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The Commercialization of Open Source Mobile August 16, 2007

Posted by matthewweber in abaporu, appropriation, cannibalism, cycle, iPhone, re-configuration.
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After a short recess, Abaporu is back – hey, we all need a break every now and then!

Over the summer I’ve noticed increasing talk of commercial open-source mobile phone ventures. What’s interesting about these ventures is they are growing out of the feedback of open-source mobile application developers. While traditionally US cell phones have been locked down by providers, there has always been a cannibalistic subset focused on cracking open the code unlocking phones for free open-source development. This is exactly the trend we all witnessed when the iPhone launched: within days developers were hard at work cracking into the depths of the iPhone source code. Out of this trend of cannibalization with the intent of distribution, a number of companies are now building commercial open-source mobile phones. In addition to Motorola offering a framework for open-source mobile phone development, the OpenMoko project is now selling two open source phones that allow users complete flexibility across networks and applications. The price of these phones is currently a bit prohibitive, but there’s a clear trend of open source development starting to emerge. Now that this once-niche form of appropriation is building towards mainstream, we’re hopeful that we’ll start to see a growth in applications and uses.

Re-making space with cellphones July 12, 2007

Posted by François in appropriation, baroque, boost, space.
4 comments

Brett Stalbaum, who had brought Boost’s cheap GPS-enabled internet-connected phones to my attention, has been using them in two of his classes at UC San Diego this past quarter. The result is “antinormalizer”, a project in which his students used the phones to re-make public spaces around campus. As Brett explains in the video, cell phones are increasingly scripting our behavior in public spaces, so why not use them to “change the script of already programmed spaces”? The result is a fascinating baroque layering of unexpected behaviors onto existing space.

“Antinormalizer is a project of VIS 141B (Advanced Computer Programming in the Arts) and CAT 124 (Sixth College Practicum) at the University of California San Diego, Spring 2007. In it, a location aware mobile phone application helps students do things that are antinormal. And, it is also all of the antinormal performance that happened as a result.”

Tagging as Social Expression June 29, 2007

Posted by matthewweber in appropriation, co-opt, language.
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When the Internet first exploded into households and office, bookmarks provided a convenient way to save favorite Web pages without memorizing URLs. No more than a decade later, the combined evolution of Web 2.0 and the growth of online tagging systems brings us a new concept: tagging as social expression. As UCLA researcher Alla Zoellers writes in a paper she presented at the WWW07 workshop in Banff, Canada, users have appropriated tagging as a forum for social conversations, political debates and collective action. Amazon.com’s new tagging system provides a good illustration; Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope listing on Amazon is tagged with both “hope and redemption” and “check his voting record,” among other less-flattering comments. Of the 138 tags, most represent two sides of the polarized debate surrounding the 2008 elections.

While an interesting forum for debate, this also represents what I consider to be a “viral” course of appropriation. Bookmarks were first used as an organizational tool, but as more and more consumers have come online it became a venue for passing references back and forth. Bookmarks evolved to include tagging capabilities, allowing individuals to categorized and comment on saved items. But tagging was rapidly appropriated by the blog community as a term for social commentary. Hence today we have tagging as social expression. Sites such as del.icio.us provide forums for sharing your online “identity” through the digital trace of sites you’ve visited and the associated tags.

Looking forward, online and mobile social networks offer an interesting forum for trading ideas, evolving concepts and collectively discovering new uses for existing technology, much like an everyman’s USENET group.

Creative destruction: izi killed the public phones June 15, 2007

Posted by François in africa, appropriation, co-opt, cycle, re-make.
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Senegal’s télécentres are disappearing and it seems “izi” and “seddo”, the new micro-recharge services from operators Tigo and Orange, are to blame. These télécentres are not what we typically think of as “telecenters” –roomfulls of public access computers. In fact, “the majority of them would more rightly be described as telephone kiosks or phone shops.” This unfolding story of creative destruction is very significant because over the past 10 years, such public phones have been key to economic development and information access throughout the developing world (recall Grameen’s village phones.) The disappearance of Sénégal’s télécentres fits a broader pattern currently emerging in several parts of Africa. It also maps very nicely onto our appropriation cycle and illustrates the related tug-of-war between suppliers and users, that drives innovation.

The often-told story goes like this:

  • Step 1 (roll-out): mobile phones were introduced, but were too expensive for many people to afford.
  • Step 2 (re-make): entreprising individuals get a phone and offer ‘fractional phone service’ to others by reselling their minutes on street corners. These ‘public phones’ come in many flavors: some are just individuals looking for extra cash, others may be informal micro-enterprises or more substantial ventures.
  • Step 3 (re-claim): phone companies (and others, like Grameen) co-opt this practice with micro-loans, enhanced public phone booths, accounting features to help manage the public phones, etc.
  • Step 4 (new roll-out): a changed business ecology supports multiple avenues for the provision of phone service: personal or shared, bought directly from the phone company or re-sold through intermediaries.

But now comes this new African twist:

Step 3-bis (“assertive” re-claim): Phone companies (like Tigo in Senegal), seeing that there is a market for small increments of phone credit and shared phones, introduce much more granular offers. For example in Senegal, Tigo offers billing-by-the-second (10 seconds for 20 Francs CFA, or $0.02), electronic recharges (“izi”, in Tigo’s Senegalese franglais) as low as 100FCFA ($0.20), and free unit transfers between consumers (available on the “Tigo Jeune” plan).

