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Why I like wireless writing Add to ...

Printed paper, as we know, is outdated. Text will be read on screens from now on. Film too is passé: It costs too much and the cameras are too heavy. Digital video is the way to go. And you don't need to watch it in cinemas any more, when you can download whatever you want for your personal viewing device. Entertainment is personalized.

The result of this, though, is that entertainment must become a little shorter. There is only so much you can read on a screen. And there are bandwidth problems with long films. Also, hell, who has time to watch a 20-minute documentary when you're just stopping at a local café to check your e-mail?

Now, even computers seem too heavy, too static. It was only a matter of time before someone devised an interface that would let you have all the entertainment you want right on your cellphone. At last week's Hot Docs festival of documentary films in Toronto, an English company showed up with a new form of publishing: do-it-yourself movies and text made specially for mobile phones.

The-phone-book Ltd., based in Manchester, provides "creative content for wireless devices." They don't create the "content" (which is I guess what people call art now). They just provide you with instructions on how to create your own short animation or film clip, or how to create your own ultrashort cellphone fiction. Once you've done it you can send it to your friends' phones or upload it to The-phone-book's Web site, where others can grab it.

The short fiction you write can be submitted to a competition, which The-phone-book runs quarterly. They publish a print anthology every year, too, of their favourites, and postcards with stories on them, and an audio CD. There is a huge archive of submitted texts at their site ( ), and chat rooms for discussion.

The video branch of their enterprise is at , where you can watch all the odd, surreal little animations, mostly made by Japanese students, that will be a future means of communication in the postliterate world.

Sure, it's a little creepy, but it's fascinating, too.

I say "future means" because of course most of us don't have Japanese phones with screens that can do all of these wondrous things, and even if we do, we don't know how to use them. I have a hard time keeping up with the conversation of Fee Plumley, the production director for The-phone-book, because she speaks fluent Dot-comese, and I am only at beginner level. She speaks of Webstreaming, WAPs and I-modes. Their Web site contains phrases like "distribution of innovative content opportunities across international convergent platforms," which sounds more like a phone company's annual report than an artistic opportunity.

But these things always filter down. In time, all our phones will have cameras and Web access, and we will all know what I-mode means (Internet, delivered easily to your mobile phone) or what WAP means (wireless applications protocol -- the language that enables cellphones to send texts of up to 150 words to each other), and what SMS means (short message service). The ultrashort fictions that The-phone-book publishes are in this SMS form, which creates an interesting limit on artistic expression: If you can't tell your story in 150 words, you have no story.

So why produce "content" ( God, why do I hate that word so much?) for a market that doesn't exist yet? Simply because it will. "We don't wait for the technology before we make the content for it," explains Plumley. "The content is ready for when the technology catches up." And catch up it will. Already in Japan, many cellphones are equipped with the FOMA protocol (freedom of multimedia access) which allows them to view and send 20-second film clips. People there already walk around with camera phones. "In Japan," says Plumley, "more people use the Internet through their mobiles than use it through their computers."

The big question still though is, "Why?" Why do we need to see movies on our cellphones? Plumley has a good answer for this, too: because the primary use of this interface so far has been for advertising. It's time to take back the power. "You can be very creative with this technology, rather than waiting for the corporations to take up the space," says Plumley. I approve of this. But is this emphasis on the visual just another step toward the de-verbalization of communication, and thus to the dumbing down of language?

This is where I find the short-message-service aspect of The-phone-book enterprise so fascinating. The texts that The-phone-book publishes and archives are not dumb. A story by Ellen Champagne called Bake reads, in its entirety: "She wipes a bloody handprint from the stair. Salt mingles with the coppery scent of a well-cooked rage chopped fine." They are exercises in minimalism, in story-telling by absence.

In this, they are not mere technological gimmickry, but another development in the 20th- and 21st-century trend toward economy, toward linguistic restriction. The fixed form -- 150 words -- is not unlike any literary fixed form, such as the sonnet or the villanelle; its very limits create inspiration and experimentation. It's not just the technology that's intellectual. This is an example of technology and art having the same preoccupations at the same time.

 

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