Sterne 2012

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Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham: Duke UP, 2012.

Format Theory

MP3 uses a lossy compression called "perceptual coding"; "encoded in every MP3 are whole worlds of possible and impossible sound and whole histories of sonic practices." (2)

MP3s also "carry the traces of other infrastructures" (2) -- telephony especially; "recording owes a tremendous technologica and aesthetic debt to telephony. Each major technical iteration of sound recording made use of telephone research" (3)

"If we look into the code of the MP3 for its imagined listening subject, this subject is at least as telephonic as it is phonographic or digital. It also owes a debt to radio." (3)

"If we have possibilities for greater definition than ever before, why does so much audio appear to be moving in the opposite direction?" (4)

baked into this question is an assumption: "the dream of verisimilitude," that greater definition is the same thing as greater verisimilitude, and that increases in definition necessarily enhance users' experiences, and that increases in storage capacity necessarily lead to higher-d media for end users (40

Michel Chion, "definition is not the same thing as correspondence to reality or fidelity" (5)

history of mp3 -- in general history of compression (5)

"Compression history could easily extend back to the invention of the point and the number zero, the codex and the scroll form of the book, the wheel, and perhaps even some kinds of ancient writing and number systems." (6)

problems of format as central to history of compression and dream of verisimilitude

"Formats are particularly acute as technical and cultural problems for the compressors, who worry over inefficiencies in the mechanics of transduction, storage, and transmission alongside creation, distribution, and reception. (6)

"If there is such a thing as media theory, there should also be format theory." (7)

"Formate denotes a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium. It also names a set of rules according to which a technology can operate." (7)

"Most crucial dimensions of format are codi ed in some way—sometimes through policy, sometimes through the technology’s construction, and sometimes through sedimented habit. ey have a contractual and conven- tional nature. e format is what speci es the protocols by which a medium will operate." (8)

mediality: "a quality of or pertaining to media and the complex ways in which communication technologies refer to one another in form or content" (9); like "literariness"

"Mediation is not necessarily intercession, ltering, or representation. Another sense of mediation describes a form of nonlinear, relational causality, a movement from one set of relations to another. As Adorno wrote, 'Mediation is in the object itself, not something between the object and that to which it is brought.'" (9)

"Mediality simply points to a collectively embodied process of cross-reference." (10)

"connotative shadow of hardware looms large over any definition of media today," even as forms like email seem less attached to specific hardware (10)

"the mediality of the medium lies not simply in the hardware, but in its ar- ticulation with particular practices, ways of doing things, institutions, and even in some cases belief systems." (10)

platforms of MP3, like iPod, don't tell the whole story; "format is itself a technique for storage and movement of audio" (11)

"Format theory would ask us to modulate the scale of our analysis of media somewhat di erently. Mediality happens on multiple scales and time frames. Studying formats highlights smaller registers like software, oper- ating standards, and codes, as well as larger registers like infrastructures, international corporate consortia, and whole technical systems. If there were a single imperative of format theory, it would be to focus on the stu beneath, beyond, and behind the boxes our media come in, whether we are talking about portable MP3 players, lm projectors, television sets, parcels, mobile phones, or computers." (11)

"Just as the concept of mediality refuses an a priori hierarchy of degrees of mediation from reality, format theory refuses an a priori hierarchy of formations of any given medium. Instead, it invites us to ask after the changing formations of media, the contexts of their reception, the conjunc- tures that shaped their sensual characteristics, and the institutional poli- tics in which they were enmeshed. " (11)

stories about formats, e.g. CD said to be long enough to play Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but actually more related to size -- isomorphism important, skeuomorphs; formats as shaped by history

"All formats presuppose particular formations of infrastructure with their own codes, protocols, limits, and affordances. Although those models may not remain constant, aspects of the old infrastructural context may persist in the shape and stylization of the format long after they are needed." (15)

"Formats do not set us free of constraints or literature from the histories that have already been wri en. ey only o er a di erent route through the city of mediality. Not all formats are of equal historical or conceptual significance. Many may be analytical dead ends. But if they have enough depth, breadth, and reach, some formats may o er completely di erent inroads into media history and may well show us subterranean connections among media that we pre- viously thought separate. e study of formats does not mean forge ing what we’ve learned from the study of media or, more broadly, communica- tion technologies. It is simply to consider the embedded ideas and routines that cut across them." (16)

perceptual coding, from psychoacoustic model

what is known about hearing comes from psychoacoustic research in service of telephony; "By calculating the limits of human hearing, and of the parts of hearing most necessary for understanding speech, AT&T was able to create a system that only reproduced those parts of the signal."

this created surplus bandwidth in phone lines, which could be monetized

"Telephony and psychoacoustics defined hearing as a problem of information." (20)

"psychoacoustics separated the process of hearing from the meaning of what was heard. It posited that perception and meaning could be disentangled. Information theory separated the transmission and interpreation of messages in an analogous fashion." (20)

perceptual coding makes use of masking:

  • auditory masking: the process of eliminating similar frequencies that are playing together
  • temporal masking: taking two sounds of different loudness close in time and deleting the quieter one

"The theory of critical bands allowed for the prediction of masking response by positing channels in the ear where sounds will mask one another, and all of the early perceptual codes I have found were built around this theory." (22)

engineering solution early on was to eliminate noise by creating a noiseless space for hearing; in the 70s, researches began to use sound to mask noise moving noise to gaps in the audible spectrum -- "using and manipulating noise (rather than eliminating it)" (22)

birth of a format at moment it becomes standard

"A whole praxaeology of listening was wri en into the code of an MP3, where particular kinds of listening subjects and orientations toward lis- tening shaped the format. rough MPEG’s listening tests, expert listeners came to represent, in code, an anticipated future listening public. " (25)