- MP3s and Other Evil Media:American Pathologies in Critical Information Studies
We are today, more than ever, mediated subjects, shaped by (and shaping) any number of media flows and artifacts. And, just as Kara Keeling and Josh Kun have distinguished sound studies as an escape from the overly visual discourses surrounding the production of knowledge in the academy, key thinkers in digital media such as Siva Vaidhyanathan regard emerging fields such as critical information studies as relating directly to the regulation, policy, and management of invisible objects, such as data.1
Indeed, it is important to recognize how these invisible, yet immanent, objects are not only the products of US government policy and American industry but also ambient producers of an American corporate capitalist ideology. Jonathan Sterne's MP3: The Meaning of a Format and Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey's Evil Media are critical texts for understanding this particular mode of American subjectivity in a digital age, because they focus on how federal and corporate policies have shaped the media artifacts that sculpt our subjectivities today. These texts not only elucidate the cultural ramifications of these objects but also suggest how we as consumers and media users might resist these hegemonic flows and fight back.
Sterne suggested in his 2006 essay "The MP3 as Cultural Artifact," that the MP3 was a promiscuous technology. "In a media-saturated environment," Sterne writes, "portability and ease of acquisition trumps monomaniacal attention . . . at the psychoacoustic level as well as the industrial level, the MP3 is designed for promiscuity. This has been a long-term goal in the design of sound reproduction technologies."2 Sterne is right: MP3s are promiscuous, both technically and socially. Files I downloaded from Napster in 2000 still [End Page 447] litter my hard drive and many are redundant—iTunes having archived a copy separate from my original download. MP3s are shared between people and computers, being passed around on USB drives just as the melodies they parse are shared through the branching left and right wires of iPod earbuds. Since the popularization of the MP3, there have been new opportunities to share how we listen to and with others. This is the promise of the MP3, and the reason it merits scholarly attention.
MP3: The Meaning of a Format finds Sterne revisiting many of these themes, with a larger focus on the genealogical beginnings of the MP3 technology. While many of the book's chapters extrapolate from his prior work on the genealogy of listening practices dating from the nineteenth century, this project concerns itself more with those of the twentieth century. Perhaps this is related to Sterne's methodology: in seeking the genealogical origins of the MP3, Sterne worked from archives, manuals, and interviews with engineers who were fundamental to the technology's production. In its use of methods such as interviews and archival discourse analysis, MP3: The Meaning of a Format shares much with Trevor Pinch's and Frank Trocco's Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the MOOG Synthesizer and Dave Tompkins's How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks; but here Sterne incorporates the genealogical methods regarding sonic technology present in his earlier work The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, as well as Emily Thompson's Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933.3 In MP3, Sterne positions himself as a critical cultural studies scholar working between the humanities and sciences, focusing specifically on the socially and economically significant MP3 technology. "Critical" is key here, as MP3 is specifically attentive to the economic connections between our construction as "hearing subjects" and the media industries.
Certainly, MP3s can still be considered a promiscuous technology: they are small, easily replicable, and on hard drives everywhere, but, for Sterne, one should recognize the extent to which corporate capitalism relies on this very promiscuity to support its...