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One Scream is All it Takes: Voice Activated Personal Safety, Audio Surveillance, and Gender Violence

Just a few days ago,  London Metro Police Officer Wayne Couzens pled guilty to the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by, a 33-year-old woman he abducted while she walked home from a friend’s house.  Since the news broke of her disappearance in March 2021, the UK has been going through a moment of national “soul-searching.” The national reckoning has included a range of discussions–about casual and spectacular misogynistic violence, about a victim-blaming criminal justice system that fails to address said violence–and responses, including a vigil in south London that was met with aggressive policing, that has itself entered into and furthered the UK’s soul-searching. There has also been a surge in the installation of personal safety apps on mobile phones; One Scream (OS), “voice activated personal safety,” is one of them.

Available for Android and iOS devices, OS claims to detect and be triggered by a woman’s (true) “panic scream,” and, after 20 seconds and unless the alarm is cancelled, it will send both a text message to the user’s chosen contacts and an automated call with the location to a nominated contact. The app is meant to help women in situations where dialing 999, (assumed to be the natural and preferred response to danger), is not viable for the user and, in the ideal embodiment, this nominated contact, “the helper,” is the police. OS did automatically contact police (and required a paid subscription) in 2016, but it did not work out well and by 2018, was declared a work in progress: “What we really want is for the app to dial 999 when it detects a panic scream, but first, we need to prove how accurate it is. That’s where you come in. . .” OS is currently in beta and free (while in beta). It is unclear whether the developers have given up with that utmost expression of OS

OS is based on the premise that men fight and women scream —“It is an innate response for females in danger to scream for help”—and its correct functioning requires its users to be ready to do so, even if such an innate and instinctive response doesn’t come naturally to them: “If you do not scream, the app will not be able to detect you.” However, there are two discriminations in terms of scream analysis, in how the app discriminates while listening for and to screams, and in failing to detect or respond to them. The first has to do with who can use the app (i.e., whose panicked screams are able to trigger it) in the first place. This is presented in terms of gender and age—for the moment, OS can listen to “girls aged 14+ and women under 60,” where cisgender, as in anything OS, is taken for granted.   It is, however, a matter of acoustic parameters set by the developers (notably, of reaching a certain high pitch and loudness threshold). Which is why the app was implemented to include a “screamometer” for potential users to scream, hard, figure out, and see whether they can reach “the intensity that is needed to set it off” (confetti means they do). The second one discriminates true panicked screams from other types of screams (e.g., happiness, untrue panic). As presented by the developers, both discriminations are problematic and misleading, and so is “the science behind screaming” One Scream‘s website boasts of. 

The app does not quite distinguish true from fake screams, nor joy from panic for that matter.  Instead, One Scream listens for “roughness,” which a team of scream researchers—it truly is a “tiny science lesson” —has identified as scream’s “privileged acoustic niche” for communicating alarm.  According to this 2015 study in Current Biology,  “roughness” is the distinctive quality of effective, compelling human screams (and of artificial alarms) in terms of their ability to trigger listeners and in terms of perceived urgency. Abrupt increases in loudness and pitch are not unique to screams. The rougher the scream, then, the greater its perceived “alarmess” and its alarming effect. That’s why developers say OS “hears real distress,” essentially “just as your own ear.” However, other studies suggest your own ears might not be so great at distinguishing happiness from fear and scream research, and particularly the specific “bit” OS builds on, by and large assumes, relies on, and furthers the irrelevance of “real” on the scream vocalizer end.  

In OS’s pledge to its users, the app’s fine-tuning to its scream niche—i.e., to rough temporal modulations between 30 and 150Hz—is as important, as is the developers (flawed) insistence on the irredeemably uniqueness of true panic’s scream vocalizations, which they posit are instinctive and can’t be plotted or counterfeit: “Experience has shown that it is difficult for women to fake their scream.” Yet, current scream analysis and research primarily and largely relies on screams delivered by human research subjects (often university students, ideally drama students) in response to prompts for the purposes of studying them as well as, especially, on screams extracted from commercial movies and sound effect libraries. The same applies to the other types of vocalizations (e.g., neutral and valenced speech, screamed sentences, laughter, etc.) produced or retrieved for the purposes of figuring out what it is that makes a scream a scream, and how to translate that into a set of quantifiable parameters to capitalize on that knowledge, regardless of the agenda. 

