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Wireless Culture Performs In The Temporary Intimate Zone
by Matt Locke
Introduction: Public Art, Urban Space and the Wireless Experience
In 1999, while working at The Media Centre in Huddersfield, UK, I started to develop a number of researchprojects aimed at investigating the cultural potential of mobile technologi es (such as cell phones and palm pilots), as well as certain new types of public behaviour emerging around their use. This was partly motivated by a desire to better understand the context of mobile experiences. But it was also driven by a long-standing fascination with culture and communication in public spaces, from psycho-geographic readings of the city to regeneration projects using public art.
The research projects were conceived as a series of experiments with SMS mobile phone text messaging devices that were performed through 2000 and 2001. These experiments included Static, a live "SMS play" realised in collaboration with Unlimited Theatre, and a national SMS Poetry Competition run in conjunction with prominent UK newspaper The Guardian. Another project, Surrender Control, was an interactive performance project developed with Tim Etchells from Forced Entertainment, in which subscribers with wireless devices were sent random text messages ordering them to spontaneously act in unpredictable ways. The most ambitious project was Speakers Corner, a fifteen metre tall LED display on the outside of The Media Centre that allowed the public to post messages on it using SMS devices, a local phone booth, or the Internet.
From the beginning, I wanted to find a catchy phrase to describe this new arena of personal mobile communication. I ended up adopting the acronym "TIZ", or "Temporary Intimate Zone" (a slightly tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Hakim Bey's "TAZ", or "Temporary Autonomous Zone"). The TIZ represented three words that I felt encapsulated important conditions of the mobile experience: "temporary", "intimate", and "zone". The following text is adapted from a lecture on the TIZ that was presented as part of Intimate Technologies / Dangerous Zones, a conference event held at the Banff New Media Institute in April, 2002.
The mobile experience is temporary because its subject (i.e., the mobile user) is in a more dynamic situation than with most communication technologies. For example, a person moving along a street or riding in a bus is in a far more dynamic situation than they would be in a cinema or a home. The moment of connection is therefore ephemeral, and far shorter than the usual experience of, for example, watching TV or using the Web. But it is also temporary in that the forms of discourse involved also tend toward the ephemeral -- gossip, comment, and diaries displace longer writing forms.
This kind of public discourse is nothing new. Juliet Fleming, in her book Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), traces a similar kind of public discourse that once played itself out over the walls, windows and other architectural elements of the 16th Century. Scratching names or messages into various surfaces was such a popular pursuit in Elizabethan times that one could actually buy "writing rings" with a stone set at a certain angle, allowing a person to scrawl on windows, door-frames, and so forth with ease. Fleming explains:
I imagine the whitewashed wall as being the primary scene of writing in early modern England...The writing that survives from the Elizabethan period was produced by people who had the technological and financial resources for the laborious procedures of securing paper, pen and ink. The poor, the hurried and those (it may have been practically everybody) unconcerned with the extensive circulation and long survival of their bons mots wrote with charcoal, chalk, stone and pencil.
Fleming here describes a wealth of literary activity that actually mirrors the huge amount of writing that takes place over mobile networks via SMS. SMS is the "Short Message Service" that was built into the GSM phone network standard, initially as a way for engineers to exchange messages about network traffic. But SMS has now become perhaps the most dominant form of phone communication in Europe -- especially among certain demographics, and particularly among young people.
The success of SMS, when viewed as part of a continuum of ephemeral public writing that stretches back at least as far as the graffiti of Elizabethan England, is far less surprising than it might otherwise appear. It seems that the lure of a white wall, or a blank screen that serves as such, is irresistible to a public that wants to communicate -- however ephemeral or banal that communication may be.
Although it is ephemeral, this kind of writing occasionally seeks to reach a more public level of discourse, and with it some degree of longevity. In graffiti, for example, such a movement has been marked by a transition in scale from tiny etchings on Elizabethan windows to huge slogans painted onto the sides of buildings. This kind of transition tends to be signified architecturally: For instance, in Rome there are four "speaking statues" which stand as historical loci for this kind of samizdat publishing. These are places to post public messages -- a kind of "speakers corner" where individual comments become public pronouncements.
There are also recent examples of the same kind of space being enabled by current technology. One was Speakers Corner, the aforementioned project developed at The Media Centre, Huddersfield. But a more spectacular example was www.hellomrpresident.com, a project developed by a group of Swiss artists for the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos during January, 2001. This was a Web site and an SMS system that allowed people to send in text messages that they wanted the world leaders gathering in Davos to read. These messages were then displayed on the side of a mountain using a giant laser projector.
Another example of how ephemeral writing becomes part of a more critical discourse may be blogs. Here, the boundary between unheard comment and public discourse is defined, not by scale or architecture (blogs don't become important because they use a larger font size), but via a complex network of attention and reference. Blogs attain status via their context -- their engagement and number of linkages with other blogs and other forms of discourse appearing online.
By definition, this kind of ephemeral public discourse, even when scaled in size by physical or virtual architectures, is lost to history. Is this a good thing? What gets lost when all these complex networks of intimate public discourse are erased -- either by whitewash on a brick wall or through deletion from a server?
The following passage is a fragment from a nineteenth century newspaper article, re-quoted here from Carolyn Marvin's book When Old Technologies Were New (Oxford University Press, 1990):
The young ladies of Frankford...have recently discovered that by holding a piece of tin
against the iron foot-rests driven into the wooden poles of the Southern Electric Light
Company they receive a weak electric shock, and almost every evening a group gathers
around the poles that are not situated on the main thoroughfares and enjoys the fun for
hours...One pretty miss was heard to remark, after her first experience, "Oh, I thought I was squeezing a handful of pins." "Yes," said another, "it's something like being kissed by a young man with a bristly moustache."
