Dialtones, an unpredictable symphony

Golan Levin’s Dialtones: A Symphony, a concert performance that utilizes mobile phone ringtones from the audience members, explores the various aspects of unpredictability in music composition. In the performance, up to 60 telephones are called upon by the performers, generating an orchestra of ringtones. Dialtones balances control and chance; while Levin and fellow performers are able to target which cell phones will be dialed, only two-thirds of the phones are able to play back specific ringtones as decided by the performers. Levin did not have control over the ringtones of the other third of phones; this unpredictability was accounted for in the composition.

In an interview with Peter Traub, Levin acknowledges the similarities between his work and John Cage’s approach to chance, but he is clear in how the two approaches differ:

I think the main difference in our attitude was that Cage was responding to overdetermined 20th-century compositional forms by trying to inject some vital unpredictability and variability, while the Dialtones project was trying to wrangle an extremely complex and inherently unpredictable communications system into some semblance of order

By anticipating different complexities of cell phone technologies, Levin was conscious of what he could and couldn’t control in the composition. These complexities included the delay between the dialing and receiving of phone calls, network failures, audience interference, and variability in control of ringtones (as mentioned earlier).


Although Dialtones was performed nearly two decades ago now, it still seems like a highly relevant performance in the context of today’s technological world. It’s a performance that tries to make sense of our complex and interconnected technologies and systems without trying to completely control every element of the system. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the work that we are doing in class in which we are trying to make sense of our digital spaces by exploring various aspects beyond its intended use. Both are a creative explorations of complex and interconnected technological systems.

A response to “You are What you Carry”

In Chapter 4 of Jan Chipchase’s “Hidden in Plain Sight,” Chipchase discusses our habits and tendencies that we’ve developed in relationship to our every day products and how these concepts change as we transition into the digital realm. Chipchase defines two key concepts: the center of gravity, which are the places “where portable objects tend to cluster”, and the range of distribution, which is the distance people are willing to let objects stray when they are out and about. These ideas are useful in thinking about how people relate to their objects that they carry with them, such as their keys and their wallets, and these ideas are connected to how we perceive risk and convenience. He then expands these ideas into the digital realm, discussing how digital technology has made it easier for us to be connected to multiple objects at a time, transcending time and space; now we can be connected to our music libraries, our banking information, and so on. Technology also now affects how we navigate the world; by giving us a heightened sense of security in navigation, GPS affords us the ability to explore an area without having to do prior research.

These concepts, especially applied in the digital realm of the world that we inhabit, are interesting in that they seem more applicable now that we have high-powered smart phones. Digital maps existed in the earlier days of the web, but now that we can carry technology in our pockets, it expands our need to understand how technology and the experience beyond are intertwined. In the professional realm, I’m curious about why terms such as user experience and digital product design are increasingly becoming ubiquitous even in more traditional contexts such as basic web design. User experience is of course an important concept to always keep in mind in the design of anything, but Chipchase’s concepts give us more facets of design to think about. Should we be reserving the term user experience for design that has a larger set of considerations?

Response to Jan Chipchase’s “The Anthropology of Mobile Phones”

In Jan Chipchase’s TED talk, “The Anthropology of Mobile Phones,” he makes several observations and predictions on human behavior and the future of mobile devices. The first observation he notes is that humans have a tendency to carry three objects: key, money and mobile devices. This, according to Chipchase, meets our basic needs. This is still true today, but what I find even more interesting is the idea that humans delegate tasks, especially those that go beyond our basic needs. Smart phones, in many ways, are devices that handle delegated tasks. We use them to record notes, take pictures (and store pictures), to send us reminders, to automate tasks; smart phones compute tasks that we don’t have to use additional mental energy for. Chipchase also argues that because of immediacy, things will move much more rapidly around the world. Today, over 1 billion people are users of Facebook and, as of 2016, an estimated 2.1 billion people use smart phones. Content, images, banking are all being processed and shared at rapidly growing rates; all of this has occurred within 10 years of Chipchase’s talk. Another point he made was that street innovation will be a greater force that will have to be anticipated for. Though this may be true in developing markets across the world, it’s hard to see on the surface whether street innovation can be observed on a global scale. In some ways, app market places, are a place for innovation. Products such as Uber and Venmo have radically changed other markets in the world and have all came from free market innovation. But arguably, innovative apps do not come from the “street” level (developing world markets such as India); the barriers to entry are still limited by financial backing. Never the less, the tools to innovation are increasingly becoming more prevalent for people across the world.