The Null Device


Apparently mobile phones are replacing cars as the dominant means for young people to assert their identities/freedom. Cars are a bit unhip these days, being large, bulky and environmentally unfriendly, whereas phones, with ringtones, custom covers and those pointless bitmapped Eminem/Manchester United/No Fear/whatever logos that go for a few dollars in magazine ads, have taken over both as a fashion item and a symbol of independence and mobility.

That mobile phones are taking on many of the social functions of cars is to be welcomed. While it is a laudable goal that everyone on earth should someday have a mobile phone, cars' ubiquity produces mixed feelings. They are a horribly inefficient mode of transport--why move a ton of metal around in order to transport a few bags of groceries?--and they cause pollution, in the form of particulates and nasty gases. A chirping handset is a much greener form of self-expression than an old banger. It may irritate but it is safe. In the hands of a drunk driver, a car becomes a deadly weapon. That is not true of a phone (though terrorists recently rigged mobile phones to trigger bombs in Madrid). Despite concern that radiation from phones and masts causes health problems, there is no clear evidence of harm, and similar worries about power lines and computer screens proved unfounded. Less pollution, less traffic, fewer alcohol-related deaths and injuries: the switch from cars to phones cannot happen soon enough.

But does this mean we'll see pop songs glorifying the freedom-facilitating power of mobile phones in the near future? What would the 21st-century equivalent of, say, Prefab Sprout's Cars and Girls, be like?

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In late 1994, a 16-year-old American girl named Heather Robinson ran an elaborate scam in what she said was an attempt to make her recently divorced mother happy; she obtained access to an Air Force base and used this access to make up an imaginary Col. Cunningham, who then carried on a 3-month virtual relationship with her mother. She even sent her mother a marriage proposal from Col. Cunningham, along with an engagement ring, bought with a stolen credit card.

"We were 16 years old, and I wanted to do something good for my mom," Robinson said. "After the court stuff was done, my mom put her arm around me and said, 'I understand why you did it and maybe some day they'll make a movie about it.'"

And a movie is in the pipeline, masterminded by the same Heather Robinson. This time, she has pulled it off by getting a job at AOL, illicitly finding contact details of Hollywood celebrities and producers, and befriending them under false identities. The family-oriented romcom The Perfect Man is apparently autobiographical. Proof that social engineering pays, or itself a bogus story planted by some Universal Studios marketroid to generate buzz for an otherwise insipid-sounding film?

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