Outline: (last update: 13-11-2020)
Chapters: (last update: 03-12-2020)
Introduction of the introduction and preface of my motivation: Last Wednesday (11-11-2020), I decided to throw out my previous thesis outline (https://pad.xpub.nl/p/mark-thesis-outline) and start over. This decision was fueled after I sat down and forced myself to create a substantive overview of the texts and input I gathered so far. Besides that, writing my project proposal brought some interesting insights to the table and exposed a more detailed focus in my overarching subject which can briefly be described as 'the value of revisiting and reappropriating obsolete technologies <1>. Since I approached this broad subject from a too abstract point of view in my earlier attempt of writing this thesis outline, I missed the excitement and joy in the writing process. (Bad news!). Another interesting 'rendezvous' occurred...
I was really excited to recently find an article from 2019 by Daniel Ploeger called Imagining the Seamless Cyborg: Computer System - Sounds as Embodying Technologies. <2> What interested me in the article the most was how he analyzes the origins of "the designed sounds of today’s computing devices—and shows how they underpin the imagining of computers as extensions of the human body." (Ploeger, 2019)
Ploeger starts off by speaking about when in the early days of computing, operators could hear by the mechanical sound of components, circuit sonification, and clicking relays and tubes if the machine was running correctly or errors occurred. Once transistors were implemented computers itself almost were, apart from some side noises such as the buzzing sound of coolers and buzzing sound, able to operate in silence. Since this audible system feedback was no longer present, engineers missed this information to the sense of hearing and started to connect speakers to electronic circuits in order to computer-generated sounds. That way, patterns, and errors could be heard again.
After an extensive introduction to the mechanical sounds of early computation, the re-entry of system sounds through speakers which lead to experimentation with composing <3> the article continues to the developments that lead to the implementation of early sound chips. Earlier experiences from engineers with the absence of system sounds lead to the integration of sound and a loudspeaker in the first personal computer. After briefly mentioning a few, Ploeger then jumps to the point in time when soundcards could playback full range audio frequencies which lead to a demand for sound design for an operating system. Here, the article goes into detail about how this branding was approached by sound designers and how this impacted the representation of computers as extensions of the human body.
Here I felt that, as a musician myself, working with obsolete technologies, sound and low-tech interfaces, this article connected a lot of my interests. But most importantly, I felt there was something missing. This basically opened up space for me to explore a specific topic in which I could have a voice. In my previous attempt, this urgency was missing. I will now try to unpack this with the acknowledgment that I probably miss some key points (which also excites me).
WHAT: RESEARCH QUESTION
While the older generation of home computers and networking technologies from the early '80s and '90s exposed us to all kinds of characteristic operational and synthesized sounds, current modern omnipresent technological processes seem to become more silent. Due to rapid technological developments these (apparently) unwanted sounds, apart from some a few designed interface cues, are disappearing. Yet, these early synthesized sounds reminded us of all the processes that were running all around us and therefore connected us to the physical and material world of computing and networking.
In my thesis, I want to research the importance of these audible cues that connect us to the material world of computation and networking and try to find out how this silence of processes affects us and our relation to computers as extensions of the human body. All around us, we receive audible cues from processes that create the awareness of a process: something is running. Networking, computing, data storing needs material. What impact will this disconnection have on our agency and critical engagement with our devices? And how do we relate to the emulated and designed sounds? How did they shape us and how do they shape us today (from a cybernetic point of view and the human development as a cyborg) I am interested in the meaning of these early sounds today.
Although almost obsolete, these synthesized sounds of bleeping square waves are printed in our collective memories as archetypical sounds of computing and digital processes as they are still being used in media such as music, games, sound design for movies, etc. Is this because of a nostalgic sentiment or is there a deeper human connection to it? Are these sounds more closely related to the carrier, origins, and digital process?
METHOD & JOURNEY: STRUCTURE
To be concrete, I selected some topics I believe to be important to deconstruct in order to come to a conclusion. These topics will be supported by texts about these matters. Besides that, I collected some 'anecdotal' stories from my own experience that I believe to be valuable to understand and zoom out of the topics. I would also like to integrate these to put my topic in a broader context since it's related to interface sound design in general.
This will be an elaborate version of the outline above. Here, I want to look from different angles how we as humans perceive sound. Here I will focus on the sounds of operational processes.
2. How can sound function as a connection to (digital) materiality <4>
In this chapter, I will deep further on the human body in relation to the sound of processes and what role it has in our lives. I explain how sound, besides vision and tactility is an important factor in understanding the world around us. I also want to address the observation that the signature imperfections of a medium become its defining characteristics (Brian Eno, 1996) <5> and how this shaped the development of the design of today's system sounds.
