Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Sounds of Mobility, Part II

I've always been attracted to what can be broadly referred to as sounding technologies - or devices that make sound. For last week's Approaching the City colloquium at the University of Surrey, I submitted a poster on The Sounds of Mobility and began to discuss my inspiration in the space and culture blog - some of which I'd like to repeat here and build on.

The archetypal mobile sound device is the Sony Walkman - introduced in 1979 - or similar personal portable stereos. Originally seen as terribly anti-social technology, Walkman users in headphones were derided for shutting themselves out from the world around them. More recent research (by people like Michael Bull) continues to acknowledge the isolating aspects but also the ways in which people actively use Walkmans to negotiate space, time and boundaries of self.

In October, I posted on tunA - a project of the Human Connectedness Group at Media Lab Europe - which begins by asking "Can the Walkman become a social experience?" tunA uses iPaqs and ad-hoc wireless networks to allow users to listen to what other users in close physical proximity are listening to, creating a sort of shared listening experience. Community is based on a love of music, and Mark Frauenfelder recently suggested that technologies like this will help turn strangers into friends.

One of my dissertation case studies - Sonic City - takes mobile sounding machines to a new level by creating a "system that enables people to create music in real time by walking through and interacting with the urban environment." What makes Sonic City particularly interesting in my mind is the use of the city itself as interface, or more precisely, city sounds used to generate electronic music and city soundscapes.

In the tunA scenario, users remain isolated from their surrounding physical environment but connected to other people. In the Sonic City scenario, users remain isolated from other people, but are connected to their surrounding physical environment. What both have in common is the use of headphones, which limits how sound can be heard. And sound may very well be irrelevant if it isn't heard.

What I really mean is that sound made is not the same as sound heard - although both are interconnected. For example, while headphones may isolate their wearers from external sounds, they also prevent public disruption associated with boom boxes or the ill-named ghetto blaster. And it is this disorder that interests me because without the ability to disrupt, mobile sounding technologies are limited in their ability to critique daily life in urban or other public spaces.

A less obvious mobile sounding technology is the skateboard. As Iain Borden reminds us in Skateboarding, Space and the City, while the skateboard's main purpose is not to make sound, the sound of skateboarding is integral to its experience. It is part of how skaters sense surface conditions, speed, grip and predictability. But other people hear the sounds - the noise - of skateboards as well:

Skaters ... add another sound component to the non-skater's experience of the urban realm; the skateboard's distinctive sounds are unlike any other others in the city, and overtaking slower pedestrians can cause them consternation: "When a group of kids skates down a sidewalk you can really hear it" ...

The use of ramps in urban areas ... almost invariably brings complaints from neighbours about noise, because the repetitive cracks and grinds ... create a sound pattern more akin to that of a construction site than to that of a residential area.

Because skating interferes with the "normal" and "acceptable" use of public space, our attention is shifted to the relations between public action and silence. In other words, we can do what we want in public space, so long as we don't make any noise while doing it. Skateboarding challenges those limitations on public performance; it acts as social critique.

Both tunA and Sonic City may be understood as critical technologies, in the tradition of conceptual design, but their inability to disrupt public space prevents them from also being powerful types of social critique.

On the other hand, Glitch - part of the Tejp project and another of my case studies - is a good example of a critical technology capable of social critique:

An array of speakers are hidden in public places. When passing by the project site, people receiving sms or incoming calls involuntarily cause loud transient glitch noises to be heard along their path. The nature and origin of the noises are familiar and easily identifiable but the speakers are hidden. Because of the linear disposition of the speaker array along a usual pedestrian path, the glitches stalk the person during the whole phase of mobile communication initiation.

Glitch draws our attention to the use of private technologies in public spaces, as well as amplifying less visible or audible signals, and consequently serves as a critique of some of the social and environmental aspects of mobile phones.

When we still focus so much on visual technologies and representation, as well as usability, sounding devices offer unique opportunities for abusability and technological and social critique - especially when used to challenge our understandings of public and private, local and global interaction.

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