David Mandl on Mon, 3 Jun 2002 06:44:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Harwood interview: TextFM

[This interview appears in the current issue of The Brooklyn Rail]



Harwood interview: TextFM

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 together?

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] together--

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 nighttimes.

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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