I will use the following sources, referenced in its entirety below:
- The sound studies Reader (edited by Jonathan Sterne) <6>
- Echoic memory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echoic_memory
- Nathalie Casemajor Digital Materialisms: Frameworks for Digital Media Studies
3. From lo-fi sound chips to high-end sound cards: drifting away from the sound of a CPU
In this chapter, I want to focus on the development of sound chips and how these sounds relate to the material limitations and capacity of computational power. The first sound generated by sound chips were closely related to the speed of the CPU and to the binary process of computation. Although today's soundcards have the capacity to playback full-range sounds, yet, these sounds are still used as the archetypical sound of computation; used by the movie and game industry, games; the timeless sound of square wave bleeps seem retro but also sound like the future.
Beepers & 1-bit sound
With the introduction of the first games, there was a need for sound to create a complete audiovisual experience. The sound chip was introduced in home computers such as the ZX Spectrum. These first chips such as the ' 1-bit beeper' that was used in the ZX Spectrum' were synthesizing sound using the speed op the CPU as a grid. The 1-bit chip makes use of the fundamentals of binary computation: basically ON/OFF values to produce square waves. <7> Within this limitation, white noise could be created by randomizing frequencies.
- Techno cop on Apple 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-JGDziwwOo&t=221s
- Ben Daglish 1-bit ZX spectrum beeper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpH1OX5NlXs
4-bit, 8-bit & introduction of PCM
Four-bit & 8-bit sound, such as the SID chip of the Commodore 64 defined the sound of gaming and early chip music production. I will introduce PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) <8> that made it possible to play (in the beginning, very noisy crunchy) samples that eventually lead to sampled sounds which lead to full range sound cards that could play acoustic sounds.
FM sounds: The chip develops alongside the sound of the '80s
The sound of Frequency modulation printed in our sonic memories of the '80s since the invented and commercially available and relatively cheap synthesizers. Soon after the 16-bit sound chip, full-range sound cards were introduced. From there, it quickly became possible to playback acoustic sounds which made it much more interesting for interface sound design and branding.
- LowLevel manifesto & sonic fiction: rewrite the meaning of obsolete sounds chips <9>
- Brain Eno's brief to design the Windows startup sound
The disappearing of mechanical sounds and audible cues in relation to computing
Next to the generated interface and media sounds, I also want to research the sounds of processes itself. The first examples that popped up into my head when I thought about audible cues of processes related to early computing were buzzing sounds of loading programs from floppy disks, audible data that was stored on cassettes and could be played, the glitchy bleeping noises of a dial-up modem made when accessing the internet.
Some sounds that are still around: the screechy sound of line/matrix printers, blowing fan trying to cool down your CPU from lifting off: all these sounds are disappearing since the knowledge is around how to make processes silent. But is that something we want? Aren't these sounds also calming and give us a sense of control? Is sound a way to understand processes and activate a sense of agency? <10> How does this silence contribute to a lack of understanding of the technological devices and methods upon which the new generation of users depend so much? Here I will research our relationship to omnipresent processes such as data storage via USB, hard drives, cloud storage, software loading via app stores, networking over wifi, Bluetooth, etc.
The same struggles with how to deal with processes that became silent can be found in designing sound for electric cars. Because the motor stopped producing sound, al, sorts of practical problems occur; safety issues when you don't hear a car approaching, the struggle to design sound, the fact people notice it 'lacks emotion', etc. I will also look into the notion of Calm Technology, as proposed in Designing Calm Technology <11> where they talk about the designing for the periphery "which informs but doesn't demand our focus or attention." (Weiser & Seely Brown, 1995)
In contrary to the planned obsolescence we face today <1>, old technological consumer devices such as the first home computers in the '80s and '90s were built to last, designed to open up, and modify (upgrade) to certain needs of the user. When it was broken, it could be fixed. This created a sense of agency and autonomy and a close relationship to the materiality of the computational processes. Next to sound, working with textual material such as command-line interfaces also contributed to this since these are signs of mediation between the user and material. (interface)
What we now consider to be low-tech computers (personal home computers from the early '80s and '90s) actually can be used as a method for educating and learn about the origins of everyday modern technological processes. Revisiting these obsolete methods can create a sense of understanding, control, critical interaction with the devices we blindly trust every day and on which we depend so much. With this disappearing of the audible cues and signals of processes, we drift further away from the material relating to the processes that happen all around us. I am interested in researching what we might lose when all the processes that surround us will become silent.
