Chapter 5: Sound Studies for Historians of New Media

D. Travers Scott

The growing field of sound studies concerns itself with both listening as practice and sounds as objects of study. Aural experiences have been examined to theorize Western sensory hierarchies, corporeality, epistemology, and ontology. Sonic perception also has been explored as method, applying modes of listening, biomechanics of hearing, and re- prioritization of phenomenological stimuli. In this chapter, sound studies or audio culture is introduced, not through a historicizing chronology of a nascent discipline, but as a discursive site, a realm in which different vectors originating from numerous fields and disciplines intersect around sonic questions, concerns, and phenomena.

Sound studies offers a rich array of objects and mode of study, with great utility for historians of new media and communication technologies. Beginning with a brief introduction to sounds studies, this chapter examines its philosophical foundations, ideological challenges, major works, and distinctions from other fields. I then demonstrate three examples of sound studies applied to new media history. First examined are the promise, launch, and failure of various videophone systems. From the beginning of telephony, the inclusion of live images was imagined and promised. As technological advancements made this possible, various videophones were introduced in the 1960s, 1990s, and 2000s, yet none achieved mass adoption. Sound studies will be employed to theorize the persistent appeal of the idea videophones, yet also their recurrent failure due to the unique intimacy, affective states, and intersubjectivity of sound-only communication. My second example focuses not on a sound technology, but instant messaging. Here sound studies examines the neglected aural aspects of media, such as user feedback elements and ambient machinery noise, in addition to audio content. From Internet Relay Chat to popular instant messaging applications, such as Microsoft Messenger and java-based web messaging (including text, voice, and video iterations), the value of sound studies as a method for formal analysis of technological experience will be demonstrated. Finally, my third example shows the application of sound studies to examining representations of new media, applying a sound-studies approach to the techno-horror of Koji Suzuki’s Ring novels, their international hit film versions, remakes, and imitators. An aural perspective here amplifies the concern in these narratives with the reproduction of appropriate technological subjects. The chapter concludes considering unique issues for media historians, such as extrapolating aural clues from silent archives, descriptive challenges, and expanded listening techniques.