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The rise of music streaming and the privatization of listening


In a piece called “Networked Listening” published at Real Life, communications scholar Eric Harvey examines how the rise of internet radio and music streaming services have made the experience of listening to music more private and solitary. Whereas traditional radio facilitated the construction of an “imagined community,” services like Pandora and Spotify facilitate the construction of the private self, with tastes and preferences carefully monitored and monetized by the services provider. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Surveillance theorist Mark Andrejevic, adopting a term from 16th century Britain for the fencing off of common land to turn it into private property, dubs this the “digital enclosure movement.” Within these enclosures, the value of digital music is no longer so much in its potential exchange value (let alone its aesthetic value) as it is in the fact that using it creates data about listener habits and the music itself.

This is not where new listening technologies were once expected to lead. In the mid-1980s, the Walkman brought private listening rituals into public life. “What surprised people when they saw the Walkman for the first time in their cities,” wrote critical theorist Shuhei Hosokawa in 1984, “was the evident fact that they could know whether the Walkman user was listening to something, but not what he was listening to. Something was there, but it did not appear: it was secret.” Hosokawa refers to this phenomenon as “secret theatre,” a public performance framed through a technology of mobile privacy. Two decades later Michael Bull discussed the iPod in a similar fashion: “For the first time in history the majority of citizens in Western culture possess the technology to create their own private mobile auditory world wherever they go.” It was a reversal of how broadcast radio signals brought some of the noisiness of public life into the private realm of the home. The Walkman and iPod allowed individuals to recast public space as a private domain.

This reached an apotheosis of sorts in expensive noise-cancelling headphones developed by companies like Bose. These features turns headphones into private soundscaping devices for what researcher Mack Hagood calls “the mobile rational actor of the neoliberal market: the business traveler.” Ads for Bose QuietComfort headphones suggest that the business traveler can create an ad hoc oasis of personal space amid the noise of cultural difference in, say, an airport.

Noise-cancelling headphones become a symbol for the assertion of individualized solutions to broader social issues, and the privatization of public spaces and resources. They signal the logical end point of using listening technology to unilaterally shape a sense of privacy. Noise-cancelling headphones evoke the dispiriting spectacle of what might be considered the ultimate neoliberal music event: the “silent disco,” where public interactions matter only to the degree that they can be enjoyed privately.

Image: Apple CEO Tim Cook with Bono and The Edge of U2. Via Yahoo News.