What do we mean by a technological intimacy? Is it about communication with intimate others? Or being intimate with technology itself? My original use of the word "intimate" with respect to the TIZ referred to the irruption of a private, one-to-one communication in a public space, as with the experience of receiving a mobile phone call in the street, or on a bus or a train. This kind of experience has more traditionally been signified by specific forms of architecture, such as phone booths or other constructions that make it clear to passers-by that the user has stepped out of the public realm and into an intimate communication space. But with mobile technology, these physical signifiers have almost disappeared, replaced by ever-shrinking communications devices and "hands-free" interfaces.
The phrase TIZ was formulated to describe this new phenomenon -- temporary, intimate communication zones that are not architecturally signified, but instead are performative, signified (if at all) by gestures or discreet glimpses of communication devices.
But using the word "intimacy" also implies an emotional quality that might not always actually be present in this type of communication. As with graffiti, public/private discourses facilitated by mobile devices are as likely to be banal as profound. Privacy might be a better term. But "privacy" has become a political football in technological discourse, polarised between the kinds of positions epitomised by, on the one hand, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy when he famously said, "You already have zero privacy -- get used to it," and on the other hand by recent battles against the government legislation of personal privacy encryption tools like PGP. In these debates, privacy is spoken of as a "human right" for digital citizens -- a defence against State or corporate incursion into our personal space. But perhaps these debates are focusing too much on the relationship between individuals and an abstract technological network, and not enough on the real space of human encounters enabled by these network.
Intimacy and privacy are not concepts that exist as binary oppositions (such as "intimate" vs. "not intimate", or "private" vs. "public"), but as a continuum that is negotiated socially and affected by specific contexts. In Erving Goffman's classic taxonomy of social protocols, Behaviour in Public Places (The Free Press, 1963), he describes the social and cultural factors that delineate "proper" or "improper" behaviour, and how these create "protocols" that should, ideally, communicate these boundaries to all participants. These protocols are incredibly complex, with nuances reflecting subtle changes in the make up of social groups, cultural norms or location. For Goffman, these protocols define different levels of "tightness" or "looseness" in social situations that describe how individual behaviour is either tolerated or proscribed:
It would seem that there may be one overall continuum or axis along which the social
life in situations varies, depending on how disciplined the individual is obliged to be...the terms "tight" and "loose" might be more descriptive and give more equal weight to each of the several ways in which devotion to a social occasion may be exhibited.
Perhaps these definitions of tightness and looseness could valuably be transferred to debates about "intimacy" or privacy in networked communication. Rather than seeking technological solutions that artificially isolate the individual as merely the end node on a network, we should understand that intimate and public behaviour exist along a continuum, where the context plays as much a part in modelling behaviour as individual desire. Just as a temporary, ephemeral message can attain status and longevity through a change in its context -- for example, an accrual of attention or scale -- so too are levels of intimacy or privacy products of a complex social discourse. This discourse is negotiated between participants using body language, clothing and a host of other signifiers. Technological intimacy is merely another level of signification along this, not an isolated context.
In the context of the TIZ, I use the term "zone" to describe the irruption of private communication spaces within public space. As mentioned earlier, these kinds of spaces were once architecturally defined, such as with the classic British Red Phone Box -- literally a "communication room" built into public space. With mobile technologies, this architectural referent disappears, and the "zone" created by switching your attention from a social public space to a private call or message is defined by product design and gesture -- neither of which have effectively replaced architecture as a commonly understood social protocol.
"Zone" also describes the cell-like structure of mobile phone networks themselves. This technological boundary is more fluid than physical architecture, moving dynamically with you as you walk between zones. Yet it can still be used as a way to locate the user within physical space.
The boundaries of communication spaces are not determined by architecture and technology alone, however. Erving Goffman also describes how we use social conventions of inclusion and exclusion to demarcate these boundaries -- a dynamic that Goffman refers to as "situational closure". This describes the way in which we communicate, or pretend to communicate, our participation in a conversation. Depending on our familiarity with the participants or the context, we can take a number of positions in relation to a conversation, from active to passive, from bystander to focal point. Goffman investigates these positions and, most importantly, the transitions between them, in great detail:
One example of this is small enclosed spaces like elevators, where individuals may be so
closely brought together that no pretence of not hearing can possibly be maintained. A similar kind of issue seems to arise in near-empty bars, or with cab drivers. So too with the individual who is momentarily left to his own resources while a person to whom he has been talking answers a telephone call; physically close to the engaged other and
patently occupied, he must yet somehow show civil inattention.
In these examples, Goffman illustrates how intimate conversations affect the status of observers in the immediate vicinity. Instead of a singular connection between the people participating in a conversation, there is a "fall-out" (in the nuclear sense) among everyone within hearing distance. The consequence is that they must somehow signify their inclusion or exclusion from a discourse that they are not in control of. A similar set of relationships occurs when one person takes a mobile phone call in a public space -- even if the surrounding audience members are not known to the person taking the call (as, for example, on a train). The "zone" in this case does not describe a kind of "cocoon" that temporarily separates the individual from social space. Rather, it is a kind of wave that affects everyone within the vicinity of the communication. Yet again, the moment of intimate communication is not merely an exchange between two people and the technologies that connect them, but a complex social environment with a large number of participants, each of whom (voluntarily or otherwise) has a role to play.
Matt Locke was formerly Creative Director of The Media Centre at Huddersfield, UK, where he coordinated a program of innovative public art projects using mobile technologies. He is presently the Creative Director of BBC Creative R&D, a research department of the BBC UK.