City of Voices (Shannon Mattern)

March 26, 2018 | 00:31:08

Shannon MaternThis episode we have a single longform interview with a media scholar of note–The New School’s Shannon Mattern. We have teamed up with Mediapolis, a journal that places urban studies and media studies into conversation with one another, to interview Mattern about her new book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (U of Minnesota Press: 2018).

And lucky for us on Phantom Power, a large portion of Mattern’s story is about sound, from the echoes of ancient caves to Roman amphitheaters to telephone wires and radio towers—she shows us how sonic infrastructures allow us to communicate and form communities, cultivating forms of intelligence that are embodied and affective, as well as informatic. Before there was the smart city, there was the sonic city—and the sonic city isn’t going anywhere soon.

Some topics discussed: Patrick Feaster and First Sounds; Neil Postman; Harold Innis; Marshall McLuhan; John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous CloudsCarolyn Birdsall’s Nazi Soundscapes. 


[♪ ethereal music ♪]

cris cheek:        This is Phantom Power.

Female computer voice:                       Episode two.

cris cheek:        City of Voices.

[♪ fade out ethereal music ♪]

Shannon Mattern:         When we reduce the city to a computer, we think that everything can be ‘datified,’ everything can be fed through an algorithm. There are actually a lot of really important dimensions, human dimensions in particular, historical dimensions, things that resist ‘datification,’ that don’t really fit into that model. So, there’s a lot about a city that sort of leaks through those algorithms, that isn’t captured when you equate the entire city with a computational machine.

Mack Hagood:             That’s Shannon Mattern, an associate professor of media studies at The New School in New York City. Thanks for joining us on Phantom Power, a podcast about the sonic arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood, flying solo this episode. cris cheek will be back for episode three. Last year we put this episode online as a preview of the series. So, for the couple hundred of you who listened to it, give it another listen. There’s a lot going on. Or just check us out again in two weeks, when we’ll talk to sound artist Brian House. But for everyone else, this episode, we talk with Shannon Mattern about her new book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt:  Five Thousand Years of Urban Media.  A large portion of Mattern’s story is about sound, from the echoes of ancient caves,


to Roman ampitheaters,


to telephone wires and radio towers.

[pre-recorded radio broadcast]

She shows us how sonic infrastructures allow us to communicate and form communities, cultivating forms of intelligence that are embodied and effective, as well as informatic. Before there was the Smart City, there was the ‘sonic city,’ and the sonic city isn’t going anywhere soon.

[♪ bell music ♪]

If you spend any time looking at architecture or design blogs, or reading tech websites or watching TedTalks, you’ve probably encountered a couple of truisms about how human beings will live in the future. The future is urban, and the future is ‘smart.’

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Half of the population of the world’s actually live in cities.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities covering less than 2% of the earth’s surface

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          But cities also give off a lot of challenges.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:              Never have cities been so challenged.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Well, many cities are starting to adopt ‘smart technology.’

[♪ upbeat music ♪]

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  Public transportation, IT connectivity, water and power supplies, sanitation and solid waste management, efficient urban mobility, governments, and citizen participation, and it does this using every buzzword imaginable!

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           Such as the Internet of things.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          The Internet of things?

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  The Internet of things.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           An artificial intelligence.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          And harnessing the power of data.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  From Big Data –

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice 2:           For a multifaceted solution – the smart city.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Male Voice:  Smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice 2:       The Smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          The smart City.

Pre-recorded Unidentified Female Voice:          Everyone talks about being ‘smart.’

[ethereal bell music]

Mack:              Despite the recent hype, the Smart City has been beta testing since the second half of the twentieth century.

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Shannon:         After World War II, for instance, there were quite a few organizations and research groups, and kind of corporations who tried to sell their services and technologies because the War Department didn’t need them anymore – the government, the federal government, that is – to cities. So, companies like Rand and various government agencies used their computer power and their data-based methodologies to try and address urban issues

Mack:              Mattern thinks we should approach this so-called ‘Smart City’ with caution, and unearth the history, ideas, and assumptions that form its infrastructure, just as much as its servers, routers, and fiber-optic cable. And in her new book, she does a kind of urban media archaeology, digging through the strata of media technologies that have always made cities ‘smart.’

