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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.


São Paulo motoboy ethnographers (2): Re-making politics June 27, 2007

Posted by François in cameraphones, motoboys, politics, re-make.

Appropriation operates at many levels. In our paper, we highlight three: artifacts, practices and politics. People appropriate technology by re-making artifacts, by re-making individual or collective practices that exploit an artifact’s possibilities, or by re-articulating power relationships around an artifact and its use. As the motoboy project unfolds in São Paulo, it is fascinating to see how the city’s professional motorcyclists (most of them motoboys, but also a few motogirls) are engaging that third level, attempting to re-make local politics through their use of camera phones to chronicle their daily lives.

Eliezer Muniz, one of the project’s coordinators at USP, sends a useful summary of the context within which the project started (pasted below, with permission.) Here are some of the highlights: The first courier enterprises – many of them informal, micro-enterprises – emerged in São Paulo in the early 1980s. Within 10 years, there were 30,000 professional motorcycle messengers. Today, 160,000 of them work in that city of over 20 million people, whose traffic jams make Los Angeles seem almost bucolic. The motoboys are therefore essential to the local economy, shuttling the urgent blueprints, medicine, checks, samples, and hot pizza that keep business humming. Most couriers own their work tools: a motorcycle, a helmet, a cellphone, and a work license from the local authorities. They typically earn about $390 per month (R$760, or 2x Brazil’s minimum salary) and this is dangerous work – every day on average, one motorcyclist dies in São Paulo’s traffic.

Here is one of their videoclips (shot by Viralata on 2007-04-30) showing what it’s like to ride the corredor between traffic lanes at rush hour on Av. Paulista:

(there is a growing sub-genre of corredor-riding DIY videos from Brazil, which are reminiscent of the many stunt videos that can be found around YouTube. For the motoboys however, this isn’t only a thrill-seeking game, but an integral part of the job. How fast they get around the city directly determines how much they get paid.)

In recent years, informal pseudo-enterprises and self-employed individuals have started to compete with the more established courier services, leading to a deterioration of working conditions. In reaction, the local government has passed laws to regulate ‘moto-freight’, including punishing fines for motorcyclists riding the corredor. Motoboys, typically portrayed negatively in the media, have not had a voice in the ensuing political debate – until now. Apparently, their use of cellphones to publicly document their daily lives has allowed them to gain attention, for once yielding some sympathetic coverage in the Folha de São Paulo.

Baroquize this! June 25, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, cultural references, language, re-make, writing process.

Suppliers yearn for user appropriation, but not just any kind of appropriation. Designers lay out careful scripts for users to re-make the products they adopt into something that is uniquely theirs. Phone makers want customers not simply to adopt a handset, but to personalize it with distinctive covers and straps, to program its short-cut keys, to inscribe its memory with their own address-book or calendar. Take Boost mobile, abaporu’s favorite MVNO: once you have bought their phone, the Boost brochure invites you to “make it your own” with call-tones, ring-tones, and wallpapers (yet omits to mention that you can personalize it further by installing mologogo, a free alternative to Boost’s own fee-based location service.) Suppliers thus intentionally carve out blank spaces within their designs, then invite users to infiltrate these spaces with their own data and decorations.

This particular appropriation mode, in which users follow the script laid out for them by suppliers, echoes a well-trodden cultural appropriation practice: baroque infiltration. During the colonization of Latin America, the Roman Catholic church was eager for local people to make the Catholic religion their own. To nurture the process, repeating a strategy used in Europe during the counter-reformation, Rome left spaces open on its monuments and in its ceremonies. Thus, the invaders set forth opportunities for the invaded to state their presence, infiltrate their messages, suggest their cosmovisions. Such “baroque infiltration”, Rome reasoned, would allow indigenous people to appropriate European culture and religion, but to do so safely, according to Rome’s own blueprint. In The Buried Mirror, Carlos Fuentes describes the results of this appropriation practice in the creations of José Kondori, the Quechua architect who built “the magnificent churches of Potosí, undoubtedly the most brilliant illustration of the meaning of the baroque in Latin America”.