Because of their interest for audio surveillance applications, screams are currently a contested object and a hot commodity. Much as is the case with other scream distinction/detection enterprises, the initial training of OS most likely involved that vast and available bank of crafted scream renditions—by professional actors, machines, combinations of those, by and for an industry otherwise partial to female non-speech sounds—conveniently the exact type of “thick with body” female voicings OS is also invested in. For some readers, myself included, this might come across as creepy and, science-wise, flimsy. 

Screencap of ad for Chilla, a scream alert app developed in India

Scream research often relies on how human listeners recruited for the cause respond to audio samples. Apparently, whether the scream is “real,” acted, or post-produced is neither something study subjects necessarily distinguish nor a determining factor in how they rate and react. In terms of machines learning to scream-mine audio data, it is what it is: “natural corpora with extreme emotional manifestation and atypical sounds events for surveillance applications” are scarce, unreliable, and largely unavailable because of their private character. That is no longer the case for OS, which has been accruing, and machine-learning from, its beta-user screams as well as how users themselves monitor/rate their screams and the app’s sensibility. OS users’ screams might not be exactly ad lib, as users/vocalizers first practice with the “screamometer” to learn to scream for and as a means to interface with OS, but it’s as natural a corpora as it gets, and it’s free for the users of the screams. OS not only echoes “voice stress analysis” technologies invested in distinguishing true from fake or in ranking urgency, but, as part and parcel of a larger scream surveillance enterprise, also public surveillance technologies such as ShotSpotter, all of which Lawrence Abu Hamdan has brilliantly dissected in his essay on the recording of the police gunshots that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Chilla is a strikingly similar app developed and available in India—although there’s a nuanced difference in the developer’s rationale for Chilla, which in its pursuance of scream-activated personal safety also aims to compensate for the fact that many girls and women don’t call “parents or police” for help when harassed or in danger. As presented, Chilla responds both to assaults and to women’s ambivalence towards their guardians. The latter is, too, a manifestation of the breadth of gender-based violence as a socio-cultural problem, one that Chilla is trained to fail to listen to and one that, because of OS’s particular niche user market, is simply out of the purview of its UK counterpart.

That problem–and that failure–is neither exclusive to India nor to scream-activated personal safety apps. Calling 999 in the UK, 911 in the US, or 091 in Spain, where I am writing, doesn’t come naturally to many targets of sexual and gender-based violence because they don’t conceive police as a help or because, directly, they see it as a risk—to themselves and/or to others. As Angela Ritchie has copiously documented in Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, women of color and Black women in particular are at extremely high risk for rape and sexual abuse by police officers, as high as 1 in 5 women in New York City alone.

OS, then,  is framed as a pragmatic, partial answer to a problem it doesn’t solve: “We should never have to dress in a certain way…but we do.” The specifics of how OS would actually “save” or even has saved its users in particular scenarios go unexplained, because OS is meant to help with feeling safe; getting into the details, and the what ifs, compromises that service. This sense of safety has two components and is based on two promises: one, that OS will listen to your (panic) scream, and, two, as of now via the intermediacy of your contacts, the police will go save you. The second component and its assumed self-evidence speaks to the app’s whiteness and of its target market of white, securitized, cisgender female subjects. 

Image of woman walking alone, entitled “Can You Hear Me Screaming?” by Flickr User Stefano Corso (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over and above its acoustic profiling, the app is simply not designed with every woman in mind. OS’s branding is about a certain lifestyle—of going for early runs and dates with cis-men, of taking time for yourself because you’re super busy at your white-collar job and going for night runs, of taking inspiration from “world” women and skipping if running isn’t for you.  This lifestyle is also sold: sold as always under the threat of rape–despite its “rightfulness”–sold in a way that animates the feelings of insecurity and disempowerment that One Scream advertizes itself as capable of reversing.  Safety, then, is sold as retrievable with OS

