I often take long-distance public transit, so I get to hear more than my share of cell phones ringing – the horror! – or, in the parlance of the marketplace, ring-tones. These sonic strands are the 21st century version of your computer screen-name or CB handle – remember those?– a shorthand, personalized way for you to introduce yourself to the world, your acoustic fingerprint, electronic signature, digital calling card.

While some trains certainly come equipped with “Quiet Cars” banning cell phone usage, for plebeian bus commuters there’s no such luxury, so it’s audio assault after audio assault. You have not arrived as a contemporary human being until you’ve sat as captive audience to the intrusive BAM-SPLAT-THWAP-BLEAT-HONK-YAWP-SCREECH of others’ idiotic ring-tones, snippets of songs bombarding your eardrums and interrupting the meditative flow of your thoughts as you watch the scenery fly by.

Whoever invented cell phone ring-tones must be one of those evil geniuses who makes you simultaneously curse them out and shake your head in wonderment. Certainly they’re nowhere near on par with the terrorists who re-imagined airliners as projectiles to slam into skyscrapers thus creating massive explosions, but still.


Where was I when ring-tones first arrived on the scene? Who knew? Phones rang. That was that. You’d hear one of those authoritative movie rings – the generic Bell Tel brinnnnnnng, or one of those insidiously annoying techno-buzz-cheeps that sounded like a sick 17 year locust. But that was pretty much it.

Not only have ring-tones become a ubiquitous, sophisticated commodity, and an incredibly lucrative one at that, they are the vanity license plates of the cellular telephone universe. … Now they are customizable and downloadable, often for a fee.

Gypsy fortunetellers could, I suspect, actually confabulate an entire life drama from hearing a client’s choice of ring-tones. Indeed, ring-tones can be revelatory – a near-instantaneous clue to individual jerk-hood, er, essence, as it were.

I’m a latecomer to cell phones, a truly reluctant owner. Actually, I was dragged kicking and screaming to my own sweet little Virgin Mobile no-nonsense, no-contract, no-frills $20-a-shot account, for work and travel purposes. During the especially intense, heady, halcyon days of a particularly critical business project, a cell phone was the somewhat necessary umbilical cord connection to my collaborator, who had actually gifted me with the infernal device.

As for my own private ring-tones, they’re pretty much a generic techno-cheep I like to think of as a vaguely pleasant trill evoking the flight of songbirds into the sunset. Short, sweet, simple. To me, everyone else’s ring-tones, no matter how melodious or tasteful, sound like the honking of Canada geese … Noise!

Meanwhile, Hollywood has embraced ring-tones, grasping them to its bosom as plot devices. Didn’t I see a movie called “Phone Booth,” or am I hallucinating? Once I even watched a flick where each character had their own ring-tone, telegraphing their secret deep sub-textual emotional architecture the way an opera composer would establish individual musical motifs for everyone in the old days.

Supposedly, the first ring-tone was sold in Finland back in 2001, an outgrowth of mobile technology. Blame it on a Finnish computer programmer named Vesa-Matti Paananen. In “A Tribute to the Inventor of Ring-tones,” Philip Nicosia writes, “When Nokia, the company [Paananen] worked for, started experimenting with a nifty function called ‘smart messaging,’ he was hit with a brilliant idea. If people could send text messages to each other, this same software could be used to deliver other types of information, such as the codes of songs. Paananen went straight to work, and came up with a program he dubbed ‘Harmonium.’ …”

Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled at the fiendish ingenuity behind ring-tones. Scoffed my former fond friend, the very mature “Freddie from Fresno,” not his real name, “I don’t care about ring-tones. They’re for kids.”

Fine. But even as I write this, I bet they are working on ring-tones with bin Laden, Dick Cheney, Michael Vick, Alberto Gonzales, Phil Spector, O.J., my cat, your dog – if these don’t already exist.

Hey, as the daughter of an electronics engineer, I wonder why cell phone ring-tones don’t spit out those memorable quotes that so define a public figure, or even those great sound-bite moments from history as reminders our civilization is truly headed into the crapper:

Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns and unknown knowns.”

Khrushchev: “We will bury you.”

Castro: “A revolution is not a bed of roses.”

Chairman Mao: “Let a hundred flowers bloom. ..”

Bush 43: “Make the pie higher.”

Better living through, um, technology?

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