seemingly flexing tension

instances of the appropriation of the cell phone

Opening the Razr V3

Ever heard about monster packs, flashes, flexes, and seems? Well, all of you carry them around within your cell phone. You are aware, that contemporary cell phones are computers, running applications on operating systems, and possessing a kind of BIOS, the bootloader, “below” the latter? A complex piece of technology, surrounded by interpretive flexibility, open to reworking, to modding.

Increased popularity of an item does not only boost its sales numbers, but spawns surrounding cultures and communities once critical mass is reached. The V3 series of Motorola cell phones is extremely popular, the first resulting question being: why? [That’s something you marketing people are interested in as well, huh?] It’s the device’s physical design, I guess, which somehow strikes a chord stemming from the [popular] cultural, or better: cybercultural backdrop in front of which people interact with technology. In the case of the Razr V3 that’s definitely true for me, and, judging from what I have read in forums, for many others, too. But, more often than not, people are not content with owning a piece of technology and using it “as is”. Especially when the item in question is one of crucial everyday use, like the computer or the cell phone, which have central meanings in the lives of many of us. From a certain point on, popularity, which of course correllates with the number of items sold, triggers community and [modding-] culture, and thereby the sociocultural appropriation of the item in question. And there is a very active and productive modding community dealing with the Razr.

Appropriation means making something one’s own. The relationship between the thing and its owner is altered. After the modifications my cell phone is not only altered according to my visions in terms of function, but it also looks and feels more appropriate, more matching my personal … identity? At this point there may well arise some conceptual tension between individual and collective identity.

Because on the one hand I am talking about altering the phone in order to make it meet my individual and subjective vision, on the other hand I am talking about modding communities. Actually there is no contradiction when we move up one level, more abstract: The practice of laying hands on the phone’s innards, of willingly learning more about the technology (from the community), of daring to void not only the warranty, but risking to destroy the phone by plugging it into the computer and driving the tentacles of invasive software into it, makes the individual share the other community members’ practices, vision, and attitude towards technology. Seen that way the modification [itself, and the practice] of my very own cell phone is a social, even communal thing once again.

As it is common with all modding communities I know so far, the V3 modding community is very accommodating, friendly, and the redistribution of its cultural production is a collectively shared value. Software and knowledge needed for phone modding is distributed generously online, questions get willingly answered in forums, and direct help is almost instantaneously granted. The same with secondary artefacts, like boot- and shutdown-screens, screensavers, icons, fonts, whole themed skin packs, up to monster packs. All this is distributed, discussed, and collectively worked upon. A quick glance over the vast archives of boot- and shutdown-screens, and screensavers shows that the employed styles are far from random. Quite to the contrary, the whole archives literally ooze with the aesthetics of superheroes, mangas, computergames, and cyberpunk. And here’s a strong nexus with the Razr’s physical design.