Krystian Woznicki on Sat, 27 Jul 2002 16:46:31 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> SMS Encounters


in the current issue of Austrian arts magazine springerin there is a
focal point on SMS as a tactical and artistic medium.

Check out:

What follows below is a text from this issue, that I have written with
Gerrit Gohlke on the cordless communications interface as an interface
to urban space between Big Brother and multitasking.

Best wishes,


PS: Find related info under []
about >SMS Encounters<, a recent conference curated by Berliner Gazette
and Media Arts Lab.


[ ] Mobile Convergences

Krystian Woznicki/Gerrit Gohlke

North-west of Los Angeles. Past Woodland Hills and Thousand Oaks, along
Route 23 into Simi Valley, where, on Presidential Drive, the »Ronald Reagan
Presidential Library« is situated. Until 14 July 2002, one can survey the
history of the US surveillance intelligentsia in the rooms of this estate,
which has now been converted into a museum. Visitors are invited to take a
look behind the scenes of the Big Brother apparatus in an exhibition
entitled »Spies: Secrets from the CIA, KGB, and Hollywood.« It is meant to
give an insight not only into the CIA's National Archives and the
collections of espionage authority Keith Melton, but also the fictive
versions of state security from the dream factory. Here, the 007
achievements of a Ken Adam are of course just as mandatory as »Spy-Fi,« a
collection of Cold War memorabilia belonging to the Hollywood scriptwriter
Danny Biedermann. A gadget from the TV series »Get Smart« seems
particularly deserving of attention: a shoe telephone (»Shoe phone hold
button«), which the actor Don Adams holds pressed to one ear in one of the
publicity photos in order to simulate the mobile and, needless to say,
cordless, communication process. In those days, the mobile telephone was in
the same category as microphones hidden in bowls of fruit and tape
recorders in toasters. It was conspirative.

Nowadays, the individualised surveillance of agents through the use of
special devices seems like an idyll. The mobile telephone, invented after
the Second World War, has successfully, if late in its history, become a
mass means of communications; and the mobile conspiracy no longer consists
in secret telephone calls, but in the comprehensive surveillance methods
that global players like nations and transnational companies use to gain
information about the mass of telephone users. People using mobile
telephones can be located as if they were wearing electronic shackles. They
are prisoners of the radio networks into which they dial, and even if much
more information will soon able to be transmitted via cell phone - and kept
under surveillance -, using mobile telephones already leaves a public trace.

Militarisation of the urban sphere

This prospect led the sci-fi author Bruce Sterling to put forward the
following absurd, dystopic vision: »If you look at what happened on
September 11, you find one American victory in that first skirmish of the
war. That was the flight in which the passenger revolted against the
hijackers. Why? Because of their cellphones. That was a battle of civilian
cellphones versus terrorist boxcutters. I suspect that episode will turn
out to be the rehearsal of the whole war. The good news here is that
boxcutters are not capable of much military improvement, while cellphones
could improve by leaps and bounds. This suggests the invention of the
weaponized and ruggedized GI cellphone. You could think of it as the
«wingless angel,» as they liked to call them after September 11; and as a
kind of personal black-box recorder for the endangered citizen. This
cellphone would be federally manufactured, and distributed en masse as a
general-issue security device. The point of this device would be to arm the
population in surveilling and recording acts of unconventional warfare. You
don't shoot anybody with it; but if you see anything weird, suspicious and
asymmetric going on, you formally act as a mediated witness: you hold this
device up, and you start looking and talking. And all this safety data is
instantly streamed off and stored in Fort Knox and Fort Meade.«

The industry has, however, already long been interested in this
all-embracing technology. »Pervasive Gaming« is the catchword that »It's
Alive Mobile Games AG,« a partner of Ericsson, among others, wants to use
to market games that surround the players in the public space, »24 hours,
everywhere.« »Botfighter,« for example, is »encompassing, always present.«
It is a combination of an action and a role game that translates a virtual
games community into real space. The concept of the game is simple: the
players who are logged-in »shoot« at one another with their mobile
telephones, with the provider's server acting as an information basis, a
contract partner for virtual mercenary commissions, and a location system.
The mobile location system decides whether one's opponent is within firing
range or not. SMS queries allow players to locate the »targets« in space,
travel to them, and attack them with »fire SMS« within the limits of the
firing range. »The damage inflicted,« 'It's alive' informs us, »depends on
the type of simulated weapon used, the effectiveness of the enemy's defence
shields, and other pre-determined factors.« The telephone as radar and
firing device. The battleground as a conspirative network.

But who is conspiring against whom? To be scared about the way the urban
space is pervaded by military fiction, it is not necessary to exhaustively
analyse the simulation techniques and electronic aids used in modern
battles, nor to know anything about people running amuck. At the final
count, this is no more or less than the undermining of the Hague Land
Warfare Convention with the means of the entertainment industry. Civil war
is »...alive,« or at least only the push of a button away: »Dial SMS for
war.« But possibly even more influential than this conspirative, military
entertainment is the change in mobile communications and thus in the
communicative public. »Botfighter« acts as the instigator of an underground
community, as a concealed urban network, a united parallel public sphere
right in our midst.