Shannon:         Today, with the ubiquity of computing, and particularly with the presence of computing devices in everybody’s pockets and bags, the ‘computer as’ is a metaphor that tends to be kind of universally applied. And we often use the computer, as a metaphor to think about how cities work. And that’s not just a metaphor, actually – we are incorporating a lot of computing power, a lot of sensor technologies, a lot of algorithms, a lot of central control rooms to really regulate and monitor, urban services and flows. But when we reduce the city to a computer, we think that everything can be ‘datified,’ everything can be fed through an algorithm. There are actually a lot of really important dimensions that don’t really fit into that model. Again, there are lots of historical, embodied, and also non-human types of things. These are all our co-inhabitants in urban environments, too. So, these are the things that sometimes leak outside of those algorithmic models.

Mack:              And so, your book really intervenes in this misperception that intelligence equals informatics, right? There’s a passage where you write, ‘yesterday’s cities, even our earliest settlements, were just as smart, although theirs was an intelligence less computational and more material and environmental.’ Can you talk about that?

Shannon:         Sure. So, when I’m mentioning that cities have always been intelligent, but that the historical forms of intelligence have been perhaps more material or environmental than they are computational, I’m arguing that forms of knowledge, even forms of the kinds of things that a computer does today, things like accountancy, administration, that those things have always been performed in cities – in fact, the whole need to account for things, to keep ledgers of things, was something that arose, some historians and archaeologists and anthropologists argue, with the rise of large-scale human settlements. So, things like computation, logistics, management of resources, again have always been inherently urban operations and necessities, but they’ve been taken, they’ve taken place often through more material media – things like clay tablets, bullae, which were kind of the clay tokens that some theorists including Denise Schmidt argues preceded a lot of writing systems. So, these, these forms, these historical forms of intelligence were always there, it’s just that they were registered and processed, if you want to use kind of contemporary computational metaphors, of media that were more analog than digital. Even the urban environment itself, the facades of buildings, the grid of the street, these forms, these types of things, the environment itself, has served as a conduit and a register of a lot of this form, this type of intelligence.

Mack:              Yeah, and you used the word, ‘logistical,’ which reminds me of John Durham Peters’ recent book, The Marvelous Clouds, right, he mentions that our digital new media sort of foregrounds the logistical role of media once again. So, for our field of media studies, it arose during the broadcast era, trying to study radio, film, and TV, but these might really be a sort of deviation in terms of media, right? Or the essential quality of media for somebody like Peters is not sort of the, the sort of transmission of or broadcast of representational information, but its more about managing our relationship to time and space and power.

Shannon:         Absolutely. And if you look again, a lot of historical media, which were prevalent in cities all throughout history, they serve that purpose. So, you had, and this might be kind of a liberal definition of what constitutes media, but this comes from kind of my training in media studies from graduate school, is taking a kind of a McLuhen-esque, informed by his own mentor Innis, and really being pretty capacious in determining what fits within the ‘basket’ of media, so if you look at statuary, at architecture itself, at inscriptions on buildings –  which again stretch our perception of what we might consider as media technologies today – these were all helping to shape people’s experiences, interactions, sync people up with time and space, which is again that much kind of more fundamental understanding of what function logistics serves.

[♪ ethereal bell music ♪]

Mack:              As a student of media ecologist Neil Postman at NYU, Shannon Mattern took her place in the intellectual lineage of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and others who consider media and mediation as integral parts of the lived environment. When in the late oughts she encountered the emergent field of media archaeology, it gave her a new way to frame her already ongoing studies of media cities. Media archaeology is a field that attempts to understand new and emerging media by examining old and often dead media technologies. Mattern takes inspiration from the field, but notes that most of its ‘digging in the past’ is metaphorical. ‘What if we took media archaeology literally,’ she writes, ‘and borrowed a few tricks from archaeologists of the stones and bones variety?’ Her book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt, pushes us in that direction. Each chapter moves us farther back in time, in an examination of old urban media infrastructures, starting with the sonic technologies of the telegraph and radio, then moving to the urban emplacement of the printing press, followed by an examination of the earliest surfaces for writing, clay and stone; and finally, perhaps the oldest medium of them all, the human voice. Each of these media reorganized the city around itself, and each of them is still with us today, as past and future media mingle in the present.

