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July 24 2012

Apps Rush: The Unilever Series, Bing Get MeThere, SoFit, Goldstar Savings Bank, Jurassic Park Builder and more

What's new on the app stores on Tuesday 24 July 2012

A selection of 13 new and notable apps for you today:

The Unilever Series at Tate Modern

London's Tate Modern has launched an official app for its 13-year "Unilever Series' of installations, "from Olafur Eliasson's sun to Ai Weiwei's carpet of sunflower seeds". That means more than 250 photos and 12 videos, as well as articles by curators and artists, and some of the early sketches for each exhibit.
iPad

Bing Get MeThere

Microsoft has launched a London travel app for iPhone using its Bing brand, promising "true door-to-door directions using Bing maps and live tube updates". Favourite journeys can also be set up for quick access.
iPhone

SoFit

SoFit is the latest social fitness app (hence the name, presumably), which awards points every time you exercise. It promises real-life rewards for this: "exclusive products from your favorite brands; downloads like music, videos and games; as well as fundraise for the causes you care about".
Android

Goldstar Savings Bank

This iPad app wants to teach children about financial basics, without making it dry and boring. A tall order, but Goldstar Savings Bank may just have nailed it: the idea being it's an app for children to record their savings and earn money for household chores, in order to buy rewards.
iPad

Jurassic Park Builder

The latest family-friendly brand to spawn its own freemium game is Jurassic Park, with this new iOS game from Ludia. It follows the Smurfs' Village / FarmVille template with players building their own parks, buying virtual bucks through in-app purchases to fund it. $99.99 IAP in a game that's likely to appeal to children? Hmm. The game is US-only for now.
iPhone / iPad

Assistant

Assistant is the latest Siri-like voice recognition app for a non-iOS platform. In this case: Windows Phone. It's a "virtual buddy for your smartphone that uses natural language technology" to answer questions, search for information and launch apps, hooking into Google, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Evernote and other services.
Windows Phone

The Icky Mr Fox

UK studio Ickypen has launched a children's book app that sees Icky Mr Fox trying to ruin the afternoon tea of Mr Rabbit and Mr Mole, with "tippy-tappy objects" that speak their name when touched. Unusually, it's available on Android and BlackBerry PlayBook as well as iPad.
Android / iPad / BlackBerry PlayBook

Around The Clock

Swedish developer Wombi Apps has a characterful new iOS app for children all about clocks. It includes a mini-game for each hour of the day, from teeth-brushing and biking home from pre-school to hammering nails and slicing butter. The idea being to familiarise children with the clock, rather than overtly teach them how to read it.
iPhone / iPad

X-Ray for Android

Android owners concerned about nasty malward have a number of apps to choose from, as security companies pile onto the platform to capitalise on reports of Android viruses. X-Ray for Android is the latest, promising to scan for vulnerabilities and "keep your carrier honest".
Android

5K To Marathon Runmeter GPS

Completed the programme set by a "couch to 5k" app? Time to step up, perhaps: this app focuses on going beyond 5k races to "give you feedback and motivation to go farther, be healthier, and live longer".
iPhone

Party Wave

Cartoon-surfing game Party Wave looks fun on iOS, getting you to position a bunch of surfers to ride a big wave in top-down view, before switching to a side-on perspective to guide them through it. The game is also notable, though, for being the first from Japanese developer Mistwalker – founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.
iPhone / iPad

Cardagram Postcard

French digital-to-physical postcards app Cardagram has launched in the UK. Like established rival Touchnote, it turns iPhone photos into real postcards to be sent worldwide – usually charging £1.99, although it's £0.99 in a launch offer. One nice touch: it can pull in photos from Instagram and Facebook.
iPhone

Historables: Marie Ant-toinette

Yes, Marie Antoinette re-imagined as a cartoon "ant queen" in a story-app for children. No, I have no idea how they handle the guillotine part. But yes, the app sees Marie baking and decorating a cake, setting up a castle room and wander through underground ant tunnels. More Historables apps are following from developer Base Camp Films: stand by for Teddy Bear Roosevelt and Lionardo Da Vinci...
iPad


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January 09 2012

Decisive moment? Smartphones steal focus from compact cameras

Camera sales fell 30% in 2011 as experts predict snapshot device may go way of satnav and landline

Not long ago, life's precious moments were captured by someone who had the foresight to bring their camera. Now, everyone can reach for their phone. And having also dented demand for landlines, the PC and the satnav, smartphones are now officially replacing the compact camera as the most popular device for taking photos.

