We’ve all grown so accustomed to stabbing away at our smartphones and computers, we forget that they’re just interfaces—intermediaries between our thoughts and our actions—that are no more endemic to how we communicate than a smoke signal. Fact is, what we’ve come to think of as instant communication isn’t all that instant. An email takes time (and hopefully thought) to compose. So too does a tweet. But a face-to-face conversation? It doesn’t get more efficient than that.
All of which prompted Sydney designer and creative director James Théophane to ask: “What if you could trend a topic by simply speaking it?” His sound installation, Mimeisthai, lets you do exactly that: It transforms verbal chatter into a cloud-like visualization based on the hottest topics to emerge from a crowd’s lips. “In essence,” Theophane says, it’s “Twitter without the smartphone or laptop.” Or Big Brother without the House.
Théophane debuted Mimeisthai at TEDx in Sydney recently. The goal was to create a “one-off installation exploring the spontaneity of ideas, topics and thoughts—all conceived in the absence of tangible technology,” he says. During intermission, a smattering of parabolic microphones secretly taped people’s conversations, which an algorithm then isolated and analyzed, casting off all but the most prominent threads. Finally, the trending topics were converted into a real-time visual representation, with words and phrases swarming around on a screen overhead, many of them predictable (“insight,” “brain food”), others decidedly less so (“I was expecting cunt”).
Exposing pottymouths aside, Mimeisthai has some intriguing applications in the world of digital interactivity. “From mouth to screen, in an instant; no need for a computer or smartphone,” Théophane says. “The technology is invisible.” That might sound a little terrifying to those of us who value that quaint relic of the 20th century called privacy. (Now even the walls are tracking our every stupid utterance?) But as Theophane tells us in an email, he sees Mimeisthai as less of an Orwellian surveillance system than as a way to wed the cold data of social networks to the quick, easy intimacy of face-to-face conversations. “Mimeisthai’s potential lies with social interactions relative to the environment,” he says. “Whereas the encumbrance of hardware can skew the true nature of free flowing thoughts and ideas, something like Mimeisthai can liberate us to once again embrace what was once confined to the left-bank Parisian cafés." Or the latter-day equivalent: For instance, he says, it could be used on TV shows, such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to poll live audiences or to visualize the flow of ideas at public forums (like TEDx). Théophane says it can even be used to disseminate legislative discussions, “in an unbiased format.” It’d be like C-SPAN, only prettier.