Wearable or otherwise portable technologies to keep women “safe,” specifically from sexual assaults, are not new and are varied. These have been vigorously protested, particularly from feminist standpoints other than the white, securitized, capitalist brand OS professes—because, in (partly) delegating safety on technologies women then become personally responsible for, these technologies  further “blame” women.  For authorities and the patriarchy, this shift in blame is a relief. In discussing the racialized securitization of US university campuses, Kwame Holmes notes how despite “reactionary attacks” on campus feminism (e.g., so-called “snowflakes” complaining about bad sex) and authorities’ effective reluctance to acknowledge and challenge rape culture, anti-sexual assault technologies tend to be welcomed and accepted. As Holmes also notes, there’s no paradox in that. Those technologies flatten the discussion, deactivate more radical feminist critiques and potential strategies, and protect the status quo—not so much women and not those who, whenever an alarm sounds and especially when security forces respond, readily become insecure.  

For some readers, OS might have a dystopian sci-fi movie feel. Filmmakers have come up with more radical, yet low-tech, “solutions” and uses of high-pitched triggers. In Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983), blowing whistles, the Women’s Army bicycle brigade confronts rapists and sexual assaulters. The WA members, too, confront sexual harassers on the New York City subway, which wasn’t imagined to be equipped with CCTV.

It is not a stretch to think that OS could potentially amplify the insecurities of Black and brown people subject to white panic (screams) and to its violence, something other audio surveillance technologies are already contributing to, at least it’s not a greater stretch than to entertain situations in which police would show up and save an OS user before it’s too late. Even if it’s never triggered, as developers seem to assume will be the case for the majority of installed units—”Many people have never faced a situation where they have had to panic scream”—it’s trapped in a securitization logic that ultimately relies on masculine authority, one that calls for the expansion of CCTV cameras, wherein women are never quite secure (see Sarah Everard’s vigil). 

One Scream’s FAQs cover selected worries that users have or OS anticipates they might have. Among these, there are privacy concerns (i.e., does it listen to your conversations?) and the fear the alarm will activate “when it shouldn’t.” In the Apple Store user reviews, there’s a more popular type of concern: OS not responding to users’ screams. In other words, there’s simultaneously a worry about OS listening and detecting too much and about OS failing to listen “when it matters.” These anxieties around OS’s listening excesses and insufficiencies touch on (audio) surveillance paradoxical workings: does OS encroach on the everyday life of those within users’ cell phones’ earshot while not necessarily delivering on an otherwise modest promise of safety in highly specific scenarios? There’s a unified developer response to these concerns: OS “is trained to detect panic screams only.”

Featured Image: By Flicker User Dirk Haun. Image appears to be a woman screaming on a street corner, but is actually an advertisement on the window of a T-Mobile cell phone shop (CC BY 2.0)

María Edurne Zuazu works in music, sound, and media studies, and researches the intersections of material culture and sonic practices in relation to questions of cultural memory, social and environmental justice, and the production of knowledge (and of ignorance) in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries. María has presented on topics ranging from sound and multimedia art and obsolete musical instruments, to aircraft sound and popular music, and published articles on telenovela, weaponized uses of sound, music and historical memory, and music videos. She received her PhD in Music from The CUNY Graduate Center, and has been the recipient of Fulbright and Fundación La Caixa fellowships. She is a 2021-2022 Fellow at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. 

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Mr. and Mrs. Talking Machine: The Euphonia, the Phonograph, and the Gendering of Nineteenth Century Mechanical Speech

In the early 1870s a talking machine, contrived by the aptly-named Joseph Faber appeared before audiences in the United States.  Dubbed the “euphonia” by its inventor, it did not merely record the spoken word and then reproduce it, but actually synthesized speech mechanically. It featured a fantastically complex pneumatic system in which air was pushed by a bellows through a replica of the human speech apparatus, which included a mouth cavity, tongue, palate, jaw and cheeks. To control the machine’s articulation, all of these components were hooked up to a keyboard with seventeen keys— sixteen for various phonemes and one to control the Euphonia’s artificial glottis. Interestingly, the machine’s handler had taken one more step in readying it for the stage, affixing to its front a mannequin. Its audiences in the 1870s found themselves in front of a machine disguised to look like a white European woman.