Sales of point and shoot cameras fell 30% by value in 2011 compared with the year before. Camera manufacturers have been on red alert since last summer, when the iPhone 4 became the most popular device from which snaps were uploaded to the picture sharing website Flickr.

Even some professional photographers admit they turn to their phones for snaps, with the celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz describing her iPhone as the "snapshot camera of today". "I'm still learning how to use mine," Liebovitz told NBC. "I can't tell you how many times I see people show me their children. It's the wallet with the family pictures in it."

Basic fixed-lens cameras accounted for more than 48% of manufacturers' takings in Britain in 2010, according to research firm GfK. By November 2011, the most recent data shows these cameras represented just 37% of takings.

"2011 was when sales of basic cameras seriously started to decline," said GfK analyst Zhelya Dancheva. "It's about how consumers are using cameras, and on what occasions. The smartphone is popular because it's always in your pocket, and you are connected so you can directly upload to the internet whenever you want."

Manufacturers will attempt to breathe new life into the budget camera market at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an annual showcase for gadget makers. Samsung, Canon and Sony Electronics have added a range of bells and whistles, including Wi-Fi connections and technology to recognise and zoom in on children's faces, with which they hope to lure back their lost customers.

"All manufacturers need to focus on the value of a camera and what differentiates it versus a smartphone," said Reid Sullivan of Samsung, unveiling the firm's latest model, the DV300F, which can upload images to sharing sites. It will also do away with the need for cables by sending images wirelessly to a computer.

The camera also claims to eliminate blurry backgrounds when capturing fast moving subjects, and has a small screen on the front to let users see self portraits.

Canon's flagship new point and shoot, the PowerShot G1X, can apparently prioritize face detection of children so that even the most fidgety subject's expression will appear in focus.

Sony's newer cameras can take photographs in 3D and will work in extreme conditions, including under water. The budget models will also come with more powerful zoom lenses that capture events at a greater distance and with a higher resolution than phones.

The iPhone 4 is now used by more than 5,000 people to upload more than 73,000 photos each day on Flickr. The second most popular camera, with slightly more than 4,000 daily Flickr users, is the Nikon D90. It costs more than £550 without a lens and has a picture resolution of 12.3 megapixels, compared with the iPhone 4's five megapixels.

Unveiling the latest iPhone last autumn, Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, spent as much time emphasising its camera features as its processing power. The 4S has a resolution of eight megapixels, almost as high as the minimum of 10 now sported by most basic cameras.

The trend towards cameraphones is just as advanced in the United States, where they were used to take 27% of photos last year, up from 17% in 2010, according to market research firm NPD. The proportion of photos taken with a point and shoot camera fell from 52% to 44%.

Trevor Moore, chief executive of photography retailer Jessops, said customers now believe the quality of photographs taken from their smartphones is high enough to spend money turning them into prints. "We have a huge number of smartphone users coming into our stores to use our printing kiosks," said Moore. "We take the opportunity to talk to them about how they can make better pictures with a high quality camera."

In fact, sales of higher quality camera models are booming, giving hope to manufacturers such as Canon. Having become dissatisfied with the limitations of basic digital cameras, customers are flocking to those which offer better zooms and higher resolution. Sales of fixed lens devices, which offer a zoom of more than 10 times, were up 42% by volume in the year to November, having risen 55% in 2010. Compact system cameras, which have interchangeable lenses, have seen sales by volume rise 51% in the past year, according to GfK.

Expert view

Having spent a few years schlepping around a heavy bag of cameras and lenses and with at least one dodgy shoulder to prove it, I'm always interested in developments that take some of the weight out of shooting decent pictures. And it looks like I'm not the only one who has discovered the joys of using the ultimate lightweight camera as millions of people seem to have proved by ditching them and using a smartphone instead.

Sales of cheap cameras are down; it's not surprising – if you carry one thing these days it's a phone, and if it shoots pictures of similar quality to a camera, why carry a camera too? Having shot those great pictures of junior's first steps, a couple more keystrokes on the phone have them winging their way to a proud granny. If you really want them, Hipstamatic and other apps are available to "improve" your snaps, while Twitter or Flickr will distribute or store them for you.

