"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 December 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.




When we last saw Oedipa Maas, she

was locked in a room in San

Narcisco, waiting for a crisis.

She had already noticed, way at

the beginning of the book, that

the orderly streets of

subdivided California resembled

printed circuits. When seen from

above, from the top of a hill or

from the window of a plane, the

astonishing clarity and order of

the landscape seemed to want to

communicate something - but

didn't. The anxiety of that

failure to communicate is bound

to escalate into a kind of

panic. In fact, the silence

itself is a kind of panic, as

when the soon-to-be-humiliated

Kommander of Salig 19 looks up

from his soup and says to his

trusty Colonel: "It's quiet. Too




William Gibson said the same thing a

few years ago, writing about

Singapore: "Its ceaseless

boosterism in the service of

order, health, and prosperity

quickly induces a species of

low-key Orwellian dread." But

Singapore and California are the

most positive proposals for a

digital future advanced to date,

and if the price is just a tad

of totalitarian tenseness - hey,

that's better than race war.

Yes, the coolly buzzing networks

of calculated prosperity and

convenient push-button shopping

envisioned by the architects of

our new electronic environments

induce, perhaps by accident,

sinister harmonics - irritating

minor chords at the edge of

audibility - but this appears to

be merely a technical problem,

one that should not be all that

hard to resolve.



"I wanted technology to reach

people 24 hours a day, 365 days

a year," said a Mr. Tan Soo Sam

to The Straits Times, one of

Singapore's leading papers. Mr.

Tan is the CEO of National Life

Care, which proposes to provide

$750 buzzers to elderly

Singaporeans. What's Mandarin

for "Help, I've fallen and I

can't get up"?


From cradle to grave,

Singaporeans and other netizens

can count on always being

findable via the network. Total

comfort and total control. Ain't

it grand?


[Bill Board]

Your citizens (aka market share)

are drifting, vaguely anxious

but rather happy, all told.

Maybe a little bit distracted,

though. The cure for this lack

of attentiveness, this failure

to heed what the advertising

fellas call a "call to action"

is familiar to anybody who has

ever tried to make a buck on the

web. In a world of infinite,

comfortable drift, where does

the motivation to act decisively

(aka click-through) come from?



Why, from contests, of course.

You can enter to win. For

instance, in the new Singapore

emergency essay contest, all you

have to do is tell the tale of

the last time you or somebody

you know was caught unprepared,

and survived.


"The telephone was ringing, the

kettle was whistling, and Mrs.

Elisabeth Ricard, 78, was

rushing to get to both. In her

haste, she tripped over a chair

and fell on her back, hitting

her head," reported The Straits

Times on November 18.


Do we have a winner?


Admittedly, the emergency essay

contest may only be a stopgap

measure. The post-traumatic-

stress approach to managing the

passivity that flowers under

total control wears out after

the 10th or 11th time you watch

The Towering Inferno. In the

world of all-encompassing

technology, actual emergencies

call not for psychic rehearsals

but for competent contingency

plans. You might still look up

from your desk now and then to

see if there's a sprinkler

system installed, but there

always is one.


Hold on a second. Does that pipe

hold a sprinkler, or a security

camera? Maybe we'd better forget

the hokey contests. The way to

cope with the dread and

passivity induced by total

control is to package the panic,

not as emergency preparedness,

but as entertainment.



When electronic circuitry pursues

you along every carefully

calibrated curve of every street

of your own personal San

Narcisco, from the inside of

your car, which communicates to

a satellite; to the inside of

ammonia-scented bathrooms whose

urinals flush automatically as

you step away; to the heart of

your comfortable rec-room where

you don't mind resting a hand in

your pants while stabbing at the

TV with the remote control - in

this environment, which is

always on, you don't just feel that you

are being watched. You are.



Not to belabor the obvious, but

after COPS, it had to happen:

the repackaging of surveillance

as entertainment. Not only can

you buy "underground" videos of

people undressing in the

changing rooms of shopping

malls, but the great geniuses at

Foote, Cone & Belding, who have

finally begun to inform us of

exactly what that Silver Tab is

for: Making you a star.



And if they haven't actually

placed a camera inside the

street-urinals-cum-ad-kiosks in

downtown San Narcisco, (they

haven't, right?) you know the

audience response is still being

measured. Did you panic enough?

Or do you want your money back?

Fear of luxury was the bugaboo

of the first generation of

postwar adults, and they got

over it by playing it for

laughs, on shows like Let's Make

a Deal and The Price is Right.

The panic of being always

watched by the

emergency-response systems of

consumer research is our own

delicious burden, and we cope by

posing in private in our new



You're on.

courtesy of Dr. McLoo