Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture
by Frances Dyson
University of California Press, 2009
262 pps., $24.95

There are, today, somewhere on the order of 1.67 billion internet users in the world. Staggeringly, about 1.65 billion of these are new since the mid-90s. Today nearly a quarter of the world’s population has a degree of internet access. Just over a decade ago, that figure was a fraction of a percent.

A certain debate raged in the fraction-of-a-percent years, especially among people who predicted (or at least fantasized about) the coming expansion. A vast, valuable-looking tract spread across the horizon. Silicon-era von Bismarcks sitting in chat room Berlin Conferences began to wonder and clamor about who should control it and how. On one side, those of a more libertarian bent argued that “cyberspace” was fundamentally ungovernable, owing to its transnational infrastructure, and that in any case regulation would be overreaching, ineffective, and potentially a colossal buzzkill. On the other, proponents of internet governance countered that traditional regulations could and must be adapted to new contexts. If libel, theft, harassment, fraud, and other crimes were possible online – and they all were, demonstrably – then states were obliged to protect users thus exposed, and to prosecute the responsible parties.

The problem at the root of this debate was about spatiality, and the debate itself was often conducted in the language of territorial expansion and settlement. The libertarians believed that “real” and “virtual” space were distinct realms, structurally foreign to one another, and that the virtual was properly anarchic. John Perry Barlow, in a statement that typified this position, wrote in 1991 that “the old concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context, based as they are on physical manifestation, do not apply succinctly in a world where there can be none.” For Barlow, cyberspace was a world apart, at most a neighbor to the material universe of the real. But “coming into the country” (the title of one of his essays) inevitably meant making choices about how to live on the wild digital frontier. Would our new-world settlements facilitate personal privacy or corporate control? Barlow offered the analogical figures of frontier anarchists and corporate fur traders, respectively, to represent the advocates of these outcomes, and pushed hard for the greater legitimacy of the first. (An ironic position, as it happens – who benefits from decreased regulation more than corporations?)

Regulation proponents responded that the so-called “virtual” world was actually just a new aspect of a current reality, an overlay of communications that allowed faster and more flexible exchanges, but that did not by any means unsettle jurisdiction or legal doctrine, even if it might necessitate certain adjustments. Jack Goldsmith wrote, in 1998, that “the skeptics are in the grip of a nineteenth century territorialist conception of how ‘real space’ is regulated and how ‘real-space’ conflicts of law are resolved. This conception was repudiated in the middle of this century.” Goldsmith suggested that the activation of hardware or software amounted to real-world checkpoints where users automatically became subject to the legal restrictions of specific territories. With the stakes of digital communication rising by the nanosecond, accountability at the level of existing sovereign entities was not only practical but imperative.

In technological time, that was then. But one-and-a-half billion users later, the debate hasn’t budged much. On October 5th, 2009, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission published new guidelines for full disclosure of paid endorsements, with particular regard to bloggers. The guidelines are not themselves laws, but are an interpretation of the 1980 Federal Trade Commission Act in terms of how that act applies to new media. With the transposition of old regulations to contemporary modes of communication, the FTC is doing precisely what Jack Goldsmith argued for in the late 1990s; that is, adapting existing structures of accountability to modern environments.

And there certainly seem to be good reasons for doing so. PayPerPost, a deliberately opaque provider of sponsored online advertising, has become a multi-billion dollar operation within three years, and has inspired many clones. The company has also, predictably, recently developed a “Sponsored Tweets” concept. It is an ingenious system that matches posters with advertisers, allowing the former to shill for the latter in mutually profitable ways. PayPerPost’s transparency requirements (naturally, in the absence of any legal impetus otherwise) have been described as laughably weak.

Meanwhile, popular blogs and celebrity Twitter accounts might have millions of eyes on them in a day. The temptation for advertisers to arrange to transform these platforms into paid advertorials, all the more valuable because there is no mandate of transparency, is bound to be a powerful one. Consumers presumably lose in this scenario, having no way to know whether Claritin-D is a miracle cure for Miley’s allergies, or whether Schering-Plough is in fact writing her a check. Common sense suggests that the FTC, with limited money and personnel (just 1200 employees, in a nation with uncountable millions of blogs, not to mention social networking accounts) would concern itself precisely with high-profile, high-yield cases like this.

The outcry against the guidelines from bloggers, however, has echoed John Perry Barlow’s earlier objections with surprising fidelity. First, some bloggers assert, the internet is simply not a medium like television or radio. It is empty space, like air, and the communications that take place within it should be sacrosanct like any other constitutionally-protected form of individual free speech. As Jeff Jarvis puts it:

the FTC assumes – as media people do – that the internet is a medium. It’s not. It’s a place where people talk … for the FTC to go after bloggers and social media – as they explicitly do – is the same as sending a government goon into Denny’s to listen to the conversations in the corner booth and demand that you disclose that your Uncle Vinnie owns the pizzeria whose product you just endorsed.

Second, and relatedly, many bloggers see the guidelines as a tremendous overreach that puts ordinary citizens who discuss any product online – including in a Twitter post or an Amazon review – at risk of committing unwitting criminal action. About this, they point to the clause in the FTC’s interpretation which states that “bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” Hypothetically, if a publisher sent a free copy of a book to be reviewed by a website, the site would have to include a disclaimer about the freebie along with its post. In the view of the dissenters, this gives the government the right to intrude unfairly on private affairs.