Photographically, a really interesting and encouraging thing about using a smartphone is the way the focal length of the lens feels "right" for many shots. This is because the lens is slightly wider than the "standard" lens sold with a camera and gives a usefully wider view. In practice these images feel comfortable or real to the viewer, something early users of compact 35mm cameras in the last century discovered.

They were trying to capture reality and a widish lens gave them that result. They were also trying to be inconspicuous, hence the use of small Leica cameras just as these days someone using a phone in the street arouses no interest. Even if you are not a Cartier-Bresson, convenience and a reasonably faithful representation of their world is all that most people want from their photography. A smartphone gives you all that.

Roger Tooth, the Guardian's head of photography


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November 21 2011

Art to download is little more than dead-eyed commercialism

The vogue for selling digital editions of art by Hirst and Emin at 'affordable' prices is a trivial luxury for a fabled moneyed elite

Human beings are better at inventing things than we are at asking why we invented them. If we can do it, we will. But just occasionally, a supposed wonder of the new age makes me mutter the question: "Why?"

That is how I feel about the vogue for digital art marketing. This week sees the launch of s[edition], a website dedicated to selling digital editions of art. It has been founded by top art dealers and offers the works of top artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, to download for "affordable" prices. You can get a limited edition Hirst skull to put on your mobile phone for £500.

Emin, telling the BBC about the project, said it gives art back to the people by making it affordable (or something like that). But are the starving masses or the squeezed middle really going to fork out £500 for a mobile phone picture? Isn't it more like a trivial luxury for the same fabled Russian moneyed elite who buy their art yachts at Frieze?

To put it another way, what kind of person would want a Britart phone image anyway?

The website kept crashing for me this morning – I don't know if the problem was at my end or theirs – but I saw enough to be uncharmed. The enterprise is straightforwardly commercial in a way that opposes the culture of the internet. If artists such as Emin wanted to reconnect with the youth, surely they would give images away online – not participate in a site that presses you to sign up and join the collectors' club.

This is not the first attempt to marry the modern-art market with the internet. The VIP art fair takes a comparable approach, inviting visitors to sign up – and pay an entry fee – for access to its exclusive dealer rooms. The difference is that it sells material works of art.

Both enterprises seem oddly clumsy to me. The art market works through snobbery and sleight of hand, but here it becomes a bit like a TV shopping channel – watch out, the dead-eyed determination to shift product is showing.

One news story compared the artists involved to Hockney on his iPhone, but where is the comparison? Hockney has played creatively and idealistically with a new medium. This is just a less than charismatic new way of flogging a few ephemeral images.

Could the cold wind of financial crisis be driving the art market to cheapen its style? Will we soon see besuited art dealers hawking their products from disused stores on Oxford Street? These really are the last few skulls and the jewels were hand-crafted …


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October 06 2011

Why do some people really hate Apple | Charles Arthur

Few companies inspire such strong emotions, but is it Apple's profile, design or technology that pushes those buttons?

You don't have to go far on the web or even everyday life to find people happy to say it: they hate Steve Jobs and all he stood for, and those who buy things from Apple – the "sheeple", in an oft-used phrase – are simply buying stuff for no reason than its marketing, or advertising. Apple, they say, is a giant con trick.

Why do they care? Because, says Don Norman, an expert in how we react emotionally to design, buying or using products that engage our emotions strongly will inevitably alienate those who don't share those emotions – and just as strongly. Norman, formerly vice-president of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple, is co-founder of the Nielsen/Norman Group, which studies usability. He's also an author of books including Emotional Design and his latest, called Living With Complexity.

Apple, he says, excels at generating strong positive emotional reactions from those who use its products. The iPhone was a classic example with its revolutionary touchscreen control – which wasn't the first, but was the best: "Touch is a very important sense; a lot of human emotion is built around touching objects, other people, touching things," says Norman. "I think that we've lost something really big when we went to the abstraction of a computer with a mouse and a keyboard, it wasn't real, and the telephone was the same, it was this bunch of menus and people got lost in the menus and buttons to push and it felt like a piece of technology.

"Whereas the iPhone felt like a piece of delight. It really is neat to go from one page to the other not by pushing a button but by swiping your hand across the page." He adds: "The correct word is intimacy; it is more intimate. Think of it not as a swipe, think of it as a caress."

