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July 7, 2009

Mobile vs. Arts in France — How technology helps keep patrons quiet

The French are known for many things… their appreciation of great food and wine, their love of art and culture, and now, by me, for their valiant belief that concert halls, movie theaters, and other public performance spaces should be free of that person next to you jabbering into his/her cell phone. Thanks to mobile phone jamming devices, you can actually hear the music without patron accompaniment.

Cell-phone jammers

We’ve all be sitting in the audience in the middle of a brilliant monologue, deeply in the moment, when someone’s ring tone starts chirping. It gets louder as the person digs it out of their pocket/bag, and hopefully shuts off. (Even worse, I saw an audience person answer it and carry on a conversation until the people in front of him got up, turned around, and shhhhhed him). Enter the cell-phone jammer. A cell phone jammer is a (usually) small, hand-held device that transmits white noise on the same radio frequencies that cell phones use, thus scrambling their signal to the cell tower and rendering them useless. Usually they have a range of about 30 feet, and all cellular communications are interrupted within that radius with a simple flip of a switch. It sounds like the perfect form of revenge. Somebody being annoying on their phone? Hit the switch in your pocket and their line is dead. A larger version could blanket a concert hall with blissful silence during performances. Which is why the French jumped on the idea and in December of 2004, legalized cell-phone jammers in movie theaters, concert halls, and other performing-arts spaces. Brilliant!

But not in the U.S.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in the U.S., as being in possession of a cell-phone jammer can land you in hot water with the FCC, and possibly stick you with an $11,000 fine or imprison you for 1 year. The ban is based on wording in the Communications Act of 1934, which prevents people from interfering with radio communications. And it is seen as property theft, because telecommunications companies such as AT&T have paid the government billions to be able to use those frequencies, and blocking those frequencies disallows access to what they have paid for. So kids, don’t try this at home. The other argument against is the issue of emergency calls. Having a heart attack? Your jammed phone would be useless to call 911 — all signals are blocked, not just the “bad” ones. French technology firms are reportedly working on solutions to this that would have the devices jam all calls except the ones going to police, fire, etc. Makes sense… people have gotten by just fine watching arts events without cell phones for the last couple of thousand years — most things are not THAT urgent. At a time where we are seeing people interacting with their phones more, I’d love to see this technology linked with the house lights. House lights up? Take pictures, text, call your folks, whatever. Lights go down? Signals jammed until intermission. This would allow you to more fully enter the world of the art, with quick access back to the “real” world when the art wasn’t being performed. What about people who like to tweet during performances? Perhaps data access is allowed but calls are blocked. But I’d ask folks who want access during the show to sit in a different section so that the visual noise pollution of their screens doesn’t bother other patrons. Since jammers are out of bounds in the U.S. at the moment (drop a note to your congressperson if you’re for them) so what can an arts group do to control calls? One way is to build a theater space that passively blocks cellular signals by putting the patron inside thick walls of concrete or a steel cage around the space. I’ve even read about certain wallpapers that have tiny metal fragments in the paper to block cellular signals. Stick a wifi access point inside the space for people to be able to tweet or text (if that’s your thing) and you’re good to go. Many audience development tactics are based on new technologies being introduced to increase interaction and participation — not nearly as many are designed to reduce distraction and take away obstacles to engagement. Let’s hear it for the French government, and their belief that performing arts spaces should be free of the wrong type of stage chatter! -Ron Evans Like this article? Please share it arts folks who might find it useful via the Share/Save link below. Thank you!