In honor of Kurt Vonnegut’s 101st birthday today, I’m taking a break from the ongoing Bowie thread to talk about something I just read.
The first story in Look at the Birdie, “Confido” — which was written, but not published, sometime in the early 1950s — is about a handyman who works for a company that makes hearing aids. In the course of tinkering with microphones and speakers, he accidentally invents a machine that talks to you. He describes it to his wife like this:
“What is it every person really wants, more than food almost?” Henry had asked coyly, showing her Confido for the first time. He was a tall, rustic man, ordinarily as shy as a woods creature. But something had changed him, made him fiery and loud. “What is it?”
“Happiness, certainly! But what’s the key to happiness?”
“Religion? Security, Henry? Health, dear?”
“What is the longing you see in the eyes of strangers on the street, in eyes wherever you look?”
“You tell me, Henry. I give up.” Ellen had said helplessly.
“Somebody to talk to! Somebody who really understands! That’s what.” He’d waved Confido over his head. “And this is it!”
After this conversation Henry goes to work, leaving Ellen alone with Confido — who, it turns out, is a horrible gossip with an endless string of snarky things to say about the neighbors. When the kids come home from school, she is still in her housecoat, knee-deep in slander.
Only when her son Paul gets ahold of Confido — which convinces him that he is adopted and his parents don’t love him — does Ellen pull herself together and bury the nefarious contraption in the back yard. “It’s a direct wire to the worst in us,” she explains to Henry when he returns from work. “Nobody should have that, Henry, nobody! That little voice is loud enough as it is.”
Something about this got my spidey-sense tingling, and then it hit me: Vonnegut predicted social media. The mechanism is different, but the effect is the same: You get your own worst thoughts reflected back at you a hundredfold, in the form of other people with the same opinions.
At the end of the story, after initially resisting, Henry accepts the truth.
He removed Confido from his ear and laid it gently in the grave once more. He kicked dirt on top of it.
“What’s the last thing it said, Pop?” said Paul.
Henry grinned wistfully. “I’ll be seeing you, sucker. I’ll be seeing you.”
And I’ll be called a smart phone.