Thursday, November 19, 2009

Something Is Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is

Eavesdropping, censorship, recording, and surveillance are weapons of power…Recorded noise and eavesdropping – these are the dreams of political scientists and the fantasies of men in power: to listen, to memorize – this is the ability to interpret and control history, to manipulate the culture of a people, to channel its violence and hopes.
Attali, Noise, pp. 7

Since the earliest philosophical writings tell us, music before the Common Era, and probably even longer, has served as a substance of control. NYU, Media and Communications Professor, Aram Sinnreich analyses it from the origins since Plato’s days until more recent configurable movements. He describes that since the beginning of recorded history, music has constituted modalities of control. The Athens certainly were aware of this 2,300 years ago (when Plato’s Republic was written; 360 BC). He states that, “The Republic suggests that music should be regulated legally, codified through political mandates and policed by the states” (Ch. 1, pp. 4). Sinnreich examines Part III of the Republic. While Socrates is philosophizing with another Athens citizen, they agree that only two harmonic modes are of importance to the State. One is the Dorian, which during wartime is valuable because it builds courage to its listeners. The other one is Phrygian, since it inspires peacetime and encourages obedience. Other rhythms, such as Ionian and Lydian, Socrates suggests, should be vanished from the state as they promote drunkenness, softness, and indolence – these rhythms are too ‘relaxed’ and therefore they are no use to the state. Schafer expands on this point by stating that “A society too drunk with music is incapable of other operational achievements, and the ruler who wishes to stay in power knows how to stimulate music and when to withhold it” (30). Shafer continues, “Music is probably more informative. I refer, of course, to pop music, which is really the only kind permitted in the free world. (Any other kind of music might be, and on occasion has been, considered conspiratorial.)” (29). Sinnreich points out that while Socrates’ concern of music being a modality of control, he only focused on the aesthetic perspective: the rhythm, harmony and timbral (ibid). Although music can serve as a powerful tool for control and regulation, nonetheless, acoustic environments such as caves became inevitably controlling to humans for listening to sounds since ancient times, as well as eavesdropping, and latter other methods of state surveillance.

Dionysius of Syracuse (430-367 BC) the brutal and tyrant leader, rose to power because of war achievements, and famous for his technique on listening. It is speculated, as Schafer’s section “The Ear of Dionysius” describes, that the Tyrant designed prisons in concealed points of observation and with acoustic means to not only monitor prisoners’ actions but listen to their conversations and whispers (28). While the cave, the Ear of Dionysius, actually exists today, it has become a metaphor for all sources of acoustic surveillance conducted by the government as the panopticon and the internet today. Schafer declares, “The ears of the state have never been more curious and open. Everyone has a voiceprint and somewhere everyone’s voice print is on file” (29). Sinnreich distinguishes, “In the case of music, there are at least two other methods of regulation that often come into play: ideological regulation, in which one set of ideas about music is given primacy over another; and commercial regulation in which companies such as broadcasters or record labels serve as “gateways” between musical producers and consumers” (ibid). As technology advanced, techniques of surveillance became inevitably apparent. Shafer continues, “Not all of this listening is carried on in secret. This is no longer necessary once mechanisms are created for society to express itself openly on every possible issue” (29). Sinnreich states, “[A] strategy for coping with institutionalized surveillance…is to participate in the surveillance processes (both as surveillant and object of surveillance)” (Ch. 11, pp. 12). Radio shows and opinion polls then became a more modern way to monitor people when conducting surveys questions for marketing. When media, such as television and radio shows, became popularized, the masses were more willing to participate and share their lives in order to receive exposure.

Even more recent, the internet is looked upon as the new panopticon, or the ultimate form of surveillance while having society’s consent. With new media and the new social networks revolution, we volunteer to have our information on such websites as well as post recordings, pictures, and videos of ourselves. Schafer confesses, “The failure of the twentieth century really comes down to a fascination with buttons and switches in an attempt to modulate information intake. As the twentieth century progressed there were fewer ‘off’ switches; media-massaged society remained in a perpetual state of ‘red alert’” (38). Because newer forms of technology are created and are heavily advertised in today’s society, it is a social ‘unwritten’ rule to own a cell phone in order to keep up with modern culture. Consequently, Schafer notes, “The cellular phone…is the latest installment in this drama. Answer when you’re master calls. Life without secrets, without privacy without freedom. The latest shackle for the technological prisoner to carry about” (38). Besides being on call all the time by the master, what is more uncomfortable and disturbing is that those in authority can ‘turn the switch on’ and listen to anyone’s conversations if they feel like it. Though most of us are aware of this, it has become to a certain degree acceptable, and technology and music have become commodified.

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