Ashley Smith-Hammond

A San Francisco startup is producing tools to prevent people from being able to use their phones at live events. A useful means of ensuring audience members focus on the art rather than their screens, or an infringement on audience freedom?

Anti-tech?

A San Francisco startup called Yondr is producing tools to prevent people from being able to use their phones. It’s a simple neoprene sleeve that holds your phone but locks it up while you are in phone-free zone: perhaps a live performance, a classroom or a retreat. The clever idea is it doesn’t take the phone away from you. You can still hold it, you just can’t use it.

Yondr’s existence could be relevant news for artists or cultural organisations who have work they wish to keep off of social media. It’s a move to really force engagement with the work, removing any possibility of mediation through screens. Such an approach is the polar opposite to work that instead invites you to engage by using technology (I’m thinking of location-based work or AR pieces that only come alive through a screen).

When I first started working in digital development for the arts (with the AmbITion Scotland project in 2010) there was a whole conversation about ‘tweet seats’. Artists and producers were concerned about the distraction to other audience members from the blue glow of a neighbour’s screen and even more from spoilers and negative comments shared in real time from a live audience. Others were excited by the democratic potential and suggested allocating a phone-friendly space in the stalls.

Flash forward eight years and smartphones still have an uneasy relationship with live performance. Audiences have settled into a loose social contract – we tolerate phones at gigs but they’re still unwelcome in the more formal proscenium spaces that host theatre, dance and classical music.

Here’s a recent example of the social contract in action. At an RSNO concert over Christmas, conductor Christopher Bell invited the audience to turn on their phones’ torches in order to make a constellation of twinkling fairy lights to accompany one of the Christmas numbers, and also told listeners that they were allowed to tweet. I did, but you can tell by the text that I felt awkward about it.

The audience’s view

A couple of years ago one of my favourite podcasts, All Songs Considered, invited listeners to feed back on the debate over whether using mobile phones at live music was acceptable or should be restricted. The results were unscientific but interesting. The majority of this group of music fans voted – by a slim margin – that they’d be okay with having the camera on their phone temporarily disabled (52% to 48%) and by an even slimmer margin said they’d be okay having their phone inaccessible in a Yondr style pouch (51% to 49%). However, by a two-to-one margin, the majority of respondents said that they would still go to see the show even if use of their phones was restricted.

Yondr wants to say that it helps people be more present, more humane. Other commentators have reflected that when we feel addicted to our phones an external restriction helps reinforce our good intention, giving us a mini dose of tech detox and wellbeing.

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Who says?

We can instinctively understand the benefit for rights holders who want to limit phones at live events (your Dave Chappels, Jack Whites, et al). And many news stories focused on the potential for a tool like this in schools to make sure students focus on the classroom experience. However, we need to be clear that forbidding the use of mobile technology to capture and share imposes a power dimension. A recent piece in Wired reflected on the potential civil liberties concerns that go along with such limitations.

It’s useful to have the reminder that, at this point, limiting technology also limits speech. Artists and cultural organisations that are serious about speaking truth to power may want to seriously consider the ramifications of their decisions if they choose to limit access to mobile technology at events.

Main image credit: Taking Patti Smith's picture by Blondinrikard Fröberg (CC BY 2.0)