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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Till Human Voices Shake Us, and We Frown

"Advertisers have a new way to get into your head…audio technology that sends sound in a narrow beam… Court TV recently installed the audio spotlight in ceilings of bookstores to promote the network's new murder-mystery show. A voice, whispering, 'Hey, you, can you hear me? Do you ever think about murder?' was beamed towards customers as they browsed.…"
—"The marketers have your ear," Jenn Abelson, The Boston Globe, 4/24/07.
I WAS hoping the therapist could help me.

I had begun hearing voices, and was worried.

Only in certain situations, however. And the voices hadn't counseled me to do any harm yet, to myself or others. In fact, their messages were rather perplexing. Nonetheless, I needed to clear this matter up.

Doctor Loverso was younger than I, always a mildly disconcerting fact to encounter in such professional relationships. He resembled Leonardo DiCaprio with a wispy mustache and less facial baby fat. We exchanged handshakes, and I took a seat. Dr. Loverso picked up a steno pad and pen.

"Now, Mr. Oster, please describe your problem to me."

"Well, Doctor, I'd guess, from what little I've read, that I'm experiencing your run-of-the-mill auditory hallucinations. Voices that aren't mine, that have no source, and which seem to originate right in my ears."

"How often does this happen?"

"Only infrequently, and always when I'm in some public setting, like a mall or store or urban plaza."

"And what do these voices tell you?"

"That's the bizarre thing. I thought that in such situations, unbalanced people tended to hear comments related to the environment and their personal lives. Orders to indulge in inappropriate behavior, old grudges dug up, that sort of thing. But these voices don't get into that territory at all. Instead, they say things like, 'Litter hurts everyone.' Or 'I bet you're wondering how to get your wash whiter.' Or, 'Have you checked your tire treads lately?' Or, 'Anita Shreve does it again!' Doctor, I don't even know anyone named Anita Shreve! It's driving me crazy—if I'm not already. Please, can you help me?"

I waited with a grim expectancy that was shattered by the doctor's sudden loud laughter!

Indignant, I got to my feet. "If you can't take my predicament seriously, Doctor, I'll just be going—"

"No, no, please sit back down! It's just that you're the first patient to come to me with this problem. When I read about it in all the medical journals, I thought it seemed ridiculous. But now that I've encountered a real-life instance of it, I can see how serious it is. Although it still has its ridiculous side."

Reluctant but curious, I sat back down. "What can you mean, Doctor?"

"You're not going crazy. You're merely the unwitting victim of some new advertising technology."

Doctor Loverso explained then all about the audio spotlight. I began to curse.

"But that's horrible! It's an unwarranted intrusion into one of the last bastions of privacy a person has."

The doctor shrugged. "I'm afraid we'll all have to get used to it, Mr. Oster. That's modern life. Now, I suggest that just to prove to yourself what's happening, you visit a store where this has occurred before, and verify what I've told you."

The nearest Borders was just a few blocks away from Dr. Loverso's office, and I recalled having experienced some voices there. So off I went.

At the store, I tracked down the manager and demanded to know if they were using the audio spotlight.

He was a Greek-looking fellow whose name tag proclaimed him A. Eolus. He had the virtue of at least looking embarrassed when I confronted him.

"Yes, yes, I confess. We were using this damn audio spotlight, but no more. It is a disturbing tale. Shall I tell you?"

"Please."

"Well, first you must know that I was against it from the start. I figured it would hardly be effective, since so many people have their ears stoppered up with iPod earbuds these days. But my bosses would not listen to me. So the madness commenced.

"We began with a campaign for the new Jonathan Lethem novel, You Don't Love Me Yet. Can you guess what happened? People began breaking down in tears inside my store! Cellphones came out by the dozens, as people called their lovers and spouses to give and seek emotional reassurance. I understand the divorce rate in this city has since risen by several percent."

I began to think that my own troubles involving the audio spotlight had been minimal.

"Then," continued Mr. Eolus, "we switched to some publicity for Bernard Goldberg's Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right. Same tactic, running the title over and over through the audio spotlight, directly into people's unsuspecting ears. The chaos in the store was incredible! People tried to shy away from anyone on their left, but began pushing and shoving people to their right. Fights, yelling, the police—It was madness, I tell you!"

"Didn't your bosses learn their lesson after that?"

"Not at all! They had a contract with the audio spotlight people and obligations to many publicists. We couldn't remove these infernal gadgets. So they tried a third time, with Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat."

I winced, and Mr. Eolus nodded sagely.

"Yes, yes, you can picture it, I see. Screams of fear, people clutching to bookcases for support, afraid to walk for fear of falling off some impossible edge of the world into space! I saw sights of abject horror I hope never to see again."

"I don't hear the audio spotlight now. I assume the Friedman incident caused you to stop using the device…?"

"No, it took one more time. You see, the audio spotlight takes its input by CD, and one of our new clerks thought she was programming the music system for the store. She inserted The Very Best of Donna Summer. Sir, do you know what the very first song is on that accursed album?"

"Not—"

"Yes, sir, yes! 'Love to Love You Baby'! Sir, I am a family man. I do not indulge in pornographic movies. But what I saw happen that day in my poor store completely undid all my adult years of visual chastity! It took three fire trucks with much cold water delivered through large hoses to stop the orgy. The store is only now finished with renovations."

Full of sympathy, I shook Mr. Eolus's hand. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Eolus. I wish you good luck in the future with any new advertising technology."

After I left the store, I happened to pass by another venue still using the audio spotlight.

It was a branch of Blockbuster, and they were advertising a Tarantino film:

"Kill Bill, Kill Bill, Kill Bill.…"

I hurried on.

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