[♪ fade out music ♪]

One of Marshall McLuhan’s more famous ideas, which I think he sort of cribbed from his student Walter J. Ong is that voice communication is this more primitive yet holistic form of communication and he associate, tends to associate it with tribes and villages and that sort of thing. And then we get this more rational yet alienated print culture that I would assume would allow us to build complex things like cities, but one of the things I really liked about your book is that it doesn’t have these sort of clear-cut stages, and in fact it gives us a way to think about the city as a sonic development, and in many ways, to think of a city as a space made for voices.

Shannon:         Right, so, while McLuhan and Innis and Ong have been influential in kind of my foundational study, I think there’s been a lot of thinking and scholarship in the years since they did their work that still values the contributions they made, particularly their very liberal interpretation of what constitutes a medium, their idea that media shape environments, Innis’s idea that even infrastructures and staple goods constitute communications media. So, there’s a lot of value in their work, but at the same time, I think scholars have really questioned this idea that history precedes in various, not necessarily ‘clear-cut,’ but defined revolutions. So, we’ve kind of realized, since these foundational thinkers did their work, that history didn’t really happen the kind of periodic way that they presented it. So, when we think about our urban histories, and how those have been intertwined with our media and communications histories, we also have to recognize that traces, and not necessarily historical ruins but also living, still vibrant, existences of these quote-unquote ‘old media’ are still present in our contemporary cities.

Mack:              Yeah, I really like this word you used of ‘traces,’ and, it makes me think of the sound scholar Patrick Feaster?

Shannon:         Whom I do not know, I’m afraid.

Mack:              Okay. So, so he’s a really interesting person, and somebody who I think of as a very literal media archaeologist. So in his, in his terminology, he educes, the information in old media objects.  So, so Feaster is best known for digitally educing sound from the phonotograph –

Shannon:         Huh.

Mack:  – which was that 19th century stylus that traced soundwaves onto sort of scratchy lines of paper.

Shannon:         Uh-huh.

Mack:              And he figured out, with his partners, a way to, digitize that sound and actually turn it into sound, educe sound from this thing that was just supposed to be a visual tracing of sound waves.

[scratchy sounds from phonotograph fade in]

And then he moved on to do things like use this technique on medieval musical notation, drawing sound out of these pieces of paper.

Shannon:         Hm.

Mack:              And, once he said to me – and I think he was half-joking [laughter] – that he would like to educe acoustic events that had sort of registered themselves on clay walls millennia ago. But I think this word ‘eduction’ is a good word for the kind of work you’re doing in this book, because we can’t reproduce the sounds of the past, but we can treat the city as a historical medium in itself and try to coax these remnants of forgotten sounds from that medium.

Shannon:         So, I appreciate that very much. And yes, I like this idea of ‘eduction,’ which isn’t really a word that I used in the book, but now that you’ve mentioned it, it really does resonate very nicely. And I think that plays out that methodology kind of, unintentionally on my part, kind of plays out a few places in the book. Sonic media are one particular, kind of I guess you could call it ‘class of media,’ that make it, make historic study kind of difficult, especially when you’re looking past the beyond, or preceding the time before recorded sound. How do you know what a space sounded like before you had recordings that you could play back on machines today? This is something that sonic historians, the rise of the whole field of sensory history over the past 15 or so years, they have been addressing these methodological issues, particularly the problematics of doing things like recreations or re-staging, because our contemporary ears that are so, ruined by earbuds and the contemporary use of autotune, et cetera, the way we’re trained to hear today, we just couldn’t possibly imagine the cultural, class, racial, historically defined ways that people heard in these preceding eras. But, there is still something to be learned by thinking about our historical environments, not just as visual and material spaces. We don’t necessarily have to be limited by the senses that our, existing historical records leave for us. Even images, tracings in the walls, ruins – archaeological ruins, for instance, still offer, again, traces or echoes of what they might have sounded, how they might have reverberated or resonated in the past. So, Emily Thompson wrote a really foundational book in 2002, goodness, Soundscape of Modernity, where she really has to use things like photographs, catalogues of acoustic materials, textbooks from the, kind of the rising field of architectural acoustics, to piece together what these new, modernist architectures sounded like. You also have then the field of archaeology, I would say maybe a marginalized but still present community of people who are practicing archaeo-acoustics who are using somewhat speculative methods, still adopting a lot of the media technologies, so there’s a lot of intersection of what we do in media studies in this field of archae-acoustics, to try to imagine how certain rituals or everyday practices might have functioned as sonic practices in historical or ancient environments. So, testing reverberation patterns, seeing how particular hallways or subterranean spaces might’ve lent themselves to particular types of acoustic or verbal events or performances, and again this is speculative, but still it opens up a richer, more multisensorial, more performative form of history, and, allows us to recognize kind of different, different types of embodied history, I guess you could say.

