Sterne, Format Theory Post

Hey, it’s me again! Because we both accidently wrote posts about the same reading, Kate and I broke down the second half of the readings for this week to blog about before class on Wednesday. Sorry again for the confusion! This blog post is about Sterne’s Format Theory chapter in his book about the  history of the MP3.

Before reading this chapter, I had only really thought about MP3 audio files in terms of technology like the ipod (RIP). However, Sterne sees the MP3 as the “point of entry into the interconnected histories of sound and communication in the twentieth century” (2). In the chapter, Sterne emphasized the historical roots of the MP3, especially the strides made during in researching auditory perceptions during the devlopment of the telephone. I thought this was interesting because I tend to think of the MP3 has a relatively new technology, but Sterne shows readers that telephony and the “peculiar characteristics of its infrastructure are central to the sound of most audio technologies over the past 130-odd years,” (3)  that can be seen in the MP3 audio format.

Sterne states that the history of the MP3 belongs to a general history of compression (5) .  As people and institutions have developed new media new technologies, they have also sought out waysto make this new media more efficient. I learned that MP3s discard the parts of the audio signal that are unlikely to be audible to us and reorganize redundant data in the recording to make  the file smaller, meaning it takes up less storage space. The fact that MP3 audio files can do this, demonstrate that the MP3 “carries within it practical and philosophical understandings of what it means to communicate, what it means to listen or speak, how the mind’s ear works, and what it means to make music (2).”  MP3 files are not just files on a computer, they reflect entire histories of sonic practices that can be traced back to over a hundred years ago.  Considering the importance of MP3 audio files within the practice of oral history, it is important to understand the history that makes MP3 files possible. 

Questions to consider:

1.  Sterne calls the MP3 the world’s preeminent audio format in this moment, until it is eclipsed by something better and more efficient. Is there any current audio formats that you think can rival the MP3?

2.  Sterne states that we should be more confortable talking about the  changes in format, similar to how we discuss the history of visual art or printing, what might be the benefits of this? Challenges?




2 Replies to “Sterne, Format Theory Post”

  1. I think the main challenge of discussing changing formats in audio files particularly (but really all digital file formats) is that it requires a lot of technical knowledge to understand the nuances of each format, so a lot of people are excluded from the conversation. The history of visual art or printing has a product that most people can process, even if they maybe aren’t up to date on the technological aspects of how it was created, but for most people sound files sound fairly similar.

  2. This reading touches on the problem of technology as far as innovation goes. In the digital world it is nearly impossible to future proof and as new formats overtake the old, we need to be prepared for mass-conversion of previous record. As far as historical research is concerned this presents two main issues. Will it be worthwhile or feasible to convert everything? Since it presumably will not be, who chooses what will be kept and why? Additionally, increasingly specialized technology will be required in order to preserve and convert older audio files which presents only further funding issues. MP3 will not live forever, we need to be ready for new technology when it comes around.

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