A new lecture series entitled "InfoStructure: Intersections Between Social and Technological Systems" is an endeavor to examine and discuss the hidden complexities of information technology systems that can often be obscured by disciplinary boundaries. The first lecture was that of Jonathan Sterne, a Professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. Visit his website at http://sterneworks.org. His talk was titled The MP3 as Standard Object: Infrastructure, Software and the Politics of Media Culture.
Sterne began talking about the history of data compression and digital formats. He started with the example of the aspect ratio. In the early 1950s, Warner Brothers standardized the television industry with a 4:3 ratio. As attendance in cinema began to drop in the 1980s, a new standard ratio was born in order to differentiate the film industry from TV and create capital through the new 16:9 format. In doing so, these standards introduce a fixed way of viewing television, in that, the moving image is confined to a predetermined limitation of the medium.
Sterne uses this visual example as a jumping point into the history of the mp3. Mp3 is an audio-specific format that was designed by the Moving Pictures Expert Group as part of its MPEG-1 standard. The MP3 was officially recognized as a standard in 1991, however sound recording and playback has a rich relationship to early research in telephony, particularly by the folks at the Bell Telephone Company and American Telephone & Telegraph. The fundamental principle of telephony is to get the least amount of data down a wire by compromising quality. The human ear can only access a certain range of sonic frequencies, and telephony had the idea to extract all of those tones in order to decrease the size of data. The mp3 uses this concept through a digital equivalent called encoding. Wikipedia defines an encoder as "a device, circuit, transducer, software program, algorithm or person that converts information from one format or code to another, for the purposes of standardization, speed, secrecy, security, or saving space by shrinking size." Sterne points out that there is a difference between CD audio and mp3 in terms of quality. The CD uses the .WAV file format and has a better quality in terms of file size and the range of frequencies. Although the CD audio quality is both technically and sonically richer, the mp3 still operates as the dominate file format. Sterne argues this shift happened due to the increase in file sharing and a willingness to put up with worse quality for quantity. Therefore, the mp3 became an accepted, willing or not, standard for listening to any type of digital audio. Some media theorist would call the mp3 a disruptive technology, one that rained supreme regardless of its lesser quality or the proprietary nature of the mp3 object.
Sterne points out that more recordings exist in mp3 form than in any other form in the world. What does this mean for artists, musicians, and consumers who use the mp3 in everyday life practice? The mp3 is often considered a file format, however as a sound artist I am interested in the mp3 as a creative format. Similar to paint for a painter, sound is my medium and the mp3 becomes my art object. Sterne left me questioning the idea of sound recording and playback in relationship to the audible capabilities of playback technologies. If the mp3, or wav file for that matter, cannot technically capture a whole range of sound frequencies then where does that leave the sound artist? Given the history of media formats, the visual and sonic artist should continue to question exactly what is gained or lost in the exchange of recording and playback. The human ear alone cannot locate many frequencies in the world, let alone the mp3 object. Sterne presents the question: how does encoding file formats include and/or exclude the spectrum of sound? Does the mp3 help filter out frequencies that I can't hear anyways or does it cheapen ones listening experience?
A contemporary art example would be Cory Arcangel's Iron Maiden's 'The number of the Beast' compressed over and over as an mp3 666 times.