Matt Locke on 14 Nov 2000 22:08:21 -0000

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Re: <nettime> Cellphones and the cancer of cellspace

At 14:37 13/11/00 +0100, robert adrian wrote:

 >While not wanting to get into a pissing match about media history, the
 >"ether" has been controlled by international regulations for at least 75
 >years. Most of the radio spectrum is reserved for "official" uses and
 >commercial or public broadcasting while (with the exception of the babble
 >of CB) private use of the "ether" for 2-way communication is restricted to
 >licensed (ham) operators - and the license limits communication to little
 >more than the exchange of technical data.

Whilst we're pissing around in media history, its worth mentioning the
Telefon Hirmondo - the broadcast service over telephones that ran in
Budapest during the first few years of the 20th C. The failure of this,
and other, broadcast services over peer-to-peer networks like the
telephone in early media histories provides an interesting context from
which to discuss the futures of wireless technologies and peer-to-peer
content over the next few years.

Considered from this perspective, the recent massive commercial success of
the mobile phone could be symptomatic of a significant shift in user modes
regarding information technologies, from passive receptor of spectacular
content to dynamic user of intimate data. As others have pointed out in
this thread, the mobile has proved very effective at co-ordinating
distributed political action for maximum effectiveness, a feature
exploited by pressure groups in the UK as politically diverse as WTO
protestors and the recent fuel strikes.

Why is this? what is it that makes the mobile telephone so different? Is
it merely another form of delivery network for rich media content, or will
the ergonomics of the mobile interface resist this drift in the same way
as the fixed-line telephone?

The mobile phone represents the end of a gradual erosion of the
relationship between communication networks and architectural space. From
the location of telelphones within domestic and office environments, to
the cubicle of the public phone booth, private communication spaces have
always been defined through architectural signifiers. Even when these
signifiers are cursory, as with ATMs or the 'hood' style public phones,
there is still an attempt to define the communication space as distinct
from social public space.

With the mobile phone, private communication spaces have no fixed
vocabulary to signify this difference. Instead, a mixture of product
design and language (both vocal and physical) temporarily defines the
moment of private communication within public space. Bennahaum's term
'cell-space' is a good way to describe this, although perhaps not mobile
enough, as it simply replaces the physical architecture of the phone booth
with the virtual architecture of the network. Some commercial developers,
for example Motorola, have started using the term 'Personal Area Network'
to describe a space defined only by the location of the user (regardless
of context) and potentially charged with the possibilities of networked

I've been using the term 'Temporary Intimate Zones', with a wink to the
TAZ as a role model for radical, ephemeral communication relationships.
The TIZ is the moment in which the private communication space irrupts
into public, social space; a moment in which digital information manifests
itself in analogue spaces and relationships. The TIZ is a space with no
commonly agreed (social) protocol, and is therefore ripe for
misunderstanding; polarising users and refusers.

In terms of its content, TIZ interfaces privilege active user interaction,
as the competing visual and audible demands of urban space are far removed
from the passive environments of more territorially defined screen
interfaces located in the home, office or cybercafe. The fact that TIZ
interfaces are not neccessarily located within easily identifiable, secure
locations means that they could resist the inexorable drift predicted for
most other networked platforms towards passive, spectacular content.
Broadcast services, by definition, need to be able to make some
assumptions about the reception modes of their audiences. The mobility of
the TIZ might mean that services such as streaming video end up being as
redundant as the telefon hirmondo, or at least confined to specific
passive locations within urban space (train stations, airports, etc).
These punctuation points along the user's journey in urban space could be
targetted as the only logical space to deliver rich media services,
perhaps using location specific, high-bandwith technologies such as

In terms of ergonomics, TIZ interfaces are located within the personal
space of the user, not at the six inch or six foot remove that defines the
limits of 'lean-forward/lean-back' screen technologies. The TIZ interface
is rarely shared socially, having a direct, intimate association with the
user, and is therefore incorporated into the range of signifiers related
to personal identification, such as fashion and other status symbols. This
intimacy also preserves the TIZ as a space resistant to unwanted
communication. Although the immediate response of the user is to answer
the call or to read the SMS, communications from sources that haven't
previously been authorised are not only rejected but are actually
identified as hostile. This makes the TIZ a difficult space to use for
marketing purposes, unless the user is encouraged to engage by cues given
from more ambient media (as with the marketing campaign for,
using ads on tv, press and billboards).

The TIZ could potentially represent a real shift in users' relationships
with communication technologies; not because it seems to work best as a
peer-to-peer technology (although mapping its future alongside other
developments in this area would be an interesting project), and not
because it represents the dislocation of the network from territorial
specificity (although the effects on this on urban design will also be
interesting to track) but because the combination of these two qualities
makes possible a relatively accessible, mobile communication space in
which the individual defines the context for reception, rather than having
the context defined for them.

This is hardly likely to lead to the kind of information utopias that have
been imagined for every communication technology since the telegraph, but
it could perhaps encourage relationships that resemble the pirate utopias
that were the inspiration for the TAZ.

matt locke.

(ps - a really good contemporary account of the telefon hirmondo from the
scientific american can be found at: - of particular interest is
the way the writer describes it as "a veritable web"... Carolyn Marvin's
"when old technologies were new" also mentions it and has contemporary

Matt Locke

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