A HANDS-FREE MODERN MAN
Indridi Haraldsson was a hands-free modern man. Hands-free people had as little as possible to do with cords and cables – not that they were called cords or cables any more. Cords were known as chains. The old gadgets were not called gadgets, they were known as heaps, weights or burdens. People looked at the heaps and burdens and thanked their lucky stars. In the old days, said some, we were wire-slaves chained to the office chair, far from birdsong and sunshine. But it wasn’t like that any more. When men in suits talked to themselves out in the street and reeled off figures, no one took them for lunatics, they were probably talking business with some unseen client. The man who sat in rapt concentration on a riverbank, apparently doing Müller’s exercises, might be an engineer designing a bridge. When a sunbathing woman piped up out of the blue that she wanted to buy a two-tonne saithe quota, bystanders needn’t automatically assume this was addressed to them, and when a teenager made strange humming noises on the bus, nodding his head to and fro, far from suffering from severe autism he was probably listening to an invisible radio. The man who breathed rapidly or got an erection at an inappropriate time and place probably had his visual nerve permanently connected to some hard-core material, unless he was listening to the sex line. There was no limit to the filth that flooded through the permanently connected heads of some, but of course it was impossible to ban people from filling their own heads with filth, violence and obscenity. You might just as well ban thinking. If someone stood beside you and asked: “What’s the time?” and you answered straight away: “It’s half past nine”, the man who asked could answer, even though there was no one else in sight: “Thanks, but I wasn’t actually talking to you.”
So if a stranger seemed on the point of striking up a conversation, it generally paid not to answer. You might be interrupting.
Indridi Haraldsson was a hands-free modern man, so no ordinary person could see whether he was going mad or not. When he spoke to himself out in the street there might be someone on the other end of the line. When he laughed and laughed it might be for the same reason, unless he was listening to a funny radio station or, of course, he could have some comedy film or joke playing on the lens. In fact it was impossible to tell what was going on in his head but there was no reason why it should be anything abnormal. If he ran down the street shouting: “The end of the world is nigh! The end of the world is nigh!” most people assumed he was taking part in a game on a radio station for a prize of free hamburgers. When he rode naked up and down the shopping centre escalator seven times in a row people assumed something similar; there was probably a prize being offered for anyone who would ride an escalator naked seven times in a row. It was difficult to tell what prize he was aiming for because he was naked and people could only guess at what target group he belonged to from his hairstyle, age and physical build. Indridi was thin and pale skinned with sparse black body hair, while the hair on his head was fair, rough and unkempt, so he was doubtless not in the target audience of the funky radio station that advertised body building, sports cars, highlights and solariums. He neither had a tattoo nor a pierced lip, brow, forehead or foreskin, so he wasn’t in the target audience of the “no-shit” station that played covers of rock and punk and advertised raw beer, unfiltered moonshine and filterless cigarettes. He was naked and unkempt and definitely didn’t belong to any of the more sober target groups. Perhaps he was a performance artist. Artists were always busy performing. Perhaps the escalator scene was worth three points on the College of Art’s performance art course. Or he could, of course, be in an isolated rare target group. There were plenty of them around but generally an attempt was made to direct people into a more popular area where they could be reached more economically.
If Indridi suddenly barked at someone: “IIIIICE-COLD COKE! IIICCCCCE-COLD COKE!!!” for ten seconds without his eyes or body seeming to follow his speech there was nothing abnormal about that. The reason for this behaviour was simple: the advertisements he had transmitted to him were directly connected to his speech centres. “IIIIIICCCCE-COLD COKE!!!!” So he must be an advertising howler or howler as they were popularly called. He was probably broke enough to fall outside most target groups so it wasn’t worth sending him advertisements. But it was possible to send advertisements through him, to others, by connecting them to his speech centres and using his mouth as a sort of loudspeaker. Those who walked past howlers could expect an announcement:
This was more effective than conventional reminders on advertising hoardings or the radio. So Indridi squawked when he met a man on his way to the car park:
“FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT! SLOW DOWN!”
The man had been arrested for speeding without a seatbelt. As a punishment he was made to listen to and pay for 2,000 edifying reminders from advertising howlers. That was probably the best thing about the new technology. It could be used to improve society.
“LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR!”
Squawked a shady-looking man at half-hourly intervals. A born-again murderer, Indridi correctly assumed, and gave him a wide berth. Prisoners could be released early if they squawked for charities or religious firms.
Howlers were not all broke. Many were simply scrounging a discount or perks, and some only became howlers for the first three months of the year while they paid for the latest upgrade of the hands-free operating system. Those who didn’t get their system upgraded could have problems with business or communication. Hands-free home appliances and automatic door-openers only recognised the latest system and the same applied to the latest car models. They wouldn’t automatically slow down if someone with the old system crossed the road, so it was just as well to take to one’s heels.
If Indridi came across a group of teenagers he could yell:
“GROOVY SHOES! YOU WERE UNBELIEVABLY COOL TO BUY SUCH GROOVY SHOES!”
Getting someone to buy first and then arranging for them to be praised afterwards was a completely new strategy. It was believed to strengthen this behaviour pattern and bring things into fashion earlier.
The announcements were sometimes absurd, sometimes just one word, slogan or phrase, unconnected to anything else. In that case it was probably part of a longer campaign, a so-called teaser campaign which encouraged people to think long and hard. On the way down the high street you might meet an old woman who said out of the blue:
Further down you might meet a teenager who said:
And even if you veered round sharply and headed up the next street, you would hear whispered from a basement window:
Finally somebody would come racing down a side street on a bike shouting:
These campaigns always hit the target, there was no way of escaping them. Everything was measured to within 0.5 cm and the announcement was perfectly tailored to the recipient’s target group, which was categorised down to their most minor eccentricity. The howler system was efficient, simple and convenient, and ordinary members of the public could order a howler for a small fee if they needed a reminder.
“You have a meeting with the minister at three o’clock and don’t forget your wedding anniversary!”
Those who had recently moved to the city liked to order a howler or two to greet them on the street or strike up a conversation.
“Hello Gudmundur, what lovely warm weather we’re having!”
This made the big city less cold and unfriendly. Uprooted farmers who liked to wake up to cockcrow could get their neighbours to crow at six o’clock in the morning if they were lucky enough to live near a howler.
“Cock-a-doodle-do! Time to wake up!”
Many entrepreneurs felt it essential to receive a confidence boost first thing in the morning:
“You’re the best!” said the Chinese cleaning woman.
“No one can stop you, Magnus!” said the shifty caretaker.
“You’re looking good today!” said the taxi driver. “Today’s a day to win!”
Passers-by were prepared for anything when there were free men around, so no one paid any attention when Indridi sat in a café and wept. He sat in a corner, crying his eyes out, but it crossed very few people’s minds to ask him what the matter was. It was probably Greek tragedy week with his target group. It was simplest to assume this sort of thing. Or he could be an advertising trap.
“Why are you crying?”
“I want a Honda so much, they’re such great cars and there’s a brilliant offer on this week.”
Advertising traps or adTRAPS went further than howlers; they hired out not only their speech centres but also their primitive biological and emotional responses. The method was still technologically imperfect so sometimes traps couldn’t stop laughing or crying for days on end. Of course, no one was compelled to become a trap, to laugh, cry or wet themselves in public and say to a woman with a howling baby:
“Now would have been a good time to have 100% absorbent Pampers!”
Many people let themselves be persuaded to become traps as the hiring out of one’s emotions paid as much as ten conventional speech-centre connections and was generally more effective, especially if people were made to do something funny like wet themselves or cry like a baby.
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