Hear on Earth 


 Adam Rothstein


Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but also spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution. Scientific advances of the future may thus be utilized to permit man's existence in environments which differ radically from those provided by nature as we know it.

We might divide the technological world in to that of cutting edge technology, and mundane everyday technology. There are crossovers of course--network adapters and GSM radios are installed in automobiles, and micro-computers and WiFi for refrigerators and FM radios. But we know where to look for the latest in technology. The indicators are radios, chips, sensors, and pixels all crammed into a small space. Digitalness and its indicators and interfaces, are the signs of the new in contemporary times. We look to capacitive touch-screens, always-on data connections, predictive algorithms responding to our every move with suggestions for commercial purchases we might suddenly wish to make.

But what if our brains are undergoing a parallel transformation to our tools? What if our apprehensions of sensations were themselves evolved, to the point where our mental expectations for our phenomenologically 'high-tech' environments were themselves, a form of technology? Rather than expecting to see a chip implanted in our head, what if we felt this digitalness in the new ways we interpret and interact with our environments, using the same senses we've always had?

Thinking about the designed and evolved interaction between the human body and systems of the outside world calls the cyborg to mind. The cyborg, today, is largely an idea of sensation. It is an aesthetic that we imagine, a vision of what we imagine future technology to look and feel like. Wires protruding from the back of the neck, machinery and LEDs flashing underneath the skin, the sounds of synthetic music surrounding the dark worlds where such monstrous creatures live--this is the sensation of the cyborg. But we have contemporary sensations that are not of cyborgs but themselves due to a more literal cybernetics. Our senses have become attuned to an environment bursting forth with sensation, and in response, have begun attenuating themselves to this effluvia-rich space, filtering the world in order to prise out the information we need to survive.

The transition from literal cyborg to media cyborg is not just a product of post-modernism, but was baked into the technological transformations occurring back in the early days of cybernetics.

For nearly a century, cutting edge science has been ensconced within the military-industrial complex. The cyborg was originally intended to be a nuclear-powered astronaut, a Cold Warrior, fighting against the Russians in space with a body evolved to be more like the vacuum. The budgets came from the Defense Department, and even those scientists employed at public universities eventually interact with colleagues, conferences, and private institutions that are aligned by the magnetic pull of national defense.

Norbert Wiener, author of the book on cybernetics, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, worked on ballistics during World War One, and automatic aiming of anti-aircraft guns in World War Two. Although they might not seem it, anti- aircraft guns were largely an information problem. The explosive shells fired by large anti- aircraft guns were more than large enough to destroy an aircraft. However, aircraft at high altitude are separated from those shells by a long distance over which to hit a moving target. Analog computer devices, occasionally coupled with the new invention of radar, served to aid the aiming of the guns.

After the war, Wiener became a pacifist, and refused to work on any military-related research projects. However, as his work contributed to opening up the new field of cybernetics--using information to affect and correct the functioning of systems--it would naturally be absorbed into more militaristic fields, like the game theory of nuclear weapons deployment worked on by John Von Neumann, one of Wiener's collaborators, and the work of Manfred E. Cynes and Nathan S. Kline, who proposed the cyborg.

But this was not the only arena in which cybernetics would be influential. A science that we don't ordinarily think of as primed for cyborg modification, is the study of sound. Information theory can as easily apply to audio technology as much as nuclear weapons. One of Wiener's students was Amar Bose, who would found the Bose Corporation, and revolutionize theory of high-fidelity stereo systems.

In Earth Sound Earth Signal, Douglas Kahn describes the fundamental paradigm shift that brought about Bose's new stereo systems. Previously, stereo equipment was designed to perform in anechoic chambers, in which all reverberations of sound are absorbed, and the source of the sound can be heard perfectly.

Their waffled walls absorbed all sounds without reflecting (echoing) any back, emulating a "free field" where sounds dissipate unimpeded by anything in an environment but a constant medium. A free field is in effect an infinite outside, in other words, not a room at all. It is also a theoretical environment without life; before the designers of the first anechoic chamber named it for echoes and their absence, the customary expression for a soundproof space was a "dead room."

By constructing his speaker systems with the echoes of the surrounding environment taken into consideration, Bose was able to achieve a much more natural sound from the system, consistent with way live sound is apprehended by the ears. The experiment that Bose did to demonstrate the importance of echoes in the room, consisted of reading a poem into a microphone and recording it on tape, then playing it back into the same room, and recording it again. And then, repeating. Over successive recordings, the echoes built up into harmonics, that sounded like bell tones. The echoes are something we mentally tune out, but form a significant part of the sound we hear. Therefore, it was something to take into account and feed back into the system.

Douglas Kahn, in the same book, tracks how Edmond Dewan, a friend of Wiener, mentioned this experiment to Alvin Lucier, a composer working with experimental sound. Lucier produced his piece "I Am Sitting In A Room" using the same technique. Lucier also produced other experimental work involving brain wave recordings, atmospheric electromagnetic recordings, and earth sounds. It was a time of many sound experimentations, as new equipment became available that allowed us to access and alter the sound environment, newly considering how our perception of that environment was formed. John Cage was also producing similar exploratory works, and Emory Cook, the inventor of stereo phonograph records, was recording his own records of atmospheric and earth sounds. To hear, record, playback, and edit the music of the planet, was to design an interface between humans and the planet that yet to be explored.

Feedback, the relationship between a system and its informational control, stimulated new awareness of how our bodies' sensors work, and why they are so important. No longer were the human senses simply a means for passive empirical observation, but a constituting system of what we recognize as the world. The cutting edge technology for audio recording and playback that allowed this transition was developed in the same social milieu as cybernetic theory. And as we began to understand our bodies as functioning systems, the shape of the world as we perceived it, became systematically adjusted. Not just reducing or intensifying the odd audio tones created by repetitive echoes captured sequentially on tape, but the intensifying the understood phenomenological importance of that process, became crucial for how we understood our sense of sound. The world was now not just something to be listened to, but a living organism of audio energy. As our activities across the face of the world raised its own din of clashing sound, it was becoming apparent to those with the right technological equipment, that the works of Ozymandias were not just to be looked upon, but to be heard as well.

The onset of affordable high fidelity stereos led to personal music collections. Personal music collections led to portable music collections. Fifty years after Bose founded his company in 1964, we walk the streets plugged in to headphones. We are used to having music with us all the time, shaping our perceived environment with a consistent, personalized level of sound. We respond to the noise of the subway, the traffic, the sounds of the multitudes yelling, chattering, laughing, and cat-calling each other by putting a small magnet into our ear, surrounded with insulating plastic. To retreat into one's own personal soundtrack is not solipsistic, but a mediated reaction to feedback, a cybernetic adjustment to the informational environment. As astronauts produce viral music videos aboard the space station, here on earth we evolve to join the wires, cocooning out a small space in the copper tendrils, a small resistor of limited ohm value, sapping the current so that it will not short circuit us.



Adam Rothstein is an insurgent archivist and artist. He writes about politics, media, art, and technology wherever he can get a signal. He is most interested in the canons of history and prediction, the so-called "Future-Weird", the unstable ramifications of today's cultural technology, and the materials and ideas out of which we build things. He is on Twitter @interdome, and his website is http://www.poszu.com












where no other claim is indicated.