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MP3: The Meaning Of A Format by Jonathan Sterne

From cats to MP3s

March 5, 2013  |  3:38pm
<i>MP3: The Meaning Of A Format</i> by Jonathan Sterne

Early in MP3: The Meaning Of A Format, the author Jonathan Sterne describes an important—and surprisingly grisly—experiment in the history of audio technology.

The psychologists Ernest Wever and Charles Bray “removed part of a cat’s skull and most of its brain in order to attach an electrode. . . to the animal’s right auditory nerve. . . electrodes were then hooked up to a vacuum tube amplifier,” and “signals were sent to a telephone receiver.”

Wever and Bray may have hoped to create some sort of four-legged Frankenstein, but instead they found that when someone made noise near the cat’s ear, the sound transmitted clearly to the telephone receiver. After testing all “other possible explanations for the transmission of sound down the wire,” the scientists killed the cat. The wire’s ability to transmit sound faded and then stopped.

The reader might wonder what an inhumane experiment from 1930 could possibly have to do with the MP3, a thoroughly modern technology. Well, this tale of an unlucky cat serves to illustrate one of Sterne’s most important points: “… encoded in every MP3 are . . . whole histories of sonic practices. . . Digital media encapsulate ‘an accumulation of the auditive technologies of the past.’”

Sterne, an academic at McGill University, envisions MP3 as more than just a history of the MP3 technology (although it is that). He writes a cultural study with a specific purpose: “… to redescribe context, to analyze conjunctures, to attend to the relations of people, power and practices built into any phenomenon or problem.”

In English? He roots a recent development, often seen as an unprecedented product of the digital age, in a long history of several fields.

The MP3 represents only one of three possible encoding methods standardized for digital audio by the Moving Pictures Experts Group in 1992. These three methods emerged as favorites after a series of tests involving “expert listeners” picked from a specific pool of people. Much like our political representatives, the group that decided the future of listening skewed heavily towards the male, the old and the white.

These worthies listened to certain kinds of sounds picked by engineers—Billy Joel, Led Zeppelin, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman—in compressed and uncompressed formats. Instructed to listen “for form, not content,” they attempted to ignore the music itself and “listen for sonic artifacts of the technical process.” Of the different standards, the MP3 ended up becoming common.

Why? Because a hacker got hold of the code behind the process and put it out for free.
For those who don’t know, MP3s are those little digital files, often found whirling around the Internet—“the most common form in which recorded sound is available today,” writes Sterne. In fact, “… more recordings exist and circulate in MP3 format than in all other audio formats combined.” MP3s are compressed versions of bigger files, missing “the parts of the audio signal that are unlikely to be audible,” and reorganized to get rid of “repetitive and redundant data in the recording.” According to Sterne, an MP3 can end up “as small as 12 percent of the original file size.”

MP3s may contain reduced amounts of information, but Sterne’s book about them is very dense. Admirably interdisciplinary, it pulls from history, the science and engineering of acoustics, politics, economics, psychology and philosophy, incorporating both interviews and diagrams. Prominent thinkers (dead and living) of all ages and persuasions make appearances. As an academic, Sterne takes advantage of one of his profession’s primary perks—coining terms, like “mediality” and “perceptual technics.”

To simplify Sterne’s story greatly—to MP3 it, if you will—experiments like Wever and Bray’s led scientists and engineers to think about ears and phones interchangeably. This approach to research aligned with the bottom-line-driven desires of phone companies. The telcos wanted to squeeze the maximum amount of signals into telephone lines (we’re talking landlines here, real “auditive technologies of the past”) without losing information. Work to this effect led to the development of “lossless compression.” This allowed “eliminating redundant data in a transmission with no measurable change to the output.”
“Perceptual coding,” the next important development, relied on techniques known as auditory and temporal masking.

Auditory masking describes “…the process of eliminating similar frequencies, based on the principal that when two sounds of similar frequency content are played together and one is significantly quieter, people will only hear the louder sound.”

Temporal masking denotes a similar process for removing notes that occur very close to each other in time. The ears of listeners become complicit in the removal of sounds that can’t be distinguished—what we can’t hear won’t hurt us … and may save us some money on our phone bills.

Technology does not progress in a vacuum. It interacts with, impacts, and is in part determined by political and economic forces. Sterne suggests that “…the current wave of file-sharing has a great deal in common with other episodes of piracy in audio history, such as pirate radio in Britain and cassette piracy in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”

This interesting idea places the MP3 in a multi-national and historical perspective. This concept doesn’t get much play in most MP3 discussions, which usually revolve solely around the impact MP3s have on big labels today, or the format’s negative consequences on the music people hear.

Sterne also shows the importance of the rhetoric people use to talk about this format. The term “piracy,” Sterne writes, “…accomplishes a ridiculous conflation.” It associates the files with murder and violence, and it ignores the fact that MP3s have been “…quite productive as an economic force.” Not for the recording industry, of course, as Stern notes, but the recording industry is historically “prone to crisis” (a fact also confirmed in Sean Wilentz’s recent history of the Columbia record label).

People outside the recording industry have also benefitted greatly from the development of the MP3, Sterne points out: “In addition to the MP3’s patent holders, purveyors of storage media, playback devices. . . and broadband internet have profited handsomely from mass piracy. Unauthorized duplication and circulation. . . are not the antimarket practices we have been led to believe.”

Of course, the MP3 represents only one part of a large puzzle. It happens that the rise of the MP3 has also been the greatest thing that’s happened to vinyl since the LP. (According to Digital Music News, LP sales increased by 16.3 percent in 2012.)

Just as the MP3 meets the modern standard of efficiency, ease and accessibility, a defiant nostalgia for the opposite—a supposedly purer sound, the ritual of going to a record store, the pleasure of concrete entities in the age of cheap, disposable pleasures has buoyed vinyl fetishism.

And it’s not just a two-party system. Increasingly popular sites like Spotify and Rdio offer a different path: subscription music, where you pay a certain amount of money a month for access to millions of songs on the Internet.

MP3s may contain less information than vinyl or CDs, but they still allow ownership over the music in some physical sense—your MP3s wait on your hard drive, even if you can’t hold them in your hands and caress their grooves. When that hard drive crashes, everything on it goes.

And MP3s encourage hoarding, making it easy to lose yourself in a digital mansion of your own creation, filled with ever-larger numbers of files. Rdio allows you to rent a huge place instead. The music doesn’t belong to you in the traditional sense, but it can’t really be taken from you either, and it’s clean and neatly organized. As Sterne says, “… the means incorporate their own answers to the questions of how music should and will enter into people’s lives.”

Looking only at an effect—how MP3s impact big record companies, for example—misses part of the point. To adapt a famous phrase from Marshall McLuhan, the format is itself a message.

In a world where debates often come simplified and binary—MP3s are destroying the music industry or freeing it, ruining the purpose and sound of music or opening it to new opportunities—why not welcome a more complex understanding of complex issues?
Context is crucial. Sterne provides plenty.

Elias Leight is getting a Ph.D. at Princeton in politics. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.

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