All through Christmas Eve, E.B. Scrooge had been on the phone.
Phones, actually land lines, LANs, DSL, GSM, GPS, Wi-Fi, SMS, Skype, e-mail, fax, you name it! He'd been downloading data, transferring funds, passing tips, calling in chits and harassing debtors since 2 a.m.. His workday followed a dizzying sequence that started with the
first bell in Tokyo, then worked steadily west through Hong Kong, Singapore, New Delhi, Moscow, the Middle East and onward. Scrooge chafed at the sluggishness of the Western markets, from London to Wall Street to Sao Paolo, all paralyzed by the encroaching Birth of Christ.
"Humbug," muttered Scrooge.
Nonetheless, he'd kept every telecom link buzzing and Bob Cratchit pounding his keyboard, right up 'til closing time. The only interruption had been his ne'er-do-well nephew spouting yuletide nonsense and later a group of soft-hearted merchants, seeking contributions to feed and house the poor.
"Are there no dumpsters?" Scrooge had quipped (his one moment of holiday merriment). "Are there no subway tunnels?"
He dined as usual at Denny's, glued to laptop and headphone, setting up Asian conference calls after midnight. The only break in his routine was a glitch in his domestic cellphone, which inexplicably uploaded a
weird image that resembled Scrooge's dead partner, Jake Marley. No text-message appeared just a voice moaning, "Scrooge, Scro-o-oge."
Scrooge shrugged it off as a bacterial hallucination. "That's the last time I order meat loaf at Denny's," he growled.
At home, Scrooge had just plugged his mobiles into rechargers, set up his PC to upload e-mail and switched his land line onto speaker when more weirdness struck. Suddenly, there was wailing and screaming on the
speaker, then smoke, and then Ka-boom! The power failed, the lights went dark, and out of the PC billowed a black cloud. A moment later, a ghastly spectre resembling Marley appeared. He was wrapped in chains that consisted entirely of telephones old Western Electric bakelite
models, huge drop-a-dime pay phones, Princesses, Slimlines, Maxwell Smart's shoe-phone, Dick Tracy's wristwatch, and a thousand mobiles ranging from the banana-shaped monsters of the Eighties to the most delicate state-of-the-art clamshell. And they were all ringing, buzzing, babbling, displaying ads, snapshots, sports clips, weather
reports and Playmates. Marley's phone-festooned phantom blinked, glowed and flashed blindingly, like a one-man Times Square.
Scrooge covered his ears and begged for this apparition to begone. This only prompted a scream so loud from Marley that he drowned out the phones.
"Listen, E.B.," said the creature. "I don't have much time. This eternal torture will start up again in a few minutes."
"What do you want of me, Marley?"
Marley said he had wrought this terrible chain in life, and that Scrooge's chain was even heavier and noisier. Scrooge argued that Marley had been a good man of business. Marley snapped irritably, "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business!"
Marley went on, "But where was I? Constantly on the phone. Look at me now. These two ponderous receivers are glued to my ears literally. I can't get 'em off! I hear mortals brag that they're 'Always On.' That sounds fine until you realize, too late, that you can Never Get Off!"
Scrooge still didn't grasp Marley's point.
"What are you, stupid? Scrooge, I'm giving you one last chance to hang up the damn phone! To recover a vestige of your attention span. To eat one meal without interruption. Read a book! Have a conversation face-to-face with a human being!
In hopes of saving Scrooge, Marley promised visits by three spirits, the Ghost of Pagers Past, the Ghost of Mobile Telephony Present and the (truly hideous) future Ghost of Wearable Electronics and Bar Codes Tattooed on Your Ass.
That night, the three spirits worked a miracle. Scrooge vowed to mend his ways, reduce his telecommunications to one land line and a cellphone with an unlisted number. With tears in his eyes, he vowed to help Bob Cratchit raise his family and to save Tiny Tim's life.
Alas! Scrooge's best intentions didn't quite work out.
First thing Christmas morning, Scrooge flung open the window and called out to a boy passing by . . . then another boy, then 20 more boys, several girls and a wandering beagle. Every one, except the dog, couldn't hear Scrooge's desperate pleas. They were all talking on their
portables, or composing short messages, watching TV on their displays or playing video games. Scrooge, reluctantly, grabbed the phone, to call the butcher and have him send a big turkey to Bob Cratchit's house. But the butcher was using his message function to screen calls.
Scrooge tried a Web site, bigturkeys.com, but discovered that it had gone bankrupt three years before in the dotcom crash.
Scrooge kept calling all day. He couldn't reach anyone except the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Bob Cratchit"s family ended up eating beans and weenies for Christmas dinner. Tiny Tim died a month later and
without Tim to save Scrooge fired Bob Cratchit and outsourced his job to a phone bank in Calcutta.
On the other hand, thanks to the fact that he was "always on," Scrooge got in on the ground floor when Verizon, Vodaphone and Google merged with Deutsch Telecom and Halliburton. Then the new conglomerate partnered with Microsoft, and bought controlling interest in the United
States of America.
Finally, one of the lessons Scrooge had learned from his spooky Christmas Eve paid off. When America's new CEO, Bill Gates, appointed E.B. Scrooge the President of the United States, Scrooge remembered a prophecy made by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
And he ordered bar codes tattooed on everybody's ass.
David Benjamin, humorist, journalist and novelist, was born and raised in Wisconsin, edited newspapers in Massachusetts and Tokyo, and now lives in Paris. He writes occasionally on technology issues, usually from the Luddite point of view.