The Telephone and its Keys

Matthew Fuller

The Social Telephony Files presents insights into a range of projects generated over a series of years by numerous people, using various software, and in many different kinds of contexts. The work presented here provides an overview of these projects and the way that, even in the face of rapid innovation by different kinds of actors in the telecommunications industry, the forces of experiment, social curiosity and an approach to technology derived from art methodologies have been able to produce something both absolutely concrete and functional, and unforeseeable within the norms of communications. It charts a small history of a series of inventions, ideas and hacks that chart a vigorous way of work with a technology, its history and the way it opens to potential futures and ways of circulating ideas, jokes, information.
Here, rather than recapitulate the story of these projects, what is intended is to provide a few ways of linking them together and thinking through their aesthetic, technical and social affinities. One way to start to do this is to think about a wider question of aesthetics – the construction of interplays between particular combinations of sensual perception, thought, media and experience – and about the way in which these projects participate in the development of a current of work, one concerned with the ways in which how art comes about in turn shapes art. Further, to combine this with the question of how such shaping can be substantially mobilised to resonate with the capacities of invention and reflexivity that are integral to art, but which it often represses. This current, organisational aesthetics, is characterised by attention to the way in which how a work is organised, how it comes about, is explicitly folded into its meaning.
Most art takes such aspects of the work as being implicitly related, this means that it is at once taken for granted, with no thought necessary, or seen as something distinct, irrelevant to the work. Such an approach renders it, as something obscured, all the more liable to be seen as meaningful. Organisational aesthetics therefore is not to be found in the ostentatious meekness of much social comfort art, not in the doleful exhuberance of micro-managed knees-ups rigged to flog mobiles to a spectrum-analysed demographic whose representative samples are gathered in front of landmarks to bounce light for the benefit of the cameras of public relations operatives. It clearly looses its force when it is used as a pedagogic plug-in to compensate for the artlessness of quality-controlled compulsory learning, although it has the distinct benefit of tending to introduce the possibility of more accidents.
Organisational aesthetics can be found where the aesthetic undertaking is partly in the development, movement and transformation of a loosely, precipitously or precisely assembled system of people, technologies, words, signals, the sense of those cohering, evaporating and reshaping over time and through different kinds of formation, but also in the ethical dimensions of relations between processes, forms of access, cultures and their carriers, whether they are people, languages or technologies.1 Something of this organisational aesthetic in the case of these social telephony projects is partly insensible to the human, as the writer and chemist Primo Levi says of chemical reactions, “We will never form an image of a happening whose scale is a millionth of a millimeter, whose rhythm is a millionth of a second, and whose protagonists are in their essence invisible”2
These invisibilities are composed at the level of the cellular arrangement of phone masts and signal strengths, or the complexity of running code working in specific pieces of hardware, processing actual data, sorting, prioritizing and actuating, as a process that is more lively than the formal description of it contained in a program.
But this does not make what is available to the eye or the ear something necessarily distinct from these scales. Trying to think out how a new kind of thing can be said, or to take a whisper up to the level of audibility of a mutter, from a mutter to a rumour, to blossom out into bird song, speech, jokes, unspeakable words, commonplaces from uncommon places, to trip into news that is passed on.
There is a particular kind of attention to timings, repeats, openings at work in such systems that is perhaps more akin to music than the expected stimuli of the visual. This aggregation of timings, synchronizations and dissonances, offbeats that cross through a project run through the timings, a person crosses a square, Marienhilfestrasse in Vienna3, at a certain time and pops a message into a PA for the other walkers to hear, the timing of breaks in a hospital triggers a flurry of jokes, the weekly rhythm of the radio programmes, Nostalgie Ya Mboka4 and Londres Na Biso ties in with the circulation of messages in Telephone Trottoire. A particular kind of thickness of consistency, of dialogue and incoherence in timings, one never quite knows when a mumbled Phone War rap is about to pop into your ear, establishes also the sense of a living process, but it is also one that is structured by systems that are highly formal: the alphabet, numbers, and telephone systems – the latter with their tracking, timing and costing, all layered, in the later projects, through a telephone system navigated by systems of options, decision trees. But this is a telephone exchange turned inside out – instead of the calls coming in being rerouted, calls go out, start probing, making the telephonic object collective.

