3 Tech Lessons From Playing The Flaming Lips' Smartphone Symphony

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The Flaming Lips are known for odd musical experiments. They once released a four-CD album that required four separate players to experience. Then there were the boombox experiments that accompanied it.

Now, just in time for Valentine's Day, they've released a 12-part smartphone symphony on YouTube called "Two Blobs Fucking." When I watched the instructional video, it felt like a challenge I had to try. And I knew that Harriett Beecher Stowe and the other founding editors would be proud if we could harness The Atlantic's forces for this important performance.

So I grabbed as many associate editors and interns as I could and we headed to our library. You can see the results of the experiment in the video above. (And here's an easy-bake version of the task, though where I come from, we call that cheating.) But you learn a few things trying to get 12 different phones to play YouTube clips at precisely the same moment. Here's what I took from it:

  • Getting more than three or four phones to sync is basically impossible. Trying to get all of the phones to preload the YouTube clip over the air before they go to sleep or otherwise lose that caching is impossible. Perhaps if we'd all had the exact same phone running on WiFi we could do it. The setup took more than 20 minutes and we had a few people helping out with the process.
  • There is something to be said for increasing the human-side of interoperability. We're at a moment where there is a profusion of operating systems and versions of operating systems. We don't need every mobile OS to be identical, but when someone sticks a new smartphone in my hands, I have the expectation that -- like a car -- I'll be able to make the thing work with what I know about how cell phones are supposed to work. When a phone doesn't respond to my learned skillset, it's intensely frustrating. 
  • Accessing YouTube from lower-end smartphones is brutal. I'm sure I'd get used to it, but you do get what you pay for with these things. The user interfaces are bad, particularly if you're trying to execute second-level functions (like, say, rewinding a clip and pausing it at the beginning).
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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