But just as physics sees an equal and opposite reaction to every action, so strong emotions engender adverse emotions in response. Take this comment by Aaron Holesgrove of OzTechNews about the iPad: "Actually, the iPad succeeds because it enables you to read websites whilst sitting on the toilet and play casual games in bed. It's a toy. You can't eliminate complexity when there was never any complexity in the first place – Apple went and threw a 10in screen on the iPod Touch and iPhone and called them the iPad and iPad 3G, respectively." Critics say Apple's products don't have as many features; their technical specifications aren't comparable to the leading-edge ones; they're more expensive. In short, you're being ripped off. And what's more, Apple is exploiting workers in China who build the products.

By contrast, ask someone about other comparable products out there – Amazon's new Kindle Fire, RIM's PlayBook, HP's TouchPad – and you'll get indifference, even if the prices are the same, or they're made in the same Chinese factories as Apple uses.

Norman says that the reaction – both the love and the hate – comes from Apple's designs. "This is important. It's something that I have trouble convincing companies of: great design will really convert people, but it will also put off other people. So you have to be willing to offend people; to make things that you know a lot of people are going to hate."

Apple's focus on design, which is principally expressed through the objects it sells – the iPods, iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones, iPads – drives those extreme reactions, he says. (And it's notable that nobody ever complained about Pixar's products – even though Jobs was chief executive there too.)

Part of why people like the devices so much is that they can personalise them: "The iPhone, being your mobile phone, is part of you, like the iPod is but even more so, because you're carrying everything around, not just your music but also your contacts and the ability to contact people – because people have observed that mobile phones are a very personal item."

By contrast, other companies that try to cater for and please everyone are guaranteed to fall short – and so won't excite emotion. "Many people try to make a product that everybody will love; Microsoft is a good example," he explains. "If you make a product that everybody loves – you do all your market surveys, and when people don't like something about it you change it – you end up with a bland product that everybody will accept but nobody truly loves."

Apple isn't like that, he says. "Apple says 'We're not going to even worry about it. We're going to make something that we ourselves love. We just assume that anything that we really love, lots and lots of people will love. And if other people really dislike it and hate it, so what. Tough on them.'"

But what about the criticism of the lack of specifications? When the iPod was still a hot seller, before the iPhone, I asked Phil Schiller, then as now Apple's head of marketing, about the lack of extras such as FM tuners and voice recorders – which rivals did offer, even though their products made no headway in the market.

Schiller put it simply: extras like FM radio were "a technology in search of a customer". He explained: "We're very careful about the technologies we bring to our products. Just because there's a new technology doesn't mean you should put it in your product. Just because our competitors have put it in their product – because they need something to compete with us, because they're losing on everything else – doesn't mean we should put it in the product.

"We should put new features in a product because it makes sense for our customers to have that feature, and because a significant percentage of our customers will want that feature. Otherwise, not. Remember, all these features cost money, space and most importantly power, and power is a really big deal."

At Apple, the executives' view is that "a lot of product suffer from featureitis": that it's easier to try to sell a checklist than selling a better product that does what customers really need to do. As one explained it to me: "We try to be very careful not to get caught up in a 'list of features war'; we try to focus just on what makes a great product for the customers, what do they really want to do, and focus on that like no one else. If we think some features aren't that great, and don't really work that well, and involve trade-offs that customers won't want, we just don't do it. We don't just have a checklist on the side of a box."

It may be significant that the strongest criticism of Apple tends to come from those most engaged with the nuts and bolts of technology. Apple's staff have probably got used to having their products called toys by now. As long as they keep selling, though, they'll keep ignoring the critics in favour of the fans – which will, of course, inflame emotions on both sides even more.


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July 12 2011

Tech Weekly podcast: New government data, smartphone explosion

On this week's programme, we're reporting on the smartphone market, a handset ecosystem that's set to reach critical mass in the next 23 months. Once more than half the UK population has access to all the features, what will this mean for how we consume online content, and for trends in the UK software development market?

Also, David Cameron launched the UK's latest open data initiative, releasing a new tranche of public data for use by developers. What new insights can be gained, and has this data been specifically chosen to advance the Tory agenda?

