Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is Verizon Making Us Meme Machines?

Every two years or so, I get an email from Verizon—my mobile phone service provider—saying it's time to upgrade my device. Normally, like when I had my first Nokia phone ten years ago, I jump at the chance, drop into the store, and pick up a new phone.

Two years ago when that deadline appeared, however, I upgraded to an iPhone, so when the time came to upgrade again, I declined. The phone works great, helps me stay connected to my job, keeps me entertained, that sort of thing. I didn't have any reason to change.

My wife is on the cell phone plan too, and this time she wanted an upgrade (on her phone, not her husband). So, after much harangue from the Verizon clerk to get this or that with this screen protector and that case and this charger and this belt strap carrier and the like, she went with her first choice: a free iPhone 4 with no case, no carrier, no screen protectors, nothing.

Then things got interesting, but not in a telecommunications-type way. It turns out that we had been on a grandfathered calling plan, capping our calls at 700 minutes a month and allowing us only (only!) 250 texts each. Verizon doesn't have those plans any more, and we were forced to switch due to the upgrade.

In the end, the change saves us money. But upon further investigation of what we signed up for, some interesting details appeared.

Gone are the days of choosing a cell phone plan with a certain number of available talking minutes. We're no longer limited to 700 minutes, or 450 minutes, or 10,000 minutes; we can now talk to whoever we want for however long we like. And we're not limited in our texting either. Sure, iPhone to iPhone texts don't count for anything, but our new plan allows us to text anyone as much as we like, and our charges stay the same.

Now, though, our data is capped. This, on the surface, isn't a problem for either of us. We regularly use less than .5 gigabytes with both of our phones combined. But capped data—and the rest of Verizon's new plans—reveal something very interesting about how we communicate.

They are encouraging us to spread our ideas.

If you subscribe to the philosophical beliefs of someone like Susan Blackmore, we've evolved to be carriers for cultural genetics. We have evolved as a species to pass along cultural information in the form of memes. Not only that, but memes have FORCED our hand to evolve into better meme-spreaders. So, years and years ago, we developed language, not to be able to tell each other what to do, but to be better able to transmit memes to one another.

The modern digital age, according to memeticists like Blackmore, exists for that reason. Cell phones, the Internet, television, and radio, all exist so that we can pass information along to one another. Memes rule us and our technologies. Ideas, dance moves, songs, jokes, fashion trends, all have their root in our lives as  memes, existing only to be spread from person to person. (Do we really need "Gangnam Style" to exist as a species? How about iPods? Color-coordinated sneakers?)

Verizon's new Share Everything plans blow that "secret"—that modern technology exists not to benefit us, but to benefit the transmission of memes—wide open. Verizon is banking on increasingly fast transmission times, larger phone screens, and the ability to talk or text anyone, anywhere, wherever and tying those capabilities into our natural tendencies—and the driving forces of the memes that surround us—to want to gab to each other about new things, new ideas, new memes. Sometimes we gab about existing memes that get a second wind because of vehicles like the Internet (would Rick Astley still be a cultural phenomenon if it weren't for the Internet in 2005?).

The cap isn't on a specific mode of communication. Now it's all lumped together into the catchall category of "DATA." It's all bits of information, not words or letters or emails or video. It's all just information, and we can send and receive as much as we like, provided we don't go over our cap. And if we do? We just pay a little bit more.

Even the handle of "Share Everything" indicates what is behind Verizon's plan structure changes. If you've got something to say, sing, post, write, or draw, you should do it. They have the bandwidth to let you do it.

The memes have forced our hands, and the large telecommunications firms have obliged them. This isn't necessarily a detrimental thing as far as our society at large is concerned; it's just that it's terribly revealing to see evidence of humanity's memeplex in your run-of-the-mill cell phone bill.