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Jonathan Sterne. MP3: The Meaning of a Format.

Jonathan Sterne. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012. 360 pp.

Jonathan Sterne's MP3: The Meaning of a Format joins a growing body of research on the pre-digital origins of digital media. The major work of the book is to trace the history of the technological research and theoretical assumptions that would eventually be codified in the MP3 format. The meaning of the format, as he describes it, arises not so much from its current dominance of online file sharing or its physical structures--although the book touches upon both topics--as from its incorporation of ideas about the relationship between recorded sound and listening subjects. Sterne advocates "format theory" as an alternative to media theory, and his excellent book demonstrates the rich potential of this approach. In the process, MP3 highlights the contributions of agents who are often downplayed in histories of media: scientific researchers and the developers of corporate infrastructure.

The book's organization is roughly chronological, moving through the three main phases of research that, according to Sterne, led to the codification of the MP3 standard. He locates the MP3's origins in hearing research conducted a century ago. In order to maximize its use of bandwidth (and thus its profits), AT&T worked to determine which frequencies of sound were perceptible and thus strictly necessary for telephony. This allowed the company to harness "perceptual capital," value created not by labor but by what users do not perceive. This research was part of the larger growth of psychoacoustics, which shifted the emphasis of research on sound and hearing towards the inner ear and the mind. Sterne contends that early telephony research was the foundation for information theory and cybernetics--both in its conclusion that biological ears and technological media were interchangeable and in its de-emphasis of semantic content.

The second period in the MP3's history is the change in the status of noise in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Where the first phase changed assumptions about human hearing, the second led to the development of perceptual coding, the compression method used in MP3s. Perceptual coding research arose from the confluence of three factors: the theorization of masking and critical bands (both of which enabled scientists to build models of hearing that did not depend on the subjectivity of the hearing subject), the use of computers in sound, and, critically, the domestication of noise. Using masking, engineers no longer needed to eradicate noise: communication systems and sound recordings could manipulate the perceived level of noise rather than the actual level.

Finally, Sterne discusses the development of the MP3 standard during the past three decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, multiple companies and institutes collaborated to create a series of standards. Sterne's account is carefully anti-teleological: MP3 was one of several standards created under the aegis of the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG), and its eventual dominance in music recording and file sharing was neither guaranteed by its inherent properties nor even initially anticipated by MPEG. The competing MPEG standards were evaluated using a series of listening tests, based on the principles of psychoacoustics. Although the tests aspired to universality and objective measurement, they required users to exercise aesthetic judgment (evaluating whether noise was "annoying"), and they were subject to the idiosyncrasies of individual users. Nevertheless, these tests established a sonic baseline for the MP3 format. This history raises the question of which expertise counts when we listen to music: do we trust engineers, expert listeners, or the artist herself when we evaluate the sound quality of an MP3 version of "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega (a recording whose warm tones allegedly set the ideal for MP3 sound)?

The sixth chapter, "Is Music a Thing?," considers the current status of MP3s and their use in file sharing. Sterne argues that music is best understood as a "bundle of affordances," both process and thing, and that MP3s are best conceptualized in terms of licensing. Chronicling the MP3's rise in prominence as a music format, the book cautions against romanticizing MP3 piracy. Illegal file sharing need not challenge either the traditional music industry or the inequities of capitalism. MP3 concludes by speculating on the format's future. Although it is probable that MP3s will eventually lose their dominance, their current ubiquity likely guarantees their persistence for some time. MP3s raise problems for archiving, however. This is due not only to the general problems of obsolescence that tend to affect digital media but also to the fact that copyright makes it difficult to distribute and preserve genres like mashups. Whatever the future of the MP3 format, Sterne asserts that compression in sound recording will persist. While communication history has been understood largely through the lens of media, an emphasis on format and infrastructure will be better able to account for future developments in the ways that we exchange information and listen to sound.

A reader seeking a sustained examination of the MP3's role in the contemporary music economy should look elsewhere. Sterne's work is no less valuable for shifting the temporal and theoretical contexts in which the MP3 matters beyond this framework. MP3 is an engrossing read, blending thorough historical research, clear explanations of technical concepts, and flashes of wry humor. In describing the multiple strands of technological research that would become encoded in the MP3 format--and in opening up the kinds of contexts that make formats meaningful--this book makes an important contribution to sound studies and media theory (even as it exposes the limitations of the latter).

Julia Panko, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Author:Panko, Julia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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