Unidentified image of Joseph Faber’s Euphonia, public domain. c. 1870

By the end of the decade, however, audiences in the United States and beyond crowded into auditoriums, churches and clubhouses to hear another kind of “talking machine” altogether. In late 1877 Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph, a device capable of capturing the spoken words of subjects and then reproducing them at a later time. The next year the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company sent dozens of exhibitors out from their headquarters in New York to edify and amuse audiences with the new invention. Like Faber before them, the company and its exhibitors anthropomorphized their talking machines, and, while never giving their phonographs hair, clothing or faces, they did forge a remarkably concrete and unanimous understanding of “who” the phonograph was. It was “Mr. Phonograph.

Why had the Euphonia become female and the phonograph male? In this post, I peel apart some of the entanglements of gender and speech that operated in the Faber Euphonia and the phonograph, paying particular attention to the technological and material circumstances of those entanglements. What I argue is that the materiality of these technologies must itself be taken into account in deciphering the gendered logics brought to bear on the problem of mechanical speech. Put another way, when Faber and Edison mechanically configured their talking machines, they also engineered their uses and their apparent relationships with users.  By prescribing the types of relationships the machine would enact with users, they constructed its “ideal” gender in ways that also drew on and reinforced existing assumptions about race and class.

Of course, users could and did adapt talking machines to their own ends. They tinkered with its construction or simply disregarded manufacturers’ prescriptions. The physical design of talking machines as well as the weight of social-sanction threw up non-negligible obstacles to subversive tinkerers and imaginers.

Born in Freiburg, Germany around 1800, Joseph Faber worked as an astronomer at the Vienna Observatory until an infection damaged his eyesight. Forced to find other work, he settled on the unlikely occupation of “tinkerer” and sometime in the 1820s began his quest for perfected mechanical speech. The work was long and arduous, but by no later than 1843 Faber was exhibiting his talking machine on the continent. In 1844 he left Europe to exhibit it in the United States, but in 1846 headed back across the Atlantic for a run at London’s Egyptian Hall.

That Faber conceived of his invention in gendered terms from the outset is reflected in his name for it—“Euphonia”—a designation meaning “pleasant sounding” and whose Latin suffix conspicuously signals a female identity. Interestingly, however, the inventor had not originally designed the machine to look like a woman but, rather, as an exoticized male “Turk.”

8:8:1846

“The Euphonia,” August 8, 1846, Illustrated London News, 96.

A writer for Chambers Edinburgh Journal characterized the mannequin’s original appearance in September of 1846:

The half figure of a man, the size known to artists as kit kat, dressed in Turkish costume, is seen resting, upon the side of a table, surrounded by crimson drapery, with its arms crossed upon its bosom. The body of the figure is dressed in blue merino, its head is surmounted by a Turkish cap, and the lower part of the face is covered with a dense flowing beard, which hangs down so as to conceal some portion of the mechanism contained in the throat.

What to make of Faber’s decision to present his machine as a “Turk?” One answer, though an unsatisfying one is “convention.” One of the most famous automata in history had been the chess-playing Turk constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the eighteenth century. A close student of von Kempelen’s work on talking machines, Faber would almost certainly have been aware of the precedent. In presenting their machines as “Turks,” however, both Faber and Von Kempelen likely sought to harness particular racialized tropes to generate public interest in their machines. Mystery. Magic. Exoticism. Europeans had long attributed these qualities to the lands and peoples of the Near East and it so happened that these racist representations were also highly appealing qualities in a staged spectacle—particularly ones that purported to push the boundaries of science and engineering.

Mysteriousness, however, constituted only one part of a much larger complex of racialized ideas.  As Edward Said famously argued in Orientalism Westerners have generally mobilized representations of “the East” in the service of a very specific political-cultural project of self- and other-definition—one in which the exoticized orient invariably absorbs the undesirable second half of a litany of binaries: civilization/barbarism, modernity/backwardness, humanitarianism/cruelty, rationality/irrationality. Salient for present purposes, however is the west’s self-understanding as masculine, in contradistinction to—in Said’s words—the East’s “feminine penetrability, its supine malleability.”

