Smartphone Mind Control?

My mom is visiting, which means we’ve been spending a lot of time at big box home improvement stores.

Today we were browsing the ceiling fans in case the wobble in the fan in my daughter’s room can’t be removed without replacing the fan when a young man dressed in white shorts and a white shirt walked by. He wore white ear buds and was staring down at a smart phone he was carrying in front of him. About every six steps, he would pause with his feet side by side for a moment, then continue walking for another six steps. He walked right towards us as if he didn’t see us, or perhaps as though he had to continue walking along the same line regardless of human obstructions. When it became clear he wasn’t going to change course to move around us, my mom and I moved the kids out of his path and watched him in silence as he took six steps, paused, took six more steps, paused, then disappeared around the end of the aisle after about three more steps.

My mom and I looked at each other, and then looked back towards direction the man had gone.

“You ought to get better at texting and walking separately before trying them together,” my mom said, rather more loudly than I felt comfortable with. The man with the phone didn’t seem to notice her, though; he simply continued his six-steps-pause-six-steps pattern around the store.

Later near the propane grills, we found another guy wearing ear buds and looking at his smart phone. He walked to one end of the grills, consulted the smart phone, then turned and walked to the other end. He walked more quickly than the first guy. After consulting his smart phone at the end of one aisle of grills, he rounded the corner, looked at his smart phone, and walked down the other aisle of grills.

We wandered about the store a little longer, looking for various items (and finding some of them). We were headed down towards the trash cans when we saw another man dressed all in black and wearing ear buds, sitting on the floor in the middle of the aisle, staring at his smart phone.

Now we were starting to feel unsettled.

“It’s almost like they’re comparison shopping,” my mom said. “I used to do that when I worked retail.”

“But that guy was sitting on the floor,” I observed, looking behind me to see that he was still where we’d left him.

“Well, maybe the other two guys,” my mom suggested.

“It’s like The Twilight Zone,” I said.

I found it odd in retrospect that the guy who’d mixed our paint had talked about The Twilight Zone out of the blue just minutes before we encountered the guy in white.

We made a detour to look at the flooring and tile patterns for backsplashes (just because we like to look at those things, not because we planned to buy them). After listening to my daughter whine that she was bored for about the fifteenth time, we headed towards the checkout.

“Wait, let’s look at the…” My mother began to suggest something else to browse when she stopped talking. Walking in our direction was the guy in white, still with the earbuds, smart phone, and six-steps-pause-six-steps pattern.

“On second thought, let’s just get out of here before the pod people get us,” my mother said.

And we checked out and left.

I have some ideas about who these men may have been.

1. Comparison shoppers. I really don’t buy this one.

2. Escaped subjects in a government mind-control experiment. Why they would all have gone to Home Depot this afternoon, I’m not at all sure.

3. Participants in a performance art thing in which each person takes on a set pattern of behavior, like the ghosts in Pac Man, and roam about the store always acting in accordance with the pattern. Maybe they intended to make some point about our reliance on technology rather than interpersonal interactions, and the way in which being part of the consumer culture makes us mindlessly engage in actions that don’t have any larger purpose. We’re near Boston. They do that kind of thing here, right?

4. Men sent by their spouses or significant others to buy home improvement items who were instead stretching out their time in the store to get some alone time. They were perhaps listening through their earbuds to AC/DC or Black Sabbath or conservative talk radio or something else of which their partners disapprove.

5. Pod people.

Do you have any other ideas about what these guys may have been doing with their ear buds and their smart phones and their odd behavior?

8 comments

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  3. jackie · August 12, 2011

    the first thing that came to my mind: that they’re listening to a GPS tell them exactly where in the store to find an item chosen online. find it, plot it, forage it, buy it. *There’s an app for that*, right? haha. turn left. now walk straight. turn to your right. you have arrived at your destination. hold out your arm. grab item from shelf. now proceed to the checkout counter.

    i like your #3 idea too. sort of a flash-mob zombie iphone user display. though ideally you’d see more than a handful of people.

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    • CJ · August 29, 2011

      There was actually a guy I heard about in the NYC area, a Reverend somebody (not a real minister, just a stage name…Billy, maybe?) who did this kind of thing in Disney stores. I was sort of excited at the idea that I might have been witness to that kind of performance art. But why would they do it in the Marlborough, MA, Home Depot? There must be a larger audience at another store.

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  4. Dacia · August 11, 2011

    I am guilty of doing the same thing although I don’t wear earbuds in stores. I am guilty of comparison shopping on my iPhone in the middle of stores and in turn I am pretty sure I look like a pod person doing this. I try to be more cognizant of my zombie-like iPhone usage in public but I too have been known to succumb to it’s glorious powers every now and again.

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    • CJ · August 11, 2011

      What about the “six steps” guy? I wasn’t saying that to be funny. He literally was taking six steps then stopping then taking six more steps, all around the store. I thought he was doing some kind of dance or something at first. The grill guy was looking at merchandise and exhibiting what I consider to be more classic smartphone comparison shopping behavior. Even the lounging guy I concede may have been taking a load off while looking for something on his phone. But I can’t think of a scenario in which comparison shopping would involve such a rhythmic means of travel around the store.

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  5. timbra · August 11, 2011

    is it possible they really were using comparison shopping apps on their phones? is it hot there? maybe they just needed some air conditioned space that smells of cement mixes and metal. . . . that’s the manliest way to get cool air right?!

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    • CJ · August 11, 2011

      Well, we do have a sales tax-free weekend coming up, and lots of people are preparing for large purchases. But I choose to believe that they’re performance artists. That’s just much more fun.

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