We spend a lot of time talking about privacy issues on this podcast, but most of it related to the corporations behind social networks, search engines and other publishing systems. So what about punters who hijack computers for the sake of art? A New York-based artist has been detained by the US secret service for "fraud and related activities" for uploading software on public computers at Apple stores around the city and then capturing images of shoppers looking at the screens.

Plus Jemima steps into the Elevator with Mark McLaughlin of Ticket ABC.

Don't forget to...

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• Mail us at tech@guardian.co.uk
• Get our Twitter feed for programme updates or follow our Twitter list
• Like our Facebook page
• See our pics on Flickr/Post your tech pics



January 08 2010

Life through a lens

Everywhere you go these days, there are people with camera-phones – many of us record, document, and upload the minutae of our lives. But, ultimately, should we be doing it just because we can?

There are three people standing in front of a glass case in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Each of us is trying to get a good view of the so-called Becket Casket. As you know, it was made in Limoges in the 12th century and depicts one of the most infamous events in English history, the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. It is is one of the most lovely things you can hope to see on a bleak January morning.

Only one problem. The bloke in the middle is hogging the full-frontal position, clearly the best view to savour Becket's martyrdom. He has been there for five minutes now – not, so far as I can judge, appreciating the boldly engraved figures against a brilliant blue background, but meaninglessly, endlessly, exasperatingly snapping the same view. He has that dead-eyed, mouth-gaping, eminently slappable face we all have when we hold our camera phones a foot in front of our faces and click, click, click.

Unable to see the casket properly, I reflect sourly on what the great German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote about how instrumental rationality undermines the emancipatory possibilities of technology, reducing it to a tool for our domination. What I think he meant by this was that instead of using technology such as camera phones to make our lives richer, freer and happier, we stand like lumps doing something socially irritating and existentially pointless, thereby ruining the view for everyone else. We have become snappers on autopilot, slaves to our machines, clogging up cyberspace with billions of images that nobody in their right minds – not even the person who sent them – thinks are worthwhile. Or maybe I'm wrong.

Seven years ago, the camera-phone hardly registered. Indeed, on 17 June 2003, some idiot wrote in the Guardian that the low take-up of those newfangled 3G phones with their built-in cameras, launched two months previously, could be ascribed to the fact that "it's not immediately clear what they're for, and that mystery is not sufficiently seductive to make many of us shell out". The writer all but argued that camera-phones were destined for the technological knacker's yard, like Sinclair C5s, the Securi-Gnome and NiteMates slippers with their built-in headlights (all real products). With the benefit of hindsight, let me admit what a bonehead I was to write that.

These days, the very idea of a mobile without camera or video facility seems absurd. They're more portable than most digital cameras and, more importantly, offer faster connection with the internet, which is a key consideration in this age of virtual presenteeism. So if you're Jonathan Ross and think your Twitter followers would like to see your photos of you playing in the snow with the kids, you can post them online before you've even cleared your desk at the BBC. The seemingly expendable has become the utterly essential. Such, quite often, is the appliance of science.

The latest figures from the Mobile Data Association show that the number of MMS (or video and picture messages) is rising fast: 336m were sent in the UK in 2006, 553m in 2008, and, when the MDA publishes its UK Mobile Trends report next month, another large rise is expected for 2009. True, the number of video and picture messages hardly compares with the number of texts sent (78.9bn text messages were sent in the UK in 2008), but the MDA argues that, "while SMS [texting] is used or conversational activity, MMS is much more 'event' driven." Hence the yuletide and New Year's Eve spikes in picture messaging: on Christmas Day 2008, 4.4m picture messages were sent – 3,000 every minute. The safe money says many more were sent over Christmas 2009, and that there will have been another huge surge in UK picture messaging thanks to all the snow.

So what are all these images we are sending? The majority are, frankly, worthless, and often taken in socially unacceptable circumstances. During Peter and the Wolf at London's Royal Festival Hall last week, I watched parents (who had been instructed to turn off their phones before the show began) photograph their kids against a backdrop of the Philharmonia Orchestra and a big screen of the animated film. Why? "Just to prove we're here, to record it for our son when he grows up," said the woman next to me and my daughter on row NN, who was one of the parents taking the pictures.

At a Lily Allen gig, a colleague found she was one of the few in the audience not holding her camera-phone above her head to shoot pictures or make films that could be illicitly uploaded online. Meanwhile, at the London Aquarium, a friend's family excursion was all-but ruined by guppy-like adult snappers blocking the view of slightly less gormless, gaping fish. How many pictures of fish in tanks do we, as a society, really need?

