Networked Listening

How the way we listen helps delineate the public-private divide

On September 9, 2014, after U2 performed the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” at an Apple product event, Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook made a surprise announcement together from the stage: The band’s 13th album, Songs of Innocence, had been automatically downloaded, via the iTunes app, onto 500 million desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones around the world. Suddenly there it was: a 104.8-megabyte freebie, waiting to be heard by what Bono referred to as “one billion ears” around the globe.

Both Bono and Apple are not shy about grand pronouncements: On an Apple website set up for the occasion, the stunt was declared to be the “largest album release in history.” In an interview with Time, U2 guitarist The Edge went further, calling the gambit “incredibly subversive … really punk rock, it’s really disruptive.”

For millions of iTunes users, it was disruptive all right, but not in the Silicon Valley sense. The sudden appearance of unwanted content was less a gift than a nuisance. “Yeah, okay, this might be the largest album release in history,” wrote Washington Post music critic Chris Richards. “It’s also rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail.” Unlike the software and application updates that many people download without a second’s thought by clicking “Agree,” Innocence didn’t even allow for that token consent.

The idea of privacy has also always reciprocally structured the experience of listening

It was Orwellian and spammy, yes. But to many, the Innocence invasion felt like a privacy violation. A week later, Vijith Assar described this feeling in Wired: The album, he wrote, had no legitimate claim to “a position of unwarranted prominence on the expensive device I use to organize and execute almost everything of importance in my life, including work, friends, communication, and especially music.”

While U2 and Apple were duly chastened for their hubris, the dust-up made clear that most of us regard our phones as an information sanctuary — our music library is also our personal photo library and an archive of deeply private conversations. Inserting media we don’t want there is liking implanting conversations we didn’t have or photos we didn’t take. Like digital photos, the mp3 files on our phones, though essentially intangible, are felt to be things, pieces of personal property that are collected, curated, and cherished.

The phone’s mp3 library, then, is at once a deeply personal, private space where the objects of one’s musical tastes are carefully pruned and stored, and a piece of corporate software open to periodic updates and usage restrictions governed by the impenetrable legal language of licensing agreements. The public and the private co-exist here in tension, with the social pleasure and sense of identity we derive from music supplying palpable stakes. It’s as if you had to keep your home vinyl collection in a storage locker owned by an outside company, which could access it and rearrange your albums on whim and, if they felt like it, insert a U2 record between TV on the Radio and U-Roy.

Privacy can be defined in many ways — as a moral concept, a state of being structured by varying notions of “public,” or a legal claim for the self or property — but in all these forms, it manifests itself through the material practices of everyday experience, like listening to music. However defined, the idea of privacy has also always reciprocally structured the experience of listening.

A primary “phonograph effect” (to use Mark Katz’s coinage for the ways recording has shaped the impact of sound on our lives) is to constantly shift the idea of the sanctity of domestic space, the possibilities for public social communion, and the sense of what is pleasurable and morally acceptable with respect to sound recordings. New means of playing and circulating recorded music have always modulated our understanding of publicity and privacy, whether we’re spinning a record at home, tuning in a radio broadcast, or downloading mp3 files through a peer-to-peer network. Listening, purchasing, collecting, downloading, streaming and sharing all entail opting into a vaster sociotechnical system and forging connections to others engaging in the same activity, whether through co-presence or via the metaphysics of imagination.

As digital-music commerce is now being re-routed from the chaotic global swap meet of mp3 files to neatly tiered and deeply curated streaming services that collect vast amounts of personal data about their users, a new scenario of networked listening has emerged, changing the publics we might imagine and the privacy we might seek in what we hear.

When radio first emerged, one of its most immediately compelling and controversial features, as John Durham Peters notes in Speaking Into the Air, was its inherent publicity. Though radio signals were initially used for point-to-point communications, anyone with a receiver within range could “listen in” to transmissions once broadcasting took over. This affordance brought along privacy concerns: “The looming obstacle,” Peters explains, “as with the mail before envelopes and anonymous sending and with the party line years before the telephone, was the lack of confidentiality.”

