What Alan Heard

Verizon's wireless spokesmodel is haunting me. I see his sensitive, helpful geek face everywhere. Wearing nothing but an engineer's jumpsuit, horn-rimmed glasses (with tape!), and a Verizon cell phone, he wanders from the Rocky Mountains to Mars and always asks the same question: "Can you hear me now?"

His nerdular adventures have spawned a Flash movie parody called "Can you kill me now?" (www.killfrog.com/02/canyouhear.html) complete with the sort of wacky decapitations, giant panda rapes and gore-soaked explosions for which Web animation is infamous. And last year BBspot.com reported he'd developed a giant brain tumor because of all the cell phone use. But Verizon reassured the public that he's alive and well. Also, his name isn't "Can You Hear Me Now" Guy. According to a Verizon rep, he's called Test Man, and he's a composite of 50 Verizon employees who drive all over the country testing phones on the Verizon network. Apparently, Test Man is a huge hit with consumers. The ad campaign is credited with bringing in 10 percent more customers in 2002 and 15 percent more in 2003.

What's the appeal? Why can't I get his quirky, inscrutable grin out of my mind? Why is he driving otherwise sane people to buy Verizon cell phones?

I think Test Man's popularity grows out of a deep mythology around engineers as kindly guardian angels who offer dependably machinelike aid to anyone. Like a selfless doctor or social worker, Test Man is there for you: He's a creature without wishes or desires of his own, putting your need for a reliable cell phone network ahead of everything else in the world. He protects us from having to worry about all the technology we depend on but don't understand.

Our fierce need for such a figure is perfectly illustrated by a recent incident in which a customer at a North Dakota Verizon store got so pissed off that he threw thousands of dollars worth of cell phones at employees until police arrested him. Please, Test Man, rescue us from the horror and agony of shitty cell phone service!

But the anonymous, heroic Test Man figure goes back much farther in our cultural history than the cell phone. He got his start in World War II, when another anonymous, selfless geek helped the Allies break the Germans' Enigma code and win the war. That era's Test Man was Alan Turing, a shy, queer mathematician who worked with the British Secret Service to design a proto-computer, code-breaking machine called a bombe. He is also credited with coming up with a model for the modern computer in his 1937 paper "On Computable Numbers."

Because his work was classified, it wasn't until the 1970s that the British government revealed Turing's key role in breaking the Enigma code -- but by that time it was too late for this particular Test Man to bask in his much deserved recognition. He'd died under mysterious circumstances in the 1950s after admitting he was gay while reporting a robbery to police. Instead of trying to catch the guy who'd robbed him, the police arrested Turing (homosexuality was illegal in England at the time). The life of England's greatest geek was ruined: the military withdrew his security clearance and prevented him from continuing his cutting-edge research in computer science. Two years later he was found dead of cyanide poisoning -- a probable suicide.

Turing never told anyone about how he'd saved the nation that condemned him. Like Verizon's imaginary Test Man, he was a selfless nerd whose only reward was getting to build a better machine. His anonymous, brilliant work contributed to the betterment of humanity far more than a reliable cell phone network. What Turing heard with his bombes changed the world.

Turing's tale reveals the trouble with the Test Man mythos. We want our geeks to be anonymous heroes who never stop working to rescue us from technological failure. But we don't want to deal with who they really are. When Test Man finally does assert his needs -- whether that's homosexual sex or permission to reverse-engineer his DVD player -- we use his anonymity against him. As long as Test Man remains the unknown geek, I will continue to be haunted by him: He's the nerd who heard too much and died for it.

Annalee Newitz (testman@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who wishes Alan had lived to see all this. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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