I’ve had an artistic idea I’ve wanted to play with for some months now. It was inspired by a conversation with Dale Joachim, who uses cellphones to study owl populations. By calling forests during the night and broadcasting owl calls, he can listen through GSM-enabled microphones and hear responses.
This idea of listening into spaces has morphed into a much weirder idea, one that I’ll likely never get a chance to do… so I might as well share it with you.
There are lots of spaces around the world that map neatly to one another. A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Canton, Ohio and another one in Canton, China, for instance. On the one hand, they’re the same spaces. On another hand, they’re profoundly different. (For one thing, the shop in Ohio probably doesn’t sell preserved egg porridge.)
KFC in Beijing, photographed by isriya.
I want to build windows between these spaces. We’d place videoconferencing systems unobtrusively in walls within these spaces – possibly something no more complicated than a flat-screen monitor and a webcam. They’d connect, at random, to one of these mapped spaces around the world, and for some period of time, you’d have a window from your restaurant in Ohio into China… and then a few minutes later, into Pakistan or Poland. You’d be able to hear the conversation in the other space, but it wouldn’t be any louder than the ambient noise in your location. If you chose to turn to the monitor and engage with someone on the other side, that would be up to you as well… which would be incredibly cool, but confusing, I suspect.
I’d like to build these windows in a variety of mappable spaces. Some would map very cleanly onto one another – one Starbucks to another, for instance. Others would be more conceptual – a public space in a shopping mall mapping to one in an outdoor market, like Makola in Accra, for instance. Or installing a monitor in place of the mirror above a sink in a public restroom, which maps to a monitor above another sink across the world.
Makola Market, Accra. Photo by Caroline Beaumont for Transaid.
I think we’d want to make all the video streams available online as well, both to show the diversity of locations and because it would create a great opportunity to monitor any possible interactions.
What would we do faced with these windows? Would we ignore them, the way we generally ignore other people in public spaces? Nod politely to fellow customers across the world and then turn to our own chicken? Or would we turn to face the monitors and introduce ourselves to the men having coffee in Bahrain, the women selling fish in Accra?
(If I were Cory Doctorow, say, I’d write a short story about the idea rather than wondering how to build it, where a group of kids in Brazil befriend another group in China that they meet randomly over the monitor. The keep returning to the restaurant at pre-agreed times, hoping the random algorithm will connect them to their friends, rather than to a room of bewildered, unsmiling Germans.)
I’ve found myself wondering whether anyone at a global chain restaurant or store would be crazy enough to try the idea. I could imagine doing a very small-scale version at Walmart or Best Buy, converting a single television or computer monitor on display into a window. But the charm of the idea, for me, is a window that might not be noticed as part of a public space where people linger, as in a restaurant. Anyone know a truly crazy VP of marketing who wants to make the case that their company is truly a global brand? Someone convinced that stumbling onto international connection can help sell coffee or chicken to xenophiles?
What got me thinking about the idea today was an email from the folks behind Woices – a new web2.0 service that allows you to tag geographic spaces with a small piece of audio. These tags – called “echoes” – were designed to create a new type of travel guide. With a location-aware phone, you could explore audio tags that people had put on a space you were wandering as a tourist, for instance. The company founders decided to share the idea more widely, and now you can annotate random locations on the planet, for whatever reason you’d like. I spent a while today listening to people read the menu in a Japanese restaurant in Tarragona and talking about pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Galicia.
It helps to speak Spanish to get a sense for how the system works at present, but there’s nothing language specific about the technology. And I love the idea that spaces can get overlaid with the voices of local people who love these places and visitors who are trying to understand them. Maybe this is a more practical way to execute my vision and I simply need to start annotating every KFC I eat in, from Canton to Canton.
Update – Tracy points to [murmur], a project similar to Woices that’s began in Toronto in 2003 and has spread to other cities.