notes from Scotland and the Internet of Forgotten Things

i am on a train coming back from Scotland having spent a week with a collection of artists, makers, designers and others from all over the world assembled under the banner of Mozilla and a desire to explore the concept of the open internet of things – working specifically to design ideas and solutions for the rural context that is the small Scottish fishing village of Anstruther.

This is a quick field report of my ideas and what i made and have been working on over the last couple of days.

One of the constant frustration (or appeals depending on who you are) of working and presumably living in a village like anstruther is the patchy-ness of mobile phone signal and 3g internet which when thinking about an internet of things becomes a bit of a problem.

I like a few others became interested in the metal K6 phone booths that are dotted along the coastine of Fife in the villages. BT no longer upkeeps them but instead if you want you can ask for a painting kit which they will provide for you to paint the boxes for free.  Big Society.

This got me thinking about the phone booth as a null space – one which no longer serves its primary function. Combined with the idea of ‘freaking’ the 70/80s practice of hacking phone lines using DTMF signal to open a phone line up to free international calls – a proto-internet where the phone was a tunnel to the world (the intenet itself being delivered down phone lines is an extension of that metaphor).

So the Internet of Forgotten  things was born – hooking relatively defunct objects like the phone booth up to the internet  - IoT currently implies lots of new things being made – some useful and interesting -  others trinkets and boondoggles – but all requiring more ‘things’ to be created and placed into the world with all of the impact and cost that entails. What if instead we could look at the things that surround us and find a new way to bring them back to life with the internet – breathe a new lease of connected life into them.

So i worked to connect two of the phonebooths in Anstruther up to the cloud, using a cloud based telephony platform (Twilio).  Twilio works by getting small bits of script and code from your server when you phone it (much like how a web browser like firefox gets web from your server when you send a request) except instead of rendering that code visually like the HTML of a webpage it does phone stuff with it – says things to you, sends text messages, plays sounds or connects you to other phones, all through the behaviours coded on your server. As all of this is happening in the cloud (ie the internet) it stands to reason that behaviours could used to interact with other things that are also on the internet.

I purchased a toll free number and coded it so it could only be called from the Anstruther phone booths and created 5 small prototypes that you could access by pressing key 1 through 5 on the lovely old clunky metallic keypad of the phone booth. This is that each one did:

press 1: boothRoullette – a phone booth based reinvention of chat roulette but with phone booths – it rings a random phonebooth on the fife coastline and if someone answers you can chat until you are bored and press 1 to skip on at which point another will be rung etc…

press 2: allows you to record a 10 second voice message which is then automatically posted to a twitter feed created especially for the @AnstrutherBooth

press 3: allows you to use key 1-9 on the pad o explore the last 9 tweets that mention the word anstruther

press 4: is a more traditional IoT application and links the booth to a physical device exploring wordless communication – when phone signal drops out you can enter a booth and type in your own pin code that will then make a small 3d printed replica of a phone booth light up- letting a loved one know you are thinking of them – with the possibility of different colours being typed into the pad it allows fo a seris of colour based codes to be created and international communication between phone booth and object

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press 5: – inspired by the politics of the week the scream booth turns the phone booth into your personal venting chamber inviting you to scream your frustration accompanied by a blast of thrash metal and then posts your cry of anger to the same twitter stream with the hashtag #AAAAAAGGHHHH

the five different interactions are all quite playful and  relatively slight but i think they suggest a series of other behaviours that could take place within the confines of a phone booth – and it doesn’t feel like a big stretch to imagine localised and genuinely useful community based services that could be accessed from disused booths. There is a subversive otherness that i also enjoy – a minimal interface offered by 10 phone keys and the sensory experience of using the device which is lost in a sea of carbon copy glass screen devices.  This is not some nostalgia trip but rather the internet brought to bear on public space and utilities at a time where we are losing both.  Here the internet connects  objects with the hope that they coudl in tunr becomes tools of the community – craeting a space for communication and broadcast that is hyper localised but also global.

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