All of a sudden, users don’t need the ‘public phones’ any more. In Senegal most of these télécentres have gone out of business. Bassirou Cissé, the general secretary of Unetts(*) says that “In 2000, there were 18,000 télécentres in Sénégal, accounting for 33% of the Senegalese operators’ revenues and 30,000 jobs. Today, most of them have closed down.”

Any guesses as to what “Step 4″ will now look like?

(*) Unetts is the Union nationale des exploitants de télécentres et des téléservices du Sénégal. The ‘public phone’ business may be informal at times, but certainly not dis-organized.

Recommended reading: Olivier Sagna’s Batik newsletter, a great source of information on African ICTs (in French.) I ran into this article while poking around OSIRIS (Observatoire sur les Systèmes d’Information, les Réseaux, et les Inforoutes au Sénégal), where Batik is hosted. No RSS yet, but Olivier tells me this is coming soon.

Creolizing Chopin June 13, 2007

Posted by François in appropriation, creolization, cultural references.
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Tom Zé gives a wonderful demonstration of “creolization” is this 1991 interview. After he won a music festival with his song “Silêncio de Nós Dois”, a newspaper claimed he had plagiarized the music from Garcia Lorca. This wasn’t true (he says,) but the accusation prompted him to compose a song that was nothing but plagiarism — entirely made up of music and words from other people. In this clip, Tom Zé shows how he appropriated the harmony from Chopin’s étude No2 and re-mixed it with a rythm from popular Brazilian music to create the melody for a new song “Se o caso é chorar” (which won the next year’s festival)

Here is a transcription of what he is saying (thanks, Guilherme)

bom a… o primeiro plágio é a harmonia que é do Estudo Número 2 de Chopin… que a harmonia é essa…
(plays the harmony)
que vocês aliás já conhecem na Música Popular Brasileira só batida um pouquinho diferente que é assim.
(plays the rhythm)
É do Estudo Número 2 de Chopin.
(the two together)
“A insensatez que você fez
Coração tão sem cuidado”

(he then continues on to explain where he ‘borrowed’ every phrase in that song. See the full 5-minute interview – pure Zé)

Zé is neither the first nor the last musician to appropriate other people’s music and lyrics (for a masterful treatment of the history of re-mix – and much more – stay tuned for Aram Sinnreich’s upcoming dissertation.) But this 30-second clip is a wonderfully concise way to get the point across in a presentation.

Tom Zé is an iconic figure for us at the abaporu project, and a terrific guide as we explore appropriation. In 1963, he met Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso in Salvador when they were hatching Tropicalismo. Zé joined them (along with Gal Costa, Nara Leão, and Os Mutantes) to record the album/manifesto Tropicália, which features his song “Parque Industrial.” Tropicalismo directly built on the Antropofagia movement of the late 1920′s, which had been launched by Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago… itself inspired by Tarsila do Amaral’s painting Abaporu. So, we are in excellent company.

There is a lot of easily accessible Tom Zé music on the net. A free download of his 1976 LP “Estudando o Samba” is available via the always excellent Loronix blog (many thanks to Josh Kun for pointing out that treasure trove of ‘forgotten music’). More recent albums can be streamed from Trama, or David Byrne’s LuakaBop.

Recommended reading: Josh Kun’s 1999 interview of Tom Zé in the Boston Phoenix: Plagiarize This!

“je l’ai bipé, il m’a raplé”: appropriation by naming June 9, 2007

Posted by François in appropriation, creolization, language.
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An important way in which people appropriate technology is by naming what they do with it. Take for example the well-established practice of communicating through “missed calls” –dialing and hanging-up right away before the correspondent picks up. This is free, since there is no actual call, and it leaves a trace in the form of a ‘missed call message’. Depending on the context, it can mean anything from “call me back” to “I’m thinking of you” or “pick me up at the train station.” In Africa’s English-speaking countries, this is usually called “beeping” or “flashing”, a practical verb: “I’ll beep you when I get there”, or “he keeps flashing me.”

In French, my nephews tell me that their friends use “biper” in the same way: “je l’ai bipé, il m’a raplé.” They also use “faire sonner” (“make ring”) as in “il m’a fait sonner une fois dans la galerie marchande“, or simply “sonner”: ” Il m’a sonné today pour le revoir, ça me fait ultra plaisir“. Others use the much more cumbersome “appel en absence” (that’s the way the phone company names these missed calls, litterally “call while absent”), as in “tu l’as relancé avec un appel en absence et il a pas répondu” or “je sentais bien à ses 7 appels en absence qu’elle commençait à s’impatienter!”

Spanish has a varied and creative vocabulary: people have contracted the “llamadas perdidas” (“lost calls”) into the noun “llamper” as in “hazme una llamper y hablamos un ratillo“, also sometimes spelled “jumper”; Pixel y Dixel collected the following: “la del gitano”, “la cobra”, “toque”, “una perdida”, “llamacuelga”, “manco” as in “hacerse el manco”, “la del manco” o “llamada manca”, “mansajitos misios.” In Chile, it is “pinchar” as in “No….no hay forma que este personaje me esté pinchando…no way” (“pinchar” means “to poke” or “to prick”, as well as “to click with a mouse”, as in “pinchar sobre File” – Wikipedia notes that in Chilean slang, “pinchar” also means “to make-out or hook-up sexually” I wonder if there is a connection…)

What do you call this in your neighborhood?

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