One possible reading of the Faber machine and its mannequin “Turk,” then, would position it as an ersatz woman. A depiction of the Euphonia and its creator, which appeared in the August 8, 1846  Illustrated London News would appear to lend credence to this reading. In it, the Turk, though bearded, features stereotypically “feminine” traits, including soft facial features, smooth complexion and full lips. Similarly, his billowing blouse and turban lend to the Turk a decidedly “un-masculine” air from the standpoint of Victorian sartorial norms. The effect is heightened by the stereotypically “male” depiction of Faber himself in the same illustration. He sits at the Euphonia’s controls, eyes cast down in rapt attention to his task. His brow is wrinkled and his cheeks appear to be covered in stubble. He appears in shirt and jacket—the uniform of the respectable middle-class white European man.

Importantly, the Euphonia’s speech acts did not take place as part of a conversation, but might have been compared to another kind of vocalization altogether. Faber’s manipulation of the Euphonia entailed a strenuous set of activities behind the automaton (though, in truth, off to one side.) Its keyboard kept both of the inventor’s hands occupied at the machine’s “back,” while its foot-operated bellows had to steadily be pumped to produce airflow. Though requiring some imagination, one could imagine Faber and his creation having sex. At least one observer, it seems, did. In an article originally printed in the New York Paper, the author recounted how he “suggested to Mr. F[aber] that the costume and figure had better have been female.” This course of action offered practical mechanical-semiotic advantages “as the bustle would have given a well-placed and ample concealment for all the machinery now disenchantingly placed outside.” To the foregoing the writer added a clause: “—the performer sitting down naturally behind and playing her like a piano.”

Unidentified image of Faber’s Euphonia, public domain. c. 1870. The Euphonia was apparently sometimes exhibited with only the mannequin’s face in place, its body having been dispensed with.

Around 1870 the Euphonia was recast as a woman.  By this time Herr Faber had been dead several years and his talking machine had passed on to a relative, also called Joseph, who outsourced the staged operation of the machine to his wife—Maria Faber. The transition from a male mannequin to a female mannequin (as well as the transition from a male operator to a female operator) throws into relief certain wrinkles in the gendered story of the Euphonia. Given that the Euphonia’s vocalizations could be read through the lens of sexualized domination, why had Faber himself not designed the mannequin as a woman in the first place? There are no pat answers. Perhaps the older, bookish, inventor believed the Turk could serve as an object of Western scientific domination without eliciting embarrassing and prurient commentary. Clearly, he underestimated the degree to which the idea of technological mastery already contained sexual overtones.

Little can be said about Joseph Faber’s life and work beyond 1846 though an entry for the inventor in the Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Österreich claimed that he took his life about 1850. Whatever the truth of Herr Faber’s fate, the Euphonia itself disappeared from public life around this same time and did not resurface for nearly two-and-a-half decades.

On the other hand, the idea of a female-presenting Euphonia, suggested by the New York Paper contributor in 1845, came to fruition as the machine was handed over to a female operator. If audiences imagined the spectacle of Euphonia-operation as a kind of erotic coupling, this new pairing would have been as troubling in its own way as Faber’s relationship to his Turk. What explains, then, the impulse to transition the Euphonia from androgyne to woman? Again, there are no pat answers.  One solution to the enigma lies in the counter-factual: Whatever discomfiting sexual possibilities were broached in the Victorian mind by a woman’s mastery over a female automaton would have been greatly amplified by a woman’s mastery over a male one.

H.H.H. von Ograph “The Song of Mr. Phonograph” (New York: G Shirmer, 1878).

In these early exhibitions, the phonograph became “Mr. Phonograph.”  In Chicago, for example, an exhibitor exclaimed “Halloa! Halloa!” into the apparatus before asking “Mr. Phonograph are you there?” “This salutation,” perspicaciously noted an attending Daily Tribune reporter “might have been addressed with great propriety to the ghosts at a spiritual seance…” In San Francisco, an exhibitor opened his demonstration by recording the message “Good morning, Mr. Phonograph.” Taking the bait, a Chronicle reporter described the subsequent playback: “‘Good morning, Mr. Phonograph,’ yelled Mr. Phonograph.”

