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Ringing off the hook

IS THERE no limit to accessories? The cellphone, which started life as a basic communications tool, is now also a camera, stockbroker, banker, video game purveyor, movie house, and stereo.

It comes with customized ring tones so the owner can tell the world how much he or she likes Beethoven, Beyonce, Batman, or belching out loud. It can be programmed to play different tunes for different callers and can announce those incoming calls with good vibrations or in a flashing rainbow of colors.

Inevitably it will soon sport another feature nobody needs: the customized "ring back." That's the sound a caller hears after dialing a number. What US callers hear is ringing, but in Asia they can hear tunes, sound effects, or jokes. This is considered progress, and the multimillion-dollar overseas marketing success has US companies considering it here.

People will buy it, of course, particularly if they are under age 40 and techno-savvy. The corporate world is expected to embrace it, too, and could very well replace the ring with the sound of advertising ditties -- not to be confused with the recorded music a caller hears while interminably on hold.

The rest of us will have to cope and will probably get into trouble -- either by hanging up a lot thinking we dialed a wrong number because there is no ringing or by trying to be techno-savvy even when simply answering a cellphone is still a challenge.

Days could be spent choosing the right ringback song and determining whether one theme will do for all callers or whether tunes should be customized for individual ears: "Bolero" for the lover, "Taking Care of Business" for the accountant, and so on. Weeks could then be spent trying to program the tunes into the system.

That's how it is with accessories, which might seem ridiculous at first but then manage to seduce the rational mind. Someday economists should measure how much productivity is lost to these presumed time-saving gadgets, and psychologists should plumb the fixation with mechanized individuality.

Are we communicating? Can you hear me now? Probably not with everything else that's going on. 

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