Sander Veenhof’s NBeep6 – a free and anonymous 6bit communication channel in Cameroon

Yesterday I visited the Mobile Monday meet-up in Amsterdam, and came across some interesting presentations.

I particularly liked the presentation of Dutch artist Sander Veenhof. Over the last few years Veenhof has grown into one of the more interesting practitioners that explore the possibilities of mobile media technologies from a fresh and sometimes somewhat estranging perspective.

Or as he describes his approach himself:

Exploring the ‘new’ in new media, in terms of new possibilities, practical advancements in dimension, scale, materialisation, hybridity and interactive opportunities. Bringing new concepts to the surface by means of carefully shaped apparent disbalances between minimalistic contra contemporary creations having nevertheless a maximum impact, at this point of time exactly.

In the past he has used Augmented Reality to stage a guerilla exhibition at the MOMA (as part of the Conflux Festival). He has also designed a dispensing unit (Mobile Thrill) to distribute mobile content (for instance at festivals). Rather than downloading a short clip, users had to entrust their mobile device to a vending machine and wait until the machine returned the unit, now with the clip loaded in its memory).

NBeep6

Yesterday he shared his experiences as an artist in residence in Cameroon. As a mobile media and AR-artist at first he found himself somewhat lost in a community where smart phones were close to non-existent and  internet connections unreliable at best.  But he did gain a fascination for the local communication culture of which the ‘beep‘ is a constitutive  element.

‘Beeping’ is a widely used practice in Africa (and elsewhere), that is based on people calling other people without making a connection. (For instance by disconnecting after letting the other phone ring only once). This way a very brief message is sent (‘call me’ or ‘thinking about you’ or ‘on my way’) without incurring any costs.

Beeping thus provides a free channel of communication. And when done from one mobile call box – the ubiquitous stands in Cameroon where people are renting out their mobile phones – to another  it can also be done anonymously. There is only one problem: for the receiver the content of the message is hard to decode.

To overcome that problem, Veenhof started to interpret a ‘beep’ as a ‘bit’ that can be send, it can be either on or off. Now, a communication channel that can only send one bit is of course very limited, it can only contain two messages. But what if it was possible to expand the bandwith? When several mobile phones are combined on each end of the communication channel, more complex messages can be send for free.

As an experiment, Veenhof set up a situation in which two groups of people, each with six phones would communicate with each other. In theory, this would thus enable them to send 128 (precoded) message to each other.

Veenhof also included a coding table so participants could translate their message into a sequence of beeps made with the help of the six telephones.

A test run (two groups of people with six mobile phones on two sides of the road)
did point out the difficulties of the system: it was time consuming to translate the messages into a sequence of beeps, especially if each letter of a message means calling up to six different phone numbers. Also, some bits got lost underway: one of the participants had lent his sim card to someone else, and also other everyday anomalies appeared.

It would however be thinkable to build an interface (for instance using an arduino) to take most of the effort out of the process.That way perhaps one could indeed set up a number of calling stations (perhaps reminiscent of  the Telegraph officies of yore) to provide anonymous communications. All one needs is a table, a few low end mobile phones and a parasol.

The overall point is perhaps not so much its direct practical implementation, but the creative way of thinking that has gone into it. It neatly illustrates that people often take up technology in completely different fashions than imagined by their creators to adopt them to their particular needs. Free and anonymous communication being two of them.

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.