Not coincidentally, as Peters points out, the first sustained meditation on privacy emerged around the same time. In 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis published “The Right to Privacy,” which argued for a “right to be let alone.” The article notes that “recent inventions and business methods” such as “instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise … and numerous mechanical devices” posed the danger of the gathering and dissemination of individuals’ personal information. (Warren was prompted to write the essay after seeing details about his well-to-do family in a local paper’s society section.)

David Sarnoff saw in radio not potential privacy threats but the possibility of new publics — a way to communicate a single message to what Peters calls “the great audience invisible.” In the 1930s, this fairly radical new means of one-to-many communication prompted early broadcasters to cultivate their version of networked listening, including a form of address that could speak to many yet still convey a sense of intimacy. They adopted a deeply personal tone and addressed listeners in ways that drew attention to their domestic spaces. This “compensatory dialogism,” to use Peters’s coinage, established a performative closeness with an unseen audience listening in their living rooms — part of what Jason Loviglio calls radio’s “authorized transgressions” between public and private domains. This permitted a form of civic participation and social mobility otherwise unknown to ethnic and racial minorities, homosexuals, and women — though the voices binding them together as an intimate public were uniformly those of straight white men.

Strategies of broadcast intimacy continued to develop over the 20th century. In her book Listening In, Susan Douglas describes noncommercial “freeform” radio of the heady late 1960s in these terms: “The pace was slow and subdued, and the DJ spoke into the mic as if he were chatting with you in bed.” A decade later, the Quiet Storm R&B radio format, pioneered by WHUR-FM DJ Melvin Lindsey, operated in a similar way, serving as much as private ambience as musical entertainment.

Broadcast radio offered a form of private listening that came packaged with the knowledge that you were accompanied, in a sense, by innumerable strangers doing the same thing

Broadcast radio offered an ersatz sociality, a mood of belonging that Douglas calls “the zen of listening”: “Most of us know that feeling, driving alone at night on a road or highway, surrounded by darkness, listening to the radio,” she writes. “There we were alone, yet through this device we were tied by the most gossamer connections to an imagined community of people we sensed loved the same music we did, and to a DJ who often spoke to us in the most intimate, confidential, and inclusive tones.” Broadcast radio offered a form of private listening that came packaged with the knowledge that you were accompanied, in a sense, by innumerable strangers doing the same thing. It synchronized groups of lone strangers in time but not space, much as print convened “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson claimed about daily newspaper delivery a generation or two earlier. Both allowed atomized individuals to think of themselves as at the same time belonging to a collective.

Internet radio, however, took a different tack as it emerged in the early 2000s. Broadcast radio’s electromagnetic signals are cheap and efficient but also information-poor. It was hard to get precise information about who was receiving the signals. By contrast, streaming services like Pandora were information-rich; users (they were no longer mere “listeners”) constantly provided data by virtue of listening, and that data was used to produce individualized streams of radio-like programming. Pandora’s form of address is nonrepresentational — no DJs — so the illusion of intimacy is transformed. In the place of the intimate conversation of the DJ is a new form of solitude: the algorithmically generated audience of one.

By feeding back to users a never-ending list of music that flatteringly reflects the uniqueness of their tastes, the company secured a nonstop stream of private information about them — orders of magnitude more than radio programmers ever had — which immediately became its private property. In exchange, users received a sense of individuality through interactivity. With enough clicks, the system could delivered a reconstituted effigy of a user’s self via their revealed consumption habits.

This was a marked change from the semi-social solitude of conventional radio broadcasts. Broadcast radio offered listeners the kind of controlled intimacy that some philosophers and psychologists (as discussed here, for instance) have asserted is necessary for personality development. Algorithm-driven internet radio posits a different route to self-discovery: a cybernetic system that reflects the self back to you through a combination of play and machine learning.

Streaming services have carried some of this logic forward. Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and others, are powered by “data curators” who prime the files to be “discovered” by users, who are constantly volunteering data about their personal tastes, cultural and social contexts, and moods. Listeners are never really alone; they are willingly being electronically observed every time they listen to a song. But the implied intimacy and sociality of broadcast radio has been suppressed.

Streaming modifies the record companies’ clumsy approach to surveillance. In the 2000s, the RIAA tried to halt peer-to-peer file sharing with Big Brother–like surveillance tactics, taking pains to identify, publicly shame, and sue private individuals who shared copyright-protected digital files. Many of those same individuals now in all likelihood freely provide deeply personal (and thus much more valuable) information to streaming services, which merge public and private in way that’s different from the public trading of privately owned files.