When another friend visited the Taj Mahal recently, he noticed how few people, on arriving, actually looked at the building with their naked eyes. Instead, they would lift their phones immediately to capture an image that everybody in the world has already seen a million times. And a recent letter to the Telegraph complained about how the solemnity of a christening was destroyed by a godmother elbowing the vicar aside to get shots of the baby at the font.

Back in Room 8 of the V&A, one of us cracks. "Will you bloody stop taking pictures!" shouts the woman to the man's right. "You're ruining it for everyone. Let someone else have a look for five seconds, please!" She's wearing a tweed cape, a solidly set hairdo and a forbidding expression that seems to say 'I'm on a day trip from the home counties and I'm not having this'. The man, who may have too little English to reply, skulks off towards Room 9.

Minutes later, I find him in front of the Soissons Diptych, snapping away again, oblivious to the hard stares and tutting from those in less favoured positions. I wander up and say: "That's going to be a rubbish picture, mate." He barely stops photographing to offer me this reply: "Yeah? This is a 10-megapixel Samsung SCH-B600, actually, so the photos are going to be pretty excellent. Thanks very much."

It turns out the man does have good English (he's from Manchester). And lines in sarcasm. He's a fan of gothic art and architecture, and plans to set up a Flickr photo stream as well as beautifying his Facebook page with some of the best shots from his trip. He has already emailed a picture of the Limoges Casket to prove that he was, on 10 January 2010 at 11.15am, standing in front of it. He plans to tweet some shots later, too.

Another great thinker, the Leeds-based sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, wrote in his book Liquid Love that, in a modern world in which those purportedly fixed and durable ties of family, class, religion, marriage have melted away, we look for something else to hold us together. Hence, no doubt, the rise of social networking sites – and hence, too, the feverish snapping with camera-phones to take images that can validate our existence to our Twitter followers, our speed-dial intimates, our online "friends". It's a new Cartesian cogito: I photograph, therefore I am (and don't my uploaded images glam up my Facebook profile a treat?). Maybe Marcuse was wrong: we're not so much in thrall to technology, as using it for an unanticipated emancipatory project.

In that context it's not enough to moan, as Telegraph columnist Nigel Farndale did recently, that "photography, once a noble art, has become, thanks to the move to digital, a mental illness" Riffing on the verse of Welsh poet WH Davies, Farndale wrote: "What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare. Click. No time to stand beneath the boughs – click, click – and stare as long as sheep or cows. Click, click, bloody click."

But moaning isn't enough. We also have to wonder what happens to us when technology increasingly gives us our windows on the world. One thought is that the camera-phone changes our experience of the world for good rather than evil. It can even be a tool against capitalism. Billy Bragg, the politically engaged musician, has been on the receiving ends of the click, click, bloody click of the camera-phone a great deal when playing gigs recently. And, counterintuitively, he loves it.

"I've had to tell bouncers not to stop people taking pictures of me when I'm playing," Bragg tells me. "You have to like it because people who take the photos or make the films with their camera-phones are not thinking you're a pranny. They're doing it because they like you, so there's no point getting upset." It's an interesting corrective to those musicians, such as Boy George, who have tweeted their pleas to audiences to leave their camera-phones at home and watch the show. At last November's 250-gig London jazz festival ushers tried to curb the increasing number of fans using camera-phones to record performances. But, as our jazz critic John Fordham noted at the time, this clampdown stopped his favourite music reaching a wider online audience.

One reason the rise of the camera-phone appeals to Bragg is that it gives him free publicity. It's transgressive technology that helps Bragg and his fans stick it to the Man. "In the past, I've spent thousands of pounds making videos that MTV wouldn't show. Now what happens is that some kid will put a film they've made of me playing live on YouTube and it can have 20,000 or so hits. What is happening is that you're being promoted."

Recently, Bragg was doing a soundcheck in Toronto and decided to have a go at fitting the words of John Cooper Clarke's Evidently Chickentown to the tune of Dylan's Desolation Row. It worked so well he played it at a late-night gig. "Somebody filmed it and now it's on YouTube. I thought that was brilliant."