It is a formula in media theory, exemplified in Harold Innis’s Empire and Communications,5 that the form of media plays a part in shaping social and political relations. In his model for instance, religious empires tend towards emphasizing dominance over time, through long-lived monuments and ritual, secular political empires tend to emphasise space, through distributed media, such as newspapers and radio. Newer media, including alphabets or other coding systems, and inscription surfaces such as paper, clay or airwaves often suited variant patterns of thought, disrupting and layering forms of uniformity, rule and knowledge. This is a hypothesis still worth considering, and one that is echoed in the geographies of variable mobility of the cellular phone empires6. The mobile phone is perhaps an ideal technology for and age of decentralised corporate colonialism, one that has ferociously high signal strength when the extraction of raw materials is in question, especially so perhaps when it is all handled through deniable links and arm’s length agencies, but one that is signally unavailable when the social consequences might need remedying. Another relation between empire and media is that found if the raw materials for media are traced. Copper, as crucial for electronics today as it always has been, and found largely in the USA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Chile and Peru, has its own stories to tell. As copper is effaced, along with all the other stuff that has supposedly become ‘immaterial’, other metals come to the fore. Congo, bursting with good fortune, is the primary global source of another metal – Coltan, often used for high performance capacitors, used amongst other things in mobile phones. Coltan is usually mined by small or medium sized operations, often particularly susceptible to extortion and systematic banditry, and, peaking in 2000 with the demand generated by the launch of the Playstation 2, has been a key source of wealth for rival factions, of militias, armies and proxy forces in the civil war in Congo.
The complications of using a technology which is at once a fundamental source of ruin for a country, at the same time as making life a little easier for the diaspora and those back home is a tense and interesting problem. This combination of feeding a technology through its problems is crucial to organisational aesthetics. Whereas currents such as institutional critique would tend to revel in complaint about complicity, something which cannot go unacknowledged, the question is also to make something happen: don’t moan, organise. To do otherwise is to negate the powers of those who are alive, however much they are interlocked with other kinds of combination.