In Atlanta, the phonograph was summoned “Mr. Phonograph, will you talk?” Mr. Phonograph obliged [“Wonder Agape!,” The Phonograph Puzzling Atlanta’s Citizens.” The Daily Constitution. June 22, 1878, 4]. At some point in 1878 the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company commissioned the printing of a piece of promotional sheet music “The Song of Mr. Phonograph.” The cover art for the song sheet featured a bizarrely anthropomorphized phonograph. The machine’s iron cylinder has been transformed into a head with eyes, while the mouthpiece and recording stylus have migrated outward and are grasped by two human hands. Mr. Phonograph’s attire, however, leaves no doubt as to his gender: He wears a collared shirt, vest, and jacket with long tails above; and stirrupped pants and dress boots below.

[Animal noises–cat, chicken, rooster, cow bird, followed by announcement by unidentified male voice, From UCSB Cylinder Archive]. Mr. Phonograph appealed not only to the professional exhibitors of the 1870s but to other members of the American public as well. One unnamed phonograph enthusiast recorded himself sometime before 1928 imitating the sounds of cats, hens, roosters and crows. Before signing off, he had his own conversation with “Mr. Phonograph.”

To understand the impulse to masculinize the phonograph, one must keep in mind the technology’s concrete mechanical capabilities. Unlike the Euphonia, the phonograph did not have a voice of its own, but could only repeat what was said to it. The men who exhibited the phonograph to a curious public were not able (like the Fabers before them) to sit in detached silence and manually prod their talking machines into talking. They were forced to speak to and with the phonograph. The machine faithfully addressed its handler with just as much (or as little) manly respect as that shown it, and the entire operation suggested to contemporaries the give-and-take of a conversation between equals. Not surprisingly, the phonograph became a man and a properly respectable one at that. Finally, the all-male contingent of exhibitors sent across the United States by the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878 invariably imparted to their phonographs their own male voices as they put the machine through its paces on stage. This, in itself, encouraged attribution of masculinity to the device.

The Euphonia and the phonograph both “talked.” The phonograph did so in a way mechanically-approximating the idealized bourgeois exchange of ideas and therefore “had” to be male. The Euphonia, on the other hand, spoke only as a function of its physical domination by its handler who wrung words from the instrument as if by torture. The Euphonia, then, “had” to be female.

The talking machines of the late nineteenth century as well as the media technologies that succeeded them emerged from a particular white, male, western and middle class culture.While changing in profound ways since the Victorian period, this culture has remained committed to the values of scientific mastery of nature; racial and gender hierarchies; and, especially, economic accumulation. But because the physical apparatus of talking machines has evolved so dramatically during this same period, it has been necessary to periodically renovate the ontology of mechanical speech in order to make it “safe” for the core values of the culture.

A fuller accounting of the politics of sound reproduction is possible but it depends on a more dynamic rendering of the interplay between practices, technologies and sonic understandings. It requires not only identifying speakers and listeners, but also placing them within the broader networks of people, things and ideas that impart to them moral content. It means attending—no less so than to texts and other representations—to the stories machines themselves tell when they enact the labor of speaking. We should listen to talking machines talking. But we should watch them as well.

Featured Image: from William C. Crum, ”Illustrated History of Wild Animals and Other Curiosities Contained in P.T. Barnum’s Great Travelling World’s Fair….” (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1874) 73. This image suggests that the later exhibitors of the Euphonia may have occasionally deviated from the gendered norms established by Joseph Faber, Sr. In image 4, a man—perhaps Joseph, Jr.— operates the Euphonia in its female form.

J. Martin Vest holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from Virginia Commonwealth University and a PhD in American History from the University of Michigan. His research interests range across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and are heavily influenced by the eclecticism and curiosity of working class storytelling. Past projects have explored Southside Virginia’s plank roads; the trope of insanity in American popular music; slavs in the American South; radical individualist “egoism;” twentieth century anarchists and modern “enchantment.” His dissertation, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1870-1930,” charts the peculiar evolution of modern ideas about recorded sound, paying particular attention to the role of capitalism and mechanical technology in shaping the things said and believed about the stuff “in the grooves.”


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