McKenzie Wark on 10 Nov 2000 16:33:45 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Cellpohones and the cancer of cellspace

The Cancer of Cellspace
The new culture of cellphone communication is leaving cyberspace behind.
By McKenzie Wark

This story originally appeared in Artbyte magazine.

Maybe cellphones give you cancer, and maybe they dont. The World Health
organization seems to be hedging its bets. Either way, maybe the anxiety
about cellphones giving you cancer is really all about something else.
Cellphones are the cancer  the cancer of social space. Cellspace  the
space created by the proliferation of those rogue cells  is almost
everywhere on the planet.

Compared to cellphones, the Internet was nothing. It was just the same old
same old. Think of the spaces in which people use the Internet: People log
on to cyberspace from work or home. They get that frisky feeling from sexy
chat rooms while in their bedroom, while the wife snores on in ignorance:
The Internet didnt really break down the walls of the compartments in
which we live.

Cellspace is different from cyberspace and, in a weird way, much more
radical. Cellphones create a real break with the suburbia of the soul
where the Internet wallows. The Internet piped all manner of gunk into the
suburban home. The Net was the telephone, the TV, the newspaper and a
radio station  all glommed together and plunked down into a suburban space
that otherwise remained unchanged  apart from the second phone line. Even
the cable modem fails to change this basic equation. Its just more gunk,
more speed, down the same old pipeline into the same old space.

Cellphones break down space in much the same way that a digital sampler
breaks down beats. In cellspace, theres no place that cant be connected to
another space. If theres an image that captures this, its the great moment
in the movie Three Kings, where Marky Mark finds a cellphone deep in an
Iraqi bunker in the middle of the desert, and uses it to call his wife,
back home in suburban America.

Spaces are supposed to have a particular purpose. You build a suburban
home to wall out the world, to make a safe place for the family. You build
an underground bunker to store Kuwaiti war booty and to interrogate
Shiites in. These two places are not supposed to be connected to each
other. But with a cellphone, the walls between cells break down, as if
under attack by a cancerous agent.

David Bennahum coined the term cellspace two years ago, after this
experience, achieved using a Novatel wireless modem and a Palm Pilot:
"8:30 am, mid-April, standing on the platform of Track 3, waiting for the
Times Square shuttle to take me to Grand Central Station. About six
hundred people are queued up, clustered in blobs along memorized spots
where we know the subway doors will open. Most are just standing. Some are
reading the morning papers. Im downloading email through a metal
ventilation shaft in the ceiling. I point my wireless modem like a diving
rod toward the breeze coming down from the street above. I can see peoples
feet criss-crossing the grate. If wind can get down here this way, I
figure packets of data can too.... When the Times Square shuttle pulled
in, Id received 16 email messages from all over the world."

Bennahum predicted a bright future for cellspace. "So what happens when
you strap on a wireless modem to a Palm Pilot and access the Internet? You
get a peek at the way many of us will experience cyberspace by 2000. Much
as the Web unleashed a multi-billion dollar global industry and new
cultural forms, so too will cheap, ubiquitous wireless datastreams, what I
call Cellspace."

Whats curious is where the people are who are having the cellspace
experience actually are. Not New York or Los Angeles. Theyre in Helsinki
and Hong Kong, Sydney, Singapore, and Seoul.

Bennahum was thinking of cellspace as a version of cyberspace, but perhaps
its something different. It isnt getting e-mail that makes it what it is.
Cellspace can be data or voice or graphics or even musical ditties. Its
the space in which you get it. Cellspace is the cancer of communication
infiltrating any and every other kind of space with data  no matter what
kind of data  that can be sent and received while the user is in motion.

Cellspace need not even require a cellphone. These days, theres all kinds
of "beltware" devices morphing from phones or organizers or MP3 players
into cellspace devices. Maybe the trick will be to combine all these
devices. Maybe they will become much more specific in function, so that
people will carry a bunch of them, including a remote with which to find
all the other beltware. Thats for the designers to propose and the market
to dispose. Whatever their shape and function, the space into which they
will connect is already operational.

You see it  and hear it  more in those parts of the world where the basic
cellphone is now ubiquitous, where more than half the population has one,
as in much of Scandinavia, Asia or Australia. Places where everyone is on
a cellphone everywhere, all the time. Before every public event theres an
announcement to turn off your cellphone which, of course, most people

Students take cellphone calls in the middle of class. Cellphones ring in
cineplexes and recital halls. And they dont just ring; increasingly they
play whatever current pop song their owners have programmed them to chirp.
Airlines, after telling everyone that phones interfere with navigation,
now allow calls to be made right up until the doors are sealed. Social
space just isnt social any more, now that anyone can
"privatize" it with a cellphone. At the most recent Siggraph in New
Orleans, a dotcommer was overhead taking no less than four cell calls
while ensconced in a toilet stall. There is no space you cant turn into a
space built just for two. Not so much for you and the person on the other
end of the line, as for you and your cellphone.

Perhaps its no accident that the cellphone has really taken off in places
that are more urban than suburban. Places where congestion or poverty or
cultural preference lead people outdoors, onto the street, into cafes and
bars and piazzas, places where the Internet hasnt always been a big hit.
Perhaps the Internet was always a bit too suburban for the rest of the

Young people love cellphones. Theyre a way of connecting a pack of friends
without having to leave messages at home that parents can intercept. Young
women take to cellphones as to few other technologies. It creates a whole
new feminine space, where you dont have to wait until you get home to tell
your best girlfriend about your date. You can call with a progress report
in the middle of it.

Where men tend to view cellphones as toys, women treat them like
accessories. Handbags come with pockets on the outside for displaying the
phone. If its a Nokia, the snap-on panels can be changed to color
coordinate it with the outfit. In Seoul, you can see young women sporting
phones for which they cant afford the call plan  its worn for show.