This way of working is re-articulated by the way in which problems, expertise and different kinds of intelligence, institution, technology and media are drawn into a project, often simply on the basis of curiosity as to what happens when they are brought into unforseen relation. Building on the way in which social software7 such as Mongrel’s Nine(9)8 a project which was built alongside TextFM, developed software on the basis of alliances of interest, desire, humour, between processes of subjectivation and social positions not traditionally brought into composition with software programming, social telephony allows new kinds of understanding of what a phone is, what a user is, what kinds of network are imaginable, what kinds of thought, passions, imagination, questions, sounds and statements traverse networks. These ideas and ways of working are certainly not always at odds with a situation which itself is in a state of rapid change – the role and position of the mobile phone and the multiple tendencies, that of computing platform, surveillance mechanism, camera, messaging system, games machine, as well as one-to-one voice device which are all in one increasingly technically dense ‘body’ and figuring each other out – but are certainly not introduced into its mainstream.
Perhaps contrary to expectations given the tendency to the enhancement of ‘easiness’ in mobile telephony more generally, one of the ways that social telephony has developed has been the recognition that different kinds of simple programmability can be introduced into the use of the phone. TextFM set up the selection and manipulation of voices via very simple scripts through which users could send instructions to the central server, ARoundhead, and subsequent projects worked with an expanded version of the call forwarding function in a telephone private branch exchange9, to establish its networks. Establishing more advanced forms of engagement with the ways in which messages are produced, passed and worked on invites different kinds of imagination to inhabit the technical, and what it connects to.
Many of the projects discussed in this pamphlet perform a triangulation of sites in which the work is generated: the gallery or other mechanism for the register of the project at the scale of art systems; the street – or other public site; both computer and phone network; at the scale of free software and its own culture of development. This way of working tends to encourage a situation in which no one site can predominate in terms of its codes or capacities. Occasionally of course, this happens. The very tight availability of time and relatively prescribed uses of the phone system, complete with the delineations of patient, staff, and security hierarchies in the hospital setting of ARoundhead meant that it was difficult to use such an essential working system for the purposes of play. In other cases of course people simply pass projects by, vaguely rather than decisively: vague operations, unwanted cold calls, ambient blather, the conditions of modern communications, wise to evade it.
But these conditions require some consideration of the developing media ecologies that these works organize themselves in. The Tantalum Memorial projects, which loop the Telephone Trottoire systems through exhibition spaces, place the Strowger switch,10 core component of analogue telephone exchanges at the heart of their operations. Strowger, who lived in a small American town at the end of the nineteenth century invented the switch to ensure that the manually handled phone exchange would pass customers equitably between his business, that of an undertaker, and the town’s other undertaker – whose wife happened to be the town’s switchboard operator. Strowger switches are electro-mechanical devices that in this case, after the work done and many choices made to install them, work to flatten a competitive market, they spring communications out of the grasp of an operator.
By the 1980s the first digital exchanges were being installed across Europe. They made connections much quicker, but, incidentally, also made it easier to intercept phone calls and subject them to computerized forms of surveillance such as word-recognition or caller-network analysis – means by which another operator, the state, asserts its grasp. Meanwhile, mobile phones set up another kind of loosening, away from tethering by wires. The mobile phone dislocates the phone spatially, with interesting effects at the scale of social units such as the family and the organisation of markets. Digitisation also introduced computing into telephony, in turn again posing the question of organisation of the relations between things and processes. The Turing Machine, the logical basis for the contemporary computer, set up the possibility for new universes of logical expression, any existing logically ordered machine could be copied by it, and new ones invented. Although the cellular space of phone masts and signals and the market place of widely differential costs provide other forms of lockdown, this copula, that of a device that is substantially despatialised in the way that the mobile phone is, and the possibility of its connection with novel forms of logic and computation through the use of servers running free and self-developed experimental programs provide some very interesting means for ways of operating and organising.
In the social telephony projects presented here, these factors provide certain degrees of freedom, allied with which other forms of logic and different forms of organisational imaginary are able to grow in certain ways. These freedoms are provocative enough to allow the organisation of the means for these technologies to be confronted with their material genesis: the most violent forms of primitive accumulation costing the Congo’s people millions of lives, simply put because a civil war is cheaper and easier to imagine for those in power. But that it would perhaps take confrontations with another technology of space and of abstraction, money, and through another dimension of organisation, politics, to find some means by which these problems could be contained and operated upon. Neither of these dimensions are unreachable at the scale of the phone, the carrier of much of contemporary life. That this is in some very small part articulated through the improper means of art, art that is itself improper through an over concern with technology, and again recapitulates impropriety through tangling itself with the emerging aesthetics of organisation shows the power of this current of work.

1 Organisational aesthetics has primarily been a discussion carried out through projects rather than texts, examples include Kate Rich’s Feral Trade, the Node London Festival, The People Speak, Mediashed,, Ice Cream for Everyone, much of the work of De Geuzen, Constant VZW and other related initiatives. Precursors would include systems such as Mail Art, the Anticopyright Network, Exploding Cinema (See Duncan Reekie’s, Subversion, the definitive history of underground film, Wildflower Press, London 2007) and many of the projects discussed in Stefan Szczelkun’s, Collaborations, Working Press, London, 1987. Recently, quite an amount of work in this vein has been triggered by relations between cultural work and the concerns of hacking, free software and non-proprietary forms of development and the ways in which the GPL and attendant mechanisms trigger other kinds of pragmatic possibilities. For a more substantial elaboration of arguments around organisational aesthetics, see, Olga Goriunova’s forthcoming book Art Platforms.
2 Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, p.227
3 TextFM was supported very strongly by Public Netbase in Vienna, who took it and turned it into something with their own flavour and daring, connecting the system up to, at different times, a public address system; CB radio, with sets installed in bars and cafes; community radio. As an organization, they drove the development of a revised version able to work in multiple languages using the Festival text-to-speech software and the Mbroglio database.
4 Nostalgie Ya Mboka,
5 Harold Innis, Empire and Communications, Oxford University Press 1950, see Also Harold A. Innis, The Bias of Communication, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1951
6 See for an initial survey, Manuell Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, Araba Sey, Mobile Communications and Society, a global perspective, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2007
7 See, Matthew Fuller, Behind the Blip, essays on the culture of software, Autonomedia, New York, 2003
8 (9)Nine is online at:
9 PBX – the kinds of phone system you’d normally find within a company or institution The PBX software used is Asterisk, released under the GPL, and available from
10 The Strowger Switch is US Patent number 447918 – various resources exist online to document it, for instance