“Among the angels and the vines of the façade of San Lorenzo, an Indian princess appears, and all the symbols of the defeated Incan culture are given a new lease on life. The Indian half-moon disturbs the traditional serenity of the Corinthian vine. American jungle leaves and Mediterranean clover intertwine. The sirens of Ulysses play the Peruvian guitar. And the flora, the fauna, the music, and even the sun of the ancient Indian world are forcefully asserted. There shall be no European culture in the New World unless all of these, our native symbols, are admitted on an equal footing.”
Carlos Fuentes (1999) The Buried Mirror – Reflections on Spain and the New World, Houghton Mifflin. p.196 (*)

Of course, Rome was perhaps naïve to think the locals would remain docile and stop there. Fuentes, along with others such as José Lezama Lima, go on to describe how baroque practices can overtake the very objects they infiltrate. Natives, Africans and criollos in Latin America learned to create a baroque within the baroque, appropriating the process itself into an art of contraconquista. This is a story for another day…

For the moment, we simply want to point out the striking parallel between “baroque infiltration” and the business strategies through which technology suppliers lay out a script for users to re-make their products. There is no good verb in English to describe the resulting user practice – personalize, fill-in, infiltrate, decorate, layer… each captures a dimension of the process but not its essence. So, we need to coin a new verb:

to baroquize (v.t.) = to re-make into one’s own, following an appropriation script proposed by the provider.

While “baroquize” doesn’t yet exist in English, we feel encouraged to proceed by our readers’ comments, who point out that barroquisar, barroquizar, and baroquiser do exist in Portuguese, Spanish and French. It must have been an oversight.

(*) “Pues entre los ángeles y las viñas de la fachada de San Lorenzo, aparece una princesa incásica, con todos los símbolos de su cultura derrotada animados por una nueva promesa de vida. La media luna indígena agota la tradicional serenidad de la viña corintia, el follaje de la selva americana y el trébol mediterráneo se entrelazan. Las sirenas de Ulises tocan la guitarra peruana. Y la flora, la fauna, la música e incluso el sol del antiguo mundo indígena, se reafirman con fuerza. No habría cultura europea en el Nuevo Mundo a menos que éstos, nuestros símbolos nativos, sean admitidos en pie de igualdad.” (Carlos Fuentes, El Espejo Enterrado p. 282)

“Right now the business has spoil” June 21, 2007

Posted by arabasey in africa, Ghana, payphones.
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Business is a lot slower these days for Ghana’s payphone operators. So slow that you are likely to see them sleeping or idling, rather than serving customers. “Right now the business has spoil,” one of them complains. She blames this on the introduction of the unit transfer (electronic recharging) system, as well as the proliferation of micro-entrepreneurs in the payphone and prepaid airtime business. She used to make up to 3 million cedis (about $320) in sales per day from selling phone calls and prepaid cards. But now she makes less than 1 million (about $105). I sat several hours with payphone operators and saw that for them, the business has indeed “spoil.” Most customers purchased unit transfers. Only a handful made voice calls, most of which lasted just a few seconds. Making matters worse, the unit transfer service has a much lower margin than the payphone service. Even in rural areas, profitability of payphones seems largely dependent on the livelihood economy in the area – use is high in some communities, and very low in others, even where only a few people have their own cell phones.

It’s not just about the cost of airtime; people patronize mobile payphones but don’t necessarily love using them. Enthusiasm over mobile payphones camouflaged certain aspects of mobile phone use that are being revealed as the system faces collapse. For example, the majority of payphone users were probably subscribers, people prefer to have their own phone, and make very short calls. Network providers eventually caught onto these preferences and have responded by making it easier for subscribers to own and recharge their phones. Mobile payphones have their place, but are proving to be a transitory phase in the process of expanding access to telephony not just in Ghana, but in other African countries, such as Senegal.

This could spell disaster for the hundreds of individuals who have invested or are being encouraged to invest their limited funds in payphone ventures. Some payphone operators have branched into providing unit transfers, but most are unable to. At the moment, unit transfer operators are mainly new entrants who had sufficient funds to cover the high cost of initial investment.

Will the death of the payphone business be a debilitating set-back for micro-scale operators? Or will the market open up new opportunities for them to continue participating in the industry as intermediaries?

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

Posted by François in africa, appropriation, co-opt, cycle, re-make.

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!

“we use it different, different” June 12, 2007

Posted by François in baroque, reachability.

Araba Sey opened her presentation a few weeks ago at the ICA conference with this story:
“Wofa is a fisherman in Prampram, a village just outside the capital of Ghana. His home does not have an official address, but he has his mobile phone number written over the doorway so that he is always reachable. He wishes he could do more than just make and receive calls on his phone, but he cannot read or write in English. He bought his phone in 2005 mainly because he believed it would help him with his work. There is some evidence that mobile phones have become an important business resource for fishermen in Ghana. However, trying to associate particular poverty reduction benefits with use of mobile phones by poor people is likely to lead to some surprises, and even disappointment. Because, as Wofa said to me when I asked how he and his fellow fishermen use mobile phones, “We use it different, different”. Meaning we use it in many different ways.”