Third, many bloggers feel that the guidelines are ham-handedly ignorant about the specificities of blogging and social media, and that as a consequence any online communication may be compromised. Jack Schafer at Slate shudders that “the vagueness of [the] guidelines doth make suspects of you all.” The vagueness problem has also been cited as a reason why the guidelines will inevitably fail – the internet simply cannot be regulated by dead-tree-pushing bureaucrats. Several commentators have called the FTC’s actions a “power grab,” and others have even called for the commission’s outright abolishment.

A new sound studies book (of all things) makes a convincing case against the ontological assertions made by the anti-regulatory bloggers. Frances Dyson’s Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture is not about the legal particulars of online endorsements, but it is very much about our flawed and at times troubling perceptions of new media. Her book also provides a sober historical and philosophical perspective that fills in some of the most glaring gaps in debates about the internet as a place.

The thesis of Sounding New Media is, in brief, that our most ingrained assumptions about digital environments closely parallel similarly ingrained assumptions about sound. “The ‘new’ of new media,” she writes, “depends on redefining embodiment, space, reality, and experience in ways remarkably similar to notions of immersion and transcendence associated with audiophony.” [1]
Considering some tried-and-true deep sonic thinkers (R. Murray Schafer, John Cage, Edgar Varèse, Antonin Artaud, Pierre Schaeffer) and some fresher ones as well (Char Davies, Catherine Richards), Dyson identifies and critiques some predominant metaphysical tropes about sound. [2] These tropes, she argues, are often marked by romantic fantasies about the disappearance of mediation in environments so immersive, so full of feeling, that people look to them for psychic restoration.

We have all chased such a metaphysics or, at the very least, known others who have. Dyson briefly alludes, for example, to 90s rave culture, where the combination of sound loud enough to be felt on the skin, bodily co-presence, and chemical highs offered a wellspring of unity and pleasure among groups of people, as well as in one’s own consciousness. Sound was absolutely crucial here, since it seemed both inexhaustible and accessible to everyone at once. In an alienating modern world, sound promised to heal rifts both cultural and technological by bringing everyone together in a single sensual field.

Sound is conscripted in the production of this togetherness, according to Dyson, because in a society where the truest realities are the most empirically approachable (that is, visible), sound becomes an enigma, a thing which is not quite a thing because it cannot be grasped or observed. This effect is only exaggerated when we wear headphones, which encourages us to imagine music reaching our ears with nothing in between. In such a rationalist context, it is easy to miss the fact that sound is indeed and entirely real – that it is by nature a physical force with a material basis, and that it always travels through mediating channels. But being invisible, it draws anti-modern romantics like a spiderweb.

Fantasies about new media and virtual environments function in much the same way, snaring a specially credulous breed of romantics called technophiles. When our field of vision is encompassed by a screen, we tend to assume that we have entered whatever picture we might be observing. This assumption is motivated by an ontology so powerful as to be undisturbed by the utter lack of tactility, smell, taste, and dimensionality which, even with a quarter of the world online, remain stubbornly absolute. Focused in this way on seeing as being-in, we quickly jump to the conclusion that the internet must be a space. Furthermore, we imagine that once we enter that space, whatever conveyance brought us can be conveniently left behind, like a parked car. Our experiences once inside are thence regarded as untouched by technology. Recall Jarvis’ claim: “the FTC assumes – as media people do – that the internet is a medium. It’s not. It’s a place where people talk.” Logic like this leads us to believe, not only rhetorically but all too often really, that technological advances will progressively allow richer and richer modes of being “inside” digital space. The culmination of these advances, were they not imaginary, would be a total move away from the physical realm of bodies and into one of pure, immaterial communication.

But believing this depends on an extreme form of tunnel vision. The actual net effect of our partial blindness – far from partitioning the universe into virtual and real spaces – is the inauguration of a single material world, our whole world, the same one as before, where all entities can be regarded as digital, reducible to code like the things we see on screens. We collectively come to understand our bodies as mechanical, our histories as unfolding scripts, and even our houses as bug’s nests of binary code:

Dyson is most explicit about this in the chapter titled “Embodying Technology,” asserting tersely that “computing …. renders the body a thing to be computed.” [3] This portion of the book argues against, or at the very least complicates, some of the most frequently-cited literature on posthumanity, including the work of Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway.

Sounding New Media is in fact worthwhile for a number of reasons other than those discussed here. It is an original and astute analysis of perception, sense, and knowledge, and will be of interest to a variety of readers in different disciplines. But reading it when I did, it happened to resonate most powerfully as a well-crafted theorization of the source of some persistent prejudices about media. These prejudices, far from being obscure matters of ontological debate, have had a clear impact on the architecture of digital interfaces, which are very much a part of our world.


Dyson, p. 182

Dyson commits the entire middle portion of the book to specific discussions of these figures and their ideas, as well as to the writing of Heidegger, Derrida, and other philosophers who have theorized sound or sonority. The present review focuses very narrowly on one of the author’s general theoretical assertions, for reasons of expediency largely bypassing these particular discussions.

Dyson, p. 154

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