performing discreet manipulations that reminded me of someone praying the rosary. No more than five minutes after the gentleman zombie returned to his seat, the lady zombie’s phone rang. Repeat the identical ritual, only with roles exchanged.
If it stopped there, you could shrug it off as some kind of quid pro quo of ill timing. But their electronic leashes yanked them away from their seats two more times! It’s a Friday night. They’re obviously on a date. They’re 22, 23 years old. Wouldn’t all those hormones, all that youth, even a little vino override the need to answer a call from another zombie who wants to know, “dude, so like, what are you doing tonight?”
Or consider this curious episode. As I walked along a busy Princeton street, an attractive woman in her 30s stepped out of a boutique. As the door closed behind her, she reached into her handbag, snapped open a cell-phone, and applied it to her ear. At no time did she press any buttons on the device, nor did she utter a word over the two blocks that we walked in trail formation. I haven’t the slightest doubt that no one was on the other end. It was an epiphany: the cell phone as “accessory” (as such dubious baubles are called), deployed like sunglasses or an umbrella. After all, think of the implications of a young woman, no matter how fashionable, seen walking alone sans cell-phone: why, it must mean that no one likes her, that she’s friendless, unpopular, quite obviously undesirable. Even when it doesn’t ring, the cell phone exerts its invasive hegemony.
But if these incidents sound too random, let me suggest a venue where you will see guaranteed body snatcher behavior: a televised baseball game. As the camera returns again and again to a vantage framing the batter and the fans behind home plate, count how many cell phone drones you see dully staring in every direction but the next pitch. Grimace at the mobile-wielding morons who have called their friends to coordinate frantic bouts of waving when the camera pans over their section. Try viewing this with the volume turned down: it’s like looking into a psych ward through soundproof glass.
Of course, in one-on-one conversations with cell-phone addicts, i.e. just about anyone with a cell phone, they’ll agree that the thing annoys them, that it’s a rude little gadget that they tolerate for its “occasional” convenience. And then I’ll hear the rationalizations. “Kids” is a common one, with its sinister implication that the children have cell-phones too.
At this point, as if to change the topic, I’ll mention that according to a fascinating article published in 2002 in Population Today, the number of people who have ever lived on Earth is roughly 110 billion (106,456,367,669 was the 2002 estimate.) Since there are a little more than 6 billion people alive today, that means that well over 100 billion people have come and gone — been born, played with bows and arrows or BB guns, and survived to have children — without the aid of hand-held two-way communicators. Next excuse.
“I need to have this thing for my job,” is another common cell phone rationalization I hear. Sounds logical, assuming the person I’m talking to is a volunteer fireman, a doctor on-call, an ordinance disposal expert, or the leader of the free world. Or maybe it would be understandable if the person had a job that somehow involved making split-second, billion-dollar decisions about markets in distant time zones. But my zombie interlocutor is an accountant, so don’t you have an office, a place where the boss knows you’ll be with a telephone on your desk?
The other excuse I love is “in case I break down on the highway,” to which I always reply, while staring at the person’s cell-phone clipped to their belt like a mini respirator: So I guess you keep the phone in your glove compartment?
But thralldom has its price. Some body snatchers claim to suffer from “ghost ring” much the same way amputees complain of phantom limb pain. They report experiencing a distinct twitching of muscles in the outer thigh that mimics the feel of a cell phone set to vibration mode. You can spot a ghost ring sufferer as they suddenly grab at their pant pocket, hastily pulling out their cell phone only to discover it hasn’t been ringing. This mild dementia sounds silly enough until one day you’re crossing the street and an already distracted driver sitting atop two tons of SUV doesn’t see you because a ghost ring has them clutching their leg connected to the gas pedal.
It used to be, when someone walked down the street animatedly talking to themselves, you knew they were crazy, or at least eccentric. Now they’re supposedly normal — unless, of course, there’s no one on the other end of the line. Yes, I’m still having trouble adjusting to a world where conversations are routinely interrupted by people having to answer their cell phones; where obnoxious ring-tones go off like bombs in cafes, restaurants, theaters, and trains; where every motorist has a driving hand affixed to an ear.
At the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the one man who escaped being turned into a pod person runs screaming down the highway, trying to warn passing drivers. Imagine the grim futility of that ending today! But I can see, dear reader, that you’re not amused. In fact, your expression hasn’t changed one millimeter since you started reading this essay.