- Parikka, J. (2015): A Geology of Media (Zombie Media appendix) , Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press.
- Ploeger, D., 2020. Imagining the Seamless Cyborg: Computer System Sounds as Embodying Technologies. The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Imagination, Volume 2, 579 - 593.
- " In 1961, the engineers John Kelly Jr. and Carol Lockbaum, in collaboration with the computer music pioneer Max Matthews, managed to generate human speech sounds with the IBM 7094 mainframe (Smith 2010) <*>. Famously, the 7094 sung the traditional song “Daisy Bell,” a feat that was later referenced by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) where the computer HAL sings the song just before his cognitive functions are disabled." (Ploeger 2019) Kubrick, S. 1968. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
- Casemajor, N., 2015. Digital Materialisms: Frameworks for Digital Media Studies. Westminster Papers in Culture and Communication, 10(1), pp.4-17.
- Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices (London: Faber and Faber, 1995).
- The sound studies Reader (edited by Jonathan Sterne)
- Trois, B., 2020. The 1-Bit Instrument. Journal of Sound and Music in Games, [Online]. Volume 1, number 1, 44 - 74. Available at: http://online.ucpress.edu/jsmg/article-pdf/1/1/44/378624/jsmg_1_1_44.pdf [Accessed 16 November 2020].
- LWLVL. 2020. Manifesto. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.lwlvl.com/manifesto. [Accessed 16 November 2020].
- http://digicults.org/. 2020. Technological Materiality and Assumptions About ‘Active’ Human Agency. [ONLINE] Available at: http://digicults.org/files/2016/11/III.1-Bollmer_2015_Technological-materiality.pdf. [Accessed 11 November 2020].
- Weiser, M. and Seely Brown, J., 1995. Designing Calm Technology. [onlinehttps://people.csail.mit.edu/rudolph/Teaching/weiser.pdf. Available at: <http://www.ubiq.com/weiser/calmtech/calmtech.htm> [Accessed 16 November 2020].
As a musician, I mainly work with obsolete electronic consumer devices that can be turned into instruments. By using homebrew and unofficial software, I am able to program of the sound chip in order to create music. This 'hacking' of low-tech systems challenge me to push and explore the limits of a certain device. Since using soundchips is closely related to the computational process of a device. So musicians are basically programmers. Next to that, I think it's interesting an interesting cultural statement to explore its full potential before discarding it as waste. Working with low-tech devices from the late '80s and early 90's such as Gameboys and TI-calculators, I am not so much interested in the 'retro' aspect. The possibilities to appropriate it by hacking and opening it up. This misusing of technology creates a sense of control and autonomy.
Lately, I my interest to obsolete modulation processes from data into sound, which was used to store software on cassette tapes in the 80's. This materialisation of data, computation and networking into souns will be the connecting my thesis and practice.
Anecdotes and notes:
- anxious: a keyboard making mechanical sounds from touch but not receiving input
- an ATM I prefered because the keyboards mad feedback sounds
- the uncanny silence of an approaching electric car and the struggle for designing 'new' sounds.
- the annoying sound of networking and why I miss it
- starting up my computer: I hear a noisy accoustic sound that doesn't match the slick design
- When I see people doing simple spreadsheets and emailing on a 3000 dollar laptop. (Viznut)
- the sound of the blowing fan that comforts me: its a cue that the limit of the machine
- When taking water from the a tap: sound running water route it takes before it leaves the tap.
- Typing BASIC code with my brother for 2 days to end up with some shitty text based moonlander game.
- Star Wars' sound design of computer and droids and computers: when droids die, they bleep
- how Apple's startup sound is weirdy disconnected with its visual appearence
Transparent design of the Fair Phone; a modular alternative for todays planned obsolesence. As a marketing strategy, some early models have a transparent cases to emphasise the modularuty of the components. (This was discontinued due to material problems "see-through polycarbonate reacts to other chemicals such as lotions, and becomes more fragile over time."
- blur in journalism:
> make prototype!
- keuranemi (
- probes (software to proof of concept)
- freq analysis:
- reorganise tape
- visual scetches (data radio)
notebooks examples: what do they illustrate? how do they fit into the thesis story? accident?
> streetwalks / screenwalks > transcriptie > photographers gallery:
> it revealed something about the recordings >
KCS technique: - history! - context: examples - hearing: - editing decisions?
> speculative (stage it?)
try to work in a transmitable form! editorial proces! designing?
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