But clearly there are downsides to camera-phones, too – the plague of "upskirting" photos being posted on the web, for example, or Heat magazine encouraging its readers to pap stars in the street and send the photos to the magazine. Aren't these terrible things facilitated by camera-phone technology?

"I'm not sure privacy is all that important an issue when it comes to people who are famous and are seeking attention," says Bragg. Anyway, he argues, camera-phones have more serious uses.

"Thanks in part to camera-phones, we're all reporters now. And that idea is going to have some pretty radical consequences, especially for police officers. Think about it: only an idiot goes to a demonstration without a camera or a camera-phone nowadays." He cites the Guardian investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson, a demonstrator at the G20 protests in London last year, who was shown to have been beaten to the ground by police by means of films made by other demonstrators' mobile phones.

Today, grainy camera-phone images or films demonstrate the virile realness of a news event. We expect them to show that a story was so hot it took place before TV crews and the rest of the old media got there. Hence the wannabe Christmas Day pants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutalib was immortalised in blurry phone images taken as the plane descended into Detroit.

Media commentator and professor of interactive journalism Jeff Jarvis writes: "We are in the era of news served raw. Witnesses to any event can now capture and share what they see not just with acquaintances but with the world, and without the filter and delay of news media. And that doesn't mean just cell-phone snapshots of bombings or surreptitious footage of closed events. We also have access to the guts of news – original documents, full transcripts, unedited video. Life is on the record."

The truth of this analysis was dramatised by the unauthorised images of Saddam Hussein's execution on 30 December 2006, taken by a security guard on his mobile. His grisly footage of the event spread through the internet, subverting the official version. In her paper, The Global and the Mobile: Camera Phone Witnessing in a Age of Terror, social media expert Dr Anna Reading of London's South Bank University argues that the footage "took away the pretence of civility that some tried to place around the act". Instead, it revealed that he was put to death during an unruly spectacle in which onlookers taunted Hussein by yelling, "Go to hell" and chanting "Muqtada, Muqtadaa, Muqtada" (a reference to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite Muslim cleric).

Reading also argues that camera phones lets the world into places from which we would hitherto have been excluded. When the white comedian and former Seinfeld star Michael Richards rounded on two black hecklers at a 2006 comedy gig in Los Angeles with racist abuse, his rant was captured by a member of the audience on their camera phone and broadcast on the internet, arguably ruining Richards' career.

Consider one significant contrast between the 9/11 bombings in the US (2001) and the 7/7 bombings in London (2005). Arguably, what connected us most poignantly with the former were the phone calls from the doomed passengers aboard Flight 93 to their loved ones, while four years later, what made us empathise most with the ordinary victims was the self-portrait of Adam Stacey escaping from a bombed tube train on the Piccadilly Line that the civil servant took with his phone. Imagine how different our perception of 9/11 would have been if the soon-to-die had emailed their last camera-phone images from the twin towers.

What interests Reading is how camera-phone technology can link people across borders. "It is not so much what the images capture indexically, but their iconic status in reminding us of our complicity in a war declared against global 'terror', rather than a nation state. Stacey's camera-phone image escaping from the London bombings was everyman with a mobile phone."

Arguably, the camera-phone first took on this raw witnessing role on Boxing Day 2004, when the tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean, killing nearly 230,000 people in 14 countries. Media outlets relied on footage from people on the spot, many of whom were using camera-phones. And last year, they were used to bear witness to government crackdowns in Teheran against those protesting against alleged fraud in June's presidential election.

In itself, the camera-phone changes nothing. The Standard 8mm colour home movie that Abraham Zapruder took in Dallas on 22 November 1963, which represents the most complete film of the murder of President John F Kennedy, is akin to the footage the unnamed security guard took of Saddam's execution. Both are short, grisly films showing the killing of an important public figure that have gone on to have immense political significance. But there are two big differences.

First, the camera phone is tiny, and thus relatively easy to slip into situations where authorities want to stop unofficial images or films of an event being taken. Second, and much more importantly, the images and films we take with them can be spread around the world in seconds. Our experiences can now travel freely across borders. Admittedly, most of them won't be worth sending in the first place, but that doesn't mean they won't get sent.

"It's absurd to argue that technology always changes things for the better," says Billy Bragg. "Clearly it doesn't. But at best the camera-phone is subversive in the way it's being used. We shouldn't be frightened of it. We should welcome it."


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