It is fascinating how Wofa has re-made his phone into a doorbell (a few days ago, I would have said “appropriated his phone as a doorbell,” but I thought I’d test-drive the new labels Pierre suggested.) It very nicely underscores that a key feature of mobile phones is to provide reacheability. That often seems much more important than the ability to reach out.

(a copy of Araba’s presentation is available on the ARNIC site [PDF-174Kb])

Appropriating power June 11, 2007

Posted by François in cannibalism, creolization, frontera, power.

A while ago, Kathleen Diga sent this great picture she took in Mozambique, just over the border from South Africa. The person living there had appropriated (i.e. ‘stolen’) this solar panel from a cell phone tower on the over side of the border. The picture is a bit fuzzy, but the tag at the bottom appears to read “WARNING – this is the property of Telkom”, with the Telkom logo. The panel is skillfully angled to catch maximum rays, and connected to a battery that powers its new owner’s stereo (and perhaps their phone charger as well?)

Another great battery appropriation is this portable, personal, pedestrian music system sent by Nyaki Adeya. It may well be where Apple’s designers got the inspiration for their iPod…
(I don’t have any source information for that picture.)

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

Posted by François in appropriation, creolization, language.

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?

Vehicle/phone mash-ups (2): horse-phones? June 8, 2007

Posted by François in creolization, vehicles.
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Accra’s bike-phone and Lake Victoria’s boat-phone are only the latest illustrations of the natural fit between mobile phones and vehicles. In fact, the creolization practice of grafting communication devices onto means of transportation far predates the time when phones became truly mobile. Marconi is said to have created the first land-based wireless mobile device in 1901 when he installed a radio on a steam-powered truck (this was used for data, not voice.) Bell Labs claims credit for the first car-mounted radio telephone, in 1924. Apparently, Lars Magnus Ericsson operated the first car phone as early as 1910. This was not wireless: “there were two long sticks, like fishing rods, handled by [Lars’ wife] Hilda. She would hook them over a pair of telephone wires.”

One of my favorite early mash-ups is the “horse phone” deployed by the US cavalry in 1907, whose key innovation was that it used the body of the horse as part of the electrical circuit. In September 1907, Popular Mechanics reported:

“Like earlier horse-phones, it had a cord. Wire stored on a 5-mile reel played out as a scout rode. The improved model let a rider make calls without having to first dismount and then drive a spike into the ground to complete the electrical connection. Instead, the grounding wire was attached to the horse’s skin. The mild electrical current would pass through its body to its hoofs, one of which was almost always touching the ground.” (I first read about the horse phone 10 years ago on Bruce Sterling’s “dead-media” list and, like him, I was amazed that there had been “earlier horse-phones.”)

(click on pictures for credits and additional information)

Vehicle/phone mash-ups (1): bike-phones and boat-phones June 8, 2007

Posted by François in co-opt, creolization.
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Accounts of cell phone appropriation in developing countries are filled with tales of ingenious mash-ups combining public phones with a variety of vehicles. Here is a sample:

These are often told as user appropriation stories. But in fact (with the possible exception of the wheelchair phone) they are cases where suppliers re-claim earlier user innovation. In many African and Asian countries, when cell phones first appeared, enterprising individuals appropriated the new technology as “public phones,” reselling their minutes on the street. Mobile phone companies were quick to co-opt this innovative practice. They provided micro-loans to the public phone entrepreneurs and rolled-out accounting features that helped them manage their retail business. Some went further and came up with public payphones mounted on various kinds of vehicles.

These phone/transportation mash-ups make for striking pictures, underscoring the phone’s mobility. However, beyond this symbolic value, I wonder what real need they serve. Has anyone examined the details of the bike-phone business? The Rajasthan article cites a 75,000 rupee ($1,641) cost for the rickshaw set-up. This only works because Shyam Telecom gives the rickshaws away, as charity. And is the guy on the boat calling his family so they can pick him up as soon as the boat docks, just like impatient frequent-flyers do as soon as their plane has landed? These may well make sense as publicity stunts by phone operators, but it isn’t clear they constitute useful innovation.

(click on pictures for credits and additional information)