Consumers have long seen this form of “soft” surveillance as a fair trade-off for a smoother-functioning, cost-effective capitalist experience. The popularity of consumer loyalty cards, and more recently, phone apps, testifies to the willingness of many to have their basic information, movements and purchases tracked. Much like the “walled gardens” of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, or the looser control of Google, digital music streaming services exert subtle but meaningful influence over individual agency and autonomy. They give freedom to roam while still being corralled.

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.

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.

Streaming services offer a different version of the silent disco. They reassert the record companies’ and data industries’ mantra of the unique, taste-bearing individual, but this individuality is no longer secured by ostentatious public displays of privacy. Instead streaming services’ offer individuality through data generation.

On streaming services, digital files are presented as objects of engagement, not personal possessions — negating some of the dilemmas prompted by U2’s stunt. The data derived from engagement is then used to produce a flattering self-image for users, in a sense replacing the sense of self a collection of files might have provided. Fittingly, this data effigy belongs ultimately to the service, not the listener.

Though it relies on digital networks and remote servers, this form of networked listening echoes earlier rituals of playing records for oneself at home. In The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg argues that the private rituals of playing records alone can animate solo, inviolate performances of the self — whether it is the modest sacraments of picking a record from the shelf, dusting it off, gazing at the cover and liner notes while listening, and flipping it over, or more elaborate “ceremonies of the solitary,” like re-enacting operas at home.

Records, Eisenberg argues, shattered the public architecture of time created by radio and replaced it with “a kind of modular interior design.” It’s not a coincidence that much of the digital-era resurgence of vinyl happened thanks to lifestyle stores like Urban Outfitters. But as collectible material artifacts, vinyl record albums have long filled a similar role to the photo albums from which they borrowed their name. LPs often serve as much as memory-holding souvenirs as they do bearers of recorded sound. “Every passion borders on the chaotic,” Walter Benjamin writes of the book collector, “but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

By commemorating the private listening rituals that evoke an ability to define the self in isolation, through the sheer exercise of taste, streaming platforms correspond, on a conceptual level at least, to the resurgence of vinyl records. This runs counter to complaints that streaming dematerializes and demystifies music consumption. Compare vinyl’s comeback to how post-punk icon Ian Svenonius describes Apple’s ideologies of the cloud. By adopting Apple’s lifestyle, “we’re encouraged to lose our possessions,” Svenonius alleges, by storing everything in the cloud and creating “a modernist monastery where the religion is Apple itself.” Record collectors in this paradigm “are castigated, jeered at, and painted as fools.”

As is his wont, Svenonius is exaggerating something true: Apple’s devices and always-on retail networks do push a “post-possession” future (apart from stuff made by Apple, naturally). At the same time, however, vinyl’s domestic return — however small it might be (and RIAA statistics can only say so much when most vinyl collections are bought from used stock, not new) — signals that certain music listeners not only prefer possessions, but specifically possessions that do not transfer data when played, that are stored locally, and that are built into private domestic spaces.

Streaming services, by delineating the post-possession future, are also stoking demand for its opposite, re-enchanting vinyl in the process. In on-demand streaming services, one listens to individual recordings, but these are not the “ceremonies of a solitary,” not as long as every click spins off information that is instantly privatized by outside parties. One might traverse an urban landscape listening to Apple Music through earbuds on a phone, but this is not a private “secret theatre” if every song or skip is filed in a remote, proprietary database. These contradictions keep the our understandings of public and private in motion.

In the current predominant form of networked listening, users are mildly monitored in exchange for convenience and access. But the same logic that drives streaming nurtures a different kind of possibility for private engagement with records, which materializes through the off-network listening afforded by vinyl records (or CDs and cassettes): “dumb” objects that transmit no individualized data after their acquisition. The streaming companies’ fetish for data may end up producing a counterfetish for anti-data, embodied by records themselves regardless of whether we play them. They become the means, for now, by which we might know ourselves beyond the limits of what our data predicts.

Eric Harvey is an assistant professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University. He researches and writes about music and technology.