Ringtones and Mobile Society: article

There’s a thorough scholarly treatment of the ringtone in contemporary public life in the December 2005 issue of First Monday. Author Sumanth Gopinath gives us an historical account of the ringtone in the context of the rise of the wireless telephony industry, and how this development has played a role in our everyday experience. In the author’s own words:

ringtones are central to the contemporary sonic imaginary … (and have) progressed quickly in a series of stages or moments from the initial, functional ringtone to the tone as a digital sound file … entire cultural practices have appeared in conjunction with particular stages and seem likely to decline, as the outdated forms of ringtones with which these practices are correlated become increasingly infrequent.

The piece synthesizes a wide range of research in its attempt to enrich our understanding of the ringtone in contemporary culture: its history, its situation within Western tonality, its role in the contestation of public and private space, and its comparison with older mobile music technologies such as the Sony Walkman and the boombox.

Towards the end of the article, Gopinath provides an insightful critique of mobile content as a commodity, and how its profitability is “revitalizing a stagnant music–industry oligopoly”. He goes on to explain that “for some companies, the ultimate aim (is) to transfer content to mobile systems, devalue the Internet in the process, then buy up those online assets and eventually transform them into for–pay services.” We are reminded by this example that

internet utopians should be wary of the sustainable independence of new media under capitalism — forms of originally independent media like cable television were understood and used in a similar way to the present Internet and ultimately found themselves under the ownership of large media conglomerates.

File this under “comments, anyone?”

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