Just as the Internet borrowed from previous media, such as TV, print and
radio, cellphones are doing the same. Theyre even borrowing from the
Internet. SMS, or Short Messaging Service, enables the transmission of
text messages via WAP  the Wireless Application Protocol. It recalls the
Internet  circa 1985. You can use your cellphone as a modem, but only at
9,600bps, not 56,000 so far. However Australasian telcos are already
supplying news headlines, stock market reports and television listings
with alerts over the networks.

Its funny how the development of the cellphone recapitulates the
development of the Internet in some ways. Some people looked at the
Internet and saw only bad interactive television. It wouldnt be any use,
they argued, until it could be made more like television. They didnt see
how it could develop differently. Now pundits look at the cellphone and
conclude that it wont amount to anything until it is more like the
Internet. Strange how what was once so different and alien is now so

Cellphones are not the Internet. Theyre a different medium. Just as
interactive TV shows were not a big hit on TV, browsing the Web is not
going to be a big hit on cellphones. Its a new medium that calls, not for
"content", but for form. Nobody has really invented a form for cellphone
data communication  yet.

There are some pretty cool forays in that direction, however. In Hong Kong
or Seoul, you can call up an online dating service, give it some
parameters  age, sex, sexual preference  and get the phone numbers for the
closest matches in your location. Its wildly popular. And its a whole new
social space; a cellspace take on the meatmarket disco. Rather than go to
the disco to find a date, you find the date in the abstract space of the
cellphone dating service  then arrange to meet at the disco. Next stop is
a service under development in Sweden, where you key in your sexual or
romantic specifications, and the phone rings whenever anyone matching your
description is within range.

For all the talk about Netpolitics, its hard to actually run a riot from
your desktop. But as Thai demonstrators discovered during the last
military coup, the cellphone is a very handy tool for coordinating
movements when confronted by baton-wielding riot police. What radio
communication was to the Nazi blitzkrieg, the cellphone is to hand-to-hand
combat. The cellphone scene in Three Kings is based on a real incident. A
solider who found his unit under "friendly fire" during the invasion of
Panama used a cellphone to call for help when military communication
channels failed him.

When the East Timorese were fighting for independence from Indonesia,
Timorese leader Jose Ramos Horta commented that modems had become more
important than machine guns in making their point. Perhaps it is now time
for the cellphone rather than the cluster bomb.

Whether its sex, violence, drugs or money thats on your mind, the
cellphone makes all space connected and connectable for any purpose. For
all of the "street" posturing of Internet cyberwannabes, in reality it is
a cosy stay-at-home medium. The cellphone is the real street cruisers comm
tool of choice. Which is what makes the coming of data to the cellphone
such an interesting moment. As a voice tool, the cellphone is a disruption
of social space. The damn things make just too much noise. But with data,
its different. A few discreet taps of the thumb, and your message is sent
or received, and nobody around you need be any the wiser.

Where the cellphone boom is different from the Internet is in the moral
hysteria  or lack thereof over the sexual or criminal spaces the cellphone
creates: So far, at least, they simply havent excited much interest. This
is why the cellphone seems so "cancerous," even if it hasnt quite sparked
the same moral panic that the Net fostered. The cellphones market
potential, on the other hand, has been spotted much faster. Or at least it
has in Australia, Scandinavia and many parts of Asia, where anywhere from
50 per cent to 75 per cent of the population has a cellphone. You can bank
by phone, shop by phone. Pop stars in Finland have even started writing
tunes especially to be played as the ring tone. There are top 10 lists of
the most popular tune downloads.

Why is America so far behind in cellphone culture? For once, the free
market has failed to deliver. Where the United States has competing
technical standards promoted by different companies, in most of the rest
of the world there were national phone companies that mandated a common
technical standard: GSM. Cellphone numbers were differentiated from land
line numbers by a clearly recognizable prefix. In most of the world, the
caller pays, not the receiver of the call, so people leave their phones on
all the time, greatly multiplying the potential connectedness of

You can fly from Sydney to Singapore or Stockholm, and just step off the
plane, turn the phone on, and be connected. Its all the same standard. Its
not cheap, but its amazingly seamless. Its a strange feeling  as if any
point, in motion anywhere on the planet, could potentially be connected to
any other point. It remains to be seen whether the new data services will
be as globally seamless as voice, but the platform is there  almost
everywhere except the United States and the very remote and underdeveloped
parts of the third world.

Its hard to believe that if the demand for cellspace was as strong as the
demand for cyberspace in America that it would go untapped. Maybe there is
something in American culture that isnt right, or isnt ready, for
cellspace. America is a culture built on movement and speed, but which
created its own special kind of resistance to movement and speed, which it
called suburbia. Suburbia was Americas way of putting a wall around a
place that would be bunkered from the speed of the world. The world would
spurt and sprint into it, via television and telephone and even the
Internet, but you could sit perfectly still on the sofa and lap it all up.

In most other places, movement and speed had nowhere near as much of a
free run. Communities, states, identities, all put up a lot more
resistance to speed. In Europe, in Asia, people stay put more than
Americans do. Theres a resistance to mobility. Or there was. Perhaps
cellspace is the cyberspace of more rooted communities. Their way of
making a leap into movement  and into a more radical movement of
information than cyberspace. One that isnt about consuming a heap of stuff
while sitting on your ass. One thats about the body in motion, out in
social space, but beaming vectors of communication through any and every
space. The social body will never be the same again.

This story originally appeared in Artbyte magazine.
Reproduced with permission.

McKenzie Wark
Guest Scholar, American Studies, New York University
"We no longer have origins we have terminals"

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