Multitasking hardware as a challenge

At the end of the nineties, media theoreticians such as David Bennahum had
already introduced the sceptical concept of the »cell space.« This meant
the spheric space produced during the act of communication using mobile
phones, closing about the speaker like a shower curtain. The fact that s/he
is isolated and torn away from her/his direct environment results in
jointly-used public spaces being divided up and, in the end, temporarily
privatised: »cancer of cell space,« as a metastasis of the public sphere.
However, with his critical concept, Bennahum was targeting the mass of
individual people isolated in parallel fashion; his analysis did not
contain the »cell-net« as a social meta-space.

The development towards such mobile meta-communities, however, is already
in full swing, fostered primarily by the mobile communications industry's
plans to make its devices more attractive through multiple applications.
The Nokia 5510, for instance, can still be used to phone, but builds on the
socio-spatial concept of the Walkman by acting also as a digital music
player and UKW stereo radio. It has to seem ironic that, in the
advertisement, the main figure, portrayed as an apathetic and introverted,
passively humming »street musician,« reaps applause from the public as if
she had just given a concert. But the market strategy presenting the
telephone as a games console and »SMS machine« can serve to support a
convergence theory. »No matter how you look at it,« the advertisement says,
»the new Nokia 5510 is extremely versatile« - appealing, like the inventors
of »Botfighter« from »It's alive,« to the »new generation« of mobile
communications users, for whom interactive entertainment becomes »more
important every day.« At the German electronic exposition CeBIT, for
instance, the »People Finder« was presented, operating on Java-enabled
Smartphones. This application for the active and passive location of people
allows you to find out whether any friends are nearby, so that you can
spontaneously arrange to meet them at specific places and plan joint
activities. Profile and Opt-Out functions allow users to have control over
whether and by whom they can be located - an exhibit to be recommended for
the »Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.«

Following the private undermining of the communications space, will a new,
networked public sphere be created, with selective connection as its main
feature? And is »multi-tasking« - being able to use the mobile telephone
both as text and speaking device - to be interpreted as an option for
switching between more private and more semi-public forms of communication?

Between the options

When the academic world began directing its attention to the mobile phone,
SMS messages were immediately described as conceptual orality, as the
author Alex Bohn said on the panel »SMS Encounters« at the transmedial.02.
She explained how elements of oral communication such as sarcastic
inflections, relativising gestures, and grimaces of retraction were
expressed using graphic means, such as more or less stereotyped »emoticons«
and »smileys,« letters arranged as standard mimic emblems. She said that
with SMS messages, all the content that could be read »between the lines«
in a letter takes the form of concrete codes; aids to literacy in these
circulate throughout the internet. The most important attempt at using the
SMS on the level of »high culture« was thus the literary fragment, in which
the short oral utterances were compressed together to form co-ordinated,
serialised episodes. SMS were to accumulate into serialised novels, using
the input of countless users; or, the other way round, to reach the mobile
phone users as the author's private radio system. Public message boards are
even clearer examples of the attempt to give private SMS messages cultural
prominence precisely by giving them a common audience. The melding together
of the individual cells to form a like-minded community of reception seems,
it is true, to go against the whole point of the SMS system, and has
perhaps more to do with the homogenous concept of the public sphere as held
by the culture providers than with the real needs of the masses who are
busy pressing keys.

Or does the longevity of the ancient chat systems from the early nineties,
such as the purely text-based Internet Relais Chat (IRC) and those that
succeeded it, indicate a basic need for archaic text communication? It was
also the archaic visualisation that made an SMS facade design by the Chaos
Computer Club (CCC) into an extremely successful art spectacle. The CCC
programmers had installed simple light bulbs behind the windows of a
high-rise in Berlin. »Blinkenlights« showed plain geometric patterns
befitting the computer aesthetics of the eighties, but interrupted this
program as soon as two mobile telephone users used the facade for a
ping-pong game by dialling a special number. It was not the sculptural coup
that made »Blinkenlight« a high-publicity, nocturnal attraction even for
the art scene, but the pure simplicity of the communication. As with the
SMS medium, the charm lies in the fact that universality and reduction
allow the adaptation of a formalised set-up for individual demands using
simple means. The industry's marked fear that the expensive, new mobile
technologies will fail illustrates its uncertainty with regard to the
interests of the public.

Will the new selective gamer communities, the networked battlefields,
remain a special medium for office refugees, or is this where the
interfaces for a new public sphere will arise?

»Wow - whatta night! My adrenaline shot up ... drive-by time! Spent the
whole day in that stuffy office complex. But now things could get started.
Jumped in the car to find the top players. 'Silver' was in hospital,
'Webpoet' in the Nacka district. I decided in favour of 'Webpoet,' who'd
already beaten me once that day. A fiasco ... I'm glad I survived the
encounter. When you hit your opponent six times without causing any visible
damage, you get a bit worried. The only thing I could do was run away and
repair the robot. But all the same - thanks for a great fight.« (Gamer
statement on a promotion page for »It's Alive Mobile Games«)



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