Krystian Woznicki on Mon, 3 Jun 2002 10:26:05 +0200 (CEST)

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[rohrpost] Re: SMS-Encounters


Dave Mandl

Though you might not be aware of it if you live in the U.S.--where 
mobile-phone technology is still a creaky Tower of Babel--"texting" is a 
massively popular phenomenon in the rest of the industrialized world, 
especially among young people. Formally known as "SMS" (for Short Message 
Service), texting is a way to send text messages from one mobile phone to 
another quickly, easily, and cheaply. There are currently more than thirty 
million text messages a month being sent worldwide, and that number is 
expected to rise to more than a hundred million in the next two years. 
TextFM, a "simple, lightweight, open media system" designed by Londoners 
Graham Harwood and Matthew Fuller, takes advantage of the widespread 
availability of SMS-capable mobile phones to allow people to broadcast 
_voice_ messages over the public radio airwaves. Using TextFM is simple: 
You send a normal text message to a central phone number, where it is 
captured by a computer. The computer converts the message to speech using 
voice-synthesis software, and your spoken text is then sent to a 
transmitter and broadcast over an FM radio frequency. As part of your 
message you can also include several optional codes ("switches") specifying 
the language your message is in, which of ten voices to use, the pitch of 
the voice, and the speed at which you want the text read. The TextFM 
software is non-proprietary, "open source" code, meaning it can be freely 
downloaded--and even customized, if necessary--by anyone. Anyone with 
access to a computer running the Linux operating system (which is itself 
free, open-source software) can set up their own TextFM "server." 
Installations are currently running in Vienna, London, and Amsterdam, with 
more locations in the works. One of the current goals of the project is to 
grow a decentralized network of TextFM servers around the world: After a 
message is received and broadcast at one TextFM site, it can then be 
forwarded to other sites in the network for broadcast there. I spoke to 
Graham Harwood (who is currently doing a residency at De Waag in Amsterdam) 
during a recent visit to New York, where he gave a presentation on TextFM 
at the Museum of Modern Art.

DM: Can you describe how TextFM servers in different locations would work 

GH: The server doing the voice synthesis sits there [in Amsterdam], and so 
people text to my phone, my computer reads the text messages straight off, 
then sends those streams to the server in Austria [where they] join the 
stream of people texting there. And the same is happening there, on their 
server. So it's looking more and more likely that you can have different 
nodes of this device. Because one of the big problems has been getting 
around the airwaves problem [i.e., getting access to radio frequencies to 
broadcast over]; the radio thing is a complete nightmare.

DM: That's interesting, because one of the original goals of the project 
was opening up the airwaves. So do you now see the future being more in 
webcasting these messages, streaming over the net rather then continuing 
with the radio model?

GH: No. Generally it's a localized project. [Local administrators can send 
messages] off into radio, or off into a public announcement speaker system, 
or some other viable way for the local area. Because the laws on radio are 
so very different between different borders and different places, there's 
not a kind of one-solution-fits-all. It looks like you've got to have a lot 
of different elements of the project that can be locked together in 
different ways to suit local environments. It could be in a public address 
system in a particular environment, it can be in a club, you can use a CB...

DM: So it's completely decentralized and autonomous: "Here's your stream; 
do what you want with it. If you have access to some radio frequency, then 
broadcast it. If you want to webcast it, do that." What kinds of messages 
have people been experimenting with? GH: One kind of speculative notion 
would be if we can set up a series of speakers aimed at a public building 
here, or a public monument or something, and do the same in a number of 
countries, and then use these different nodes to actually just send shit to 
these public address systems, it would be a really good method of--

DM: An audio bulletin board.

GH: Yeah. Because a lot of people in Vienna use texting as they're walking 
past the public-address system there to just write in their text message 
that just booms out in that locality. So it's almost like grafittiing as 
you walk past. And one of the really invigorating notions about SMS is that 
everyone has their own remote in their pocket, you know, as you walk past 
some kind of bulletin board, some kind of address system to just leave 
something, post something, place it there, in a mobile space. And that is 
really a kind of social dynamic, because it gets it back out in the streets 
out of your bedroom and your screen. What's interesting about it is the 
complete system, it's not the content of the system. It's the media systems 
that are being brought into play for particular purposes. And the content 
of it is kind of secondary. For me, if it's particularly geared at a 
physical object or a physical space, then I'll quite happily send a stream 
of Bush probability speaking [a Harwood project that creates ersatz Bush 
speeches based on word frequencies in previous Bush speeches], or some 
other activity. And so I think they're the really core interests for me, 
and it also came about because of this thing of wanting at first to create 
a local media system, and then seeing how people wanted to actually 
interact or manipulate that system. Not just content. And that became part 
of the project.

DM: What do you mean by "manipulate the system"?

GH: I mean being able to change voice, trigger events, change pitch of 
voice. We did one experiment with a group of students where we took this 
trip of Bush to some South American country and combined [his speech] with 
a bunch of other robots crawling other websites, and put that [material] 

DM: So you just inject it into the stream?

GH: Inject it into the stream, yeah. At timed intervals. And of course you 
get these kinds of reactions to it from people texting. So it's not a 
completely _open_ system, but it's a system that's using language as data, 
and then allowing people to interrupt that. DM: You're going to be doing 
something with Resonance FM [a new community radio station in London]? GH: 
Yeah, we're going to do it with Resonance. I think we're going to use 

DM: You mean in a time slot between the hours of so-and-so...?

GH: In the different kinds of testing we've done, we've seen that TextFM 
works really badly in some environments and really well in others. That's 
quite interesting in itself. If you only have a three-hour time slot 
somewhere and you just do it, it's crap. Because the network doesn't 
develop. If you do it, though, in a kind of closed conference-type session, 
it works very well. Like where there is a particular subject and you use a 
local PA system, and people are dropping their messages into it. It works 
really well like that. Where it works the best is when you've got something 
ongoing over a month period or something like that, where it can build up 
its own clientele. If you've got a specific action with a public-address 
system against a particular building, that works very well. But these light 
encounters with it in public spaces are bad. Because people don't get it.

DM: This project seems more humanist, in a way, than the net, just because 
there's a voice involved--though I haven't heard it; I don't know how 
synthesized and cyberpunk it sounds...

GH: The aesthetic of voice synthesis is bad. A lot of people hate it. I 
went through a thing of really hating it, but then I began to like it 
because it's like the country-and-western of the cyber world. It's naff, 
it's tasteless, and it grates. That's one of the things in Amsterdam--I've 
done it at some reasonably bourgeois events. And people kept turning it 
off, because they found it so annoying, and I was in heaven. And people got 
really scared of it as well, because once you alter the pitch and rate of 
the thing, you get into some really grating, tasteless aesthetics, which I 
have a fascination for, social elites' use of aesthetics. Also I did things 
like use a lot of harmonies with the voice synthesis, with jingles and 
stuff. So those horrible synthesized voices are actually singing harmony 
with a TextFM jingle. And we use birdsong, British birdsong, as the audio 
track. So that's the background all the time in TextFM. Because birds kind 
of have these intricate media systems by which they declare territory and 
intention. It's also like the music sound of the twittering of the birds. 
So it fits really well. "What kind of aesthetic can you choose for such a 
system?" And birdsong seemed to be the most stupid and appropriate [laughs].


Dave Mandl:

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