Sex, Lies and Videophones

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 12 May 2004

New services allow users to fake the background sounds and appearance of their locations – all because interactive media really wants us to be more honest.

I remember a great Mad magazine satire from the 1970’s, in which they lampooned the long-promised invention of landline camera phones. It was a series of panels showing a portable set of roll-down shades that could be placed behind you while you spoke, creating the illusion that you were in a different location. A businessman could show his wife he was at the office when he was actually trysting at his secretary’s apartment or gambling at the racetrack.

In the very last frame, the would-be pretender was hoisted on his own petard: the shade he pulled down was a picture of the location where he really was!

This has all been called to mind by the emergence of a few services dedicated to helping mobile phone users spoof their locations. No, not just their caller ID number, or anything as hacker-oriented as that. These are cell phones, after all, that follow us wherever we go. What’s being spoofed is the where: the appearance and sounds of the location from which the user is calling.

Software company Simeda, for one, has developed a program called SounderCover that enables users to play background noises during phone conversations. They make no pretense about the fact that these sounds are to be used for subterfuge:

Did you wake up late for work and you want your boss to think you’re caught in traffic? Select the Traffic Jam background. Is one of your mates a chronic talker that just doesn’t know when to stop? Use the Phone Ring 15s background and your friend will hear a phone ring 6 times, 15 seconds into the call. Tell him that your other phone is ringing and that you have to go.

Pretend you’re at the dentist, in the park, on the street, caught in a thunderstorm, near heavy machinery or at a circus parade. The possibilities are endless! You can even use your own prerecorded sounds or sounds downloaded from the Internet.

Technologically, the interesting part here is the ability to overlay a prerecorded sound with a live conversation. It does involve a clever bit of code that allows for simultaneous audio streams, which explains why they’ve only got it working on a couple of phone models so far. And the user must select a background noise before the conversation begins rather than in mid-conversation, when it might prove more useful.

Alas, though, the service has nothing to do with playing new MP3’s for your friends during a conversation, or sending over a sketch of a new design idea while you’re talking about it – this is not about sharing information, after all, but about hiding it.

So are a number of other interesting new layering technologies such as Alibi Buddy, a service offered in Japan that lets users insert their headshots into fake backgrounds (still photos only), radio stations with fake office sounds (to play, presumably, from hotel rooms), and bars with fake “office wall” murals from which callers can stage their phone calls. Another of Simeda’s offerings, SMSextender, in the spirit of anonymous mail portals, allows users to spoof their caller ID or send SMS messages that open (or even play) on the receiver’s screen without their taking any action. It’s billed as a way to play pranks on friends, but its applications in the subversion of truthfulness are obvious.

Yes, I was once young, and I had a mother, too. And I’ve even called into employers with a fake scratchy voice as evidence of the “illness” keeping me from work. The ability to call one’s wife or boss from what sounds or looks like the dentist’s office instead of the bar or brothel would certainly be useful for some people much of the time, and all people at least some of the time. But using our newfound communications media to enhance our lying capabilities seems like the wrong direction to me.

In fact, I think the emergence of so many new technologies and tactics for subterfuge says more about the way that increasingly broadband interactive media brings us to the truth about ourselves and one another. Almost any increase in interactivity acts as truth serum to our communications. Services as simple as call waiting give us the opportunity to break off a conversation for a fake reason, but they can also force us to be honest with whomever we are speaking, about their relative importance to the other caller. The hyperlink makes it easy to expose lies on the Internet; this access and ability to cross-reference was unimaginable on non-interactive media such as broadcast television.

Like the addition of interactive tools, the recently improving bandwidth of our communications also presents its own set of honesty-enhancing (and challenging) conundrums. The broader the spectrum of the communicative pathway, the more subtle cues we unintentionally convey with our voices and facial expressions. It’s easier to lie in an email than face to face. So the better the sound and picture on our phones, the more uncomfortable environment it is for the liar.

According to a survey conducted by UK messaging company Freeserve, people prefer text messaging over a real phone call when they are going to lie about something. A growing majority would also prefer to decline and invitation or apologize for something by text than voice. Is this because some element of the apology will most likely be untruthful, as well?

Some in the cell phone industry even go so far as to suggest that the higher levels of honesty required by 3G networks will hinder their broad adoption - which is the same reasoning telephone companies have been citing for years for the failure of various forms of videophone over the past twenty years.

But, techno-determinist as it may sound, I’d argue the reverse. It’s not that we’ll shun these technologies because of the honesty they enforce; it’s that we’ll begin to embrace the honesty that these devices allow.

Honesty is an opportunity. A video cameraphone gives you the chance to show your boss the sweet face on your three-year-old daughter – the real reason you’re going to work from home that day. It’s an opportunity for us to practice just a little bit of honesty in our social lives (I’m not going to your party because there’s something I’d rather do) before asking our boards of directors and world leaders to practice just a little of the same transparency and candor.

Indeed, interactive technologies may force us to come up with new, hi-tech, interactive ways of lying. But – like that last ‘fake’ shade that shows one’s real location – they could just give us the excuse to stop giving excuses, and start sharing with one another what’s really going on.