Mack:              Yeah, there’s a really lovely episode of David Hendy’s BBC radio series Noise:  A Human History

Shannon:         Yes, uh-huh.

Mack:              – with the French scholar Iégor Reznikoff, who, you also mention in your book.

Shannon:         Mm-hmm.

[clip from Noise:  A Human History]

David Hendy:              Iégor Reznikoff is one of several archaeologists who’ve tried an intriguing experiment. Moving slowly, and in total darkness along the narrower passages in caves –

[Iégor Reznikoff vocalizing in the background]

Like Arcy-Sur-Cure they’ve used their voices as a kind of sonar, sending out a pulse of sound, then listening out for any unusually resonant response.

[end clip]

Mack:              He is sort of moving through these caves in France, using his voice to sort of sound out the spaces, and then when he encounters particularly resonant spaces, he’ll turn on his flashlight and quite often, that’s where the cave art will be located, not in a space that would be the most obvious visually, and in fact often the cave art is in a pretty inaccessible and strange space from a visual perspective, but from a sonic perspective, it’s a place where the cave speaks back to you.

[another clip from Noise:  A Human History]

[Iégor Reznikoff vocalizing]

David Hendy:              We’re near the bottom of the main hall, where each sound might provoke up to seven echoes, and, looking around, we can see several mammoths, some bears, a rhinoceros or two, some fish, some sort of big cat, and on the floor, the delicate outlines of a bird.

[end clip]

Shannon:         Right, absolutely. To understand how some of our oldest media, including things like cave paintings, worked, we have to realize that they were very much embodied, performative experiences. They were kind of training rituals, for people to learn the hunt, essentially. The resonance of the space was combining with the flickering light which made the cave paintings supposedly look like they were dancing – not dancing, but moving, which really kind of reinforced the power of those experiences, of seeing the bison running, hearing their footsteps, and kind of psyching yourself up to go out for the hunt.

Mack:              And so this perspective allows us to start thinking about the city as an outgrowth of that, right? That there’s a sort of embodied and affective intelligence and communication that evolves in and through the city and that throughout time we have actually developed spaces for verbal and oral communication, as you argue. So, Walter Ong thought of Ancient Greece as the site where the transition form orality to literacy happened, but you show in your book that the oral rhetoric and the Ancient City were sort of a co-production, right? Like, they literally shaped one another. Oral rhetoric and the space of the Roman City, for example, were shaped for and by one another.

Shannon:         Right, so if you look at Classical, philosophy, you look at the work of kind of early architects, before they were officially architects, the work of Vitruvius, for instance. You can see that acoustics was an integral part of not only the way a city should be designed but also of even these idealistic visions or imaginations of what a just, ideal city would be. So, the city is a space of discourse. The voice is an integral thing that has to be essentially planned for when we are organizing our cities. The idea that a city shouldn’t be so big that you can’t hear the voice of a herald standing in the center of the city calling out to everybody. You need something that’s going to unite everybody within an acoustic environment. So there are a lot of these principles that shaped ideals for the city and actual plans. You can look at things like the way an amphitheater was designed, for instance, or the way certain kind of meeting spaces in Ancient Greece and Rome were designed, kind of legislative spaces. There were definite acoustic principles that were shaping the materialization of those sites.

Mack:              You use this wonderful term, I don’t know if this comes from Carolyn Birdsall’s book Nazi Soundscapes or not, but you talk about this ‘affirmative resonance,’ right, the way that sound in a collective space can sort of interpolate us as subjects or group members.

Shannon:         Right. I do think that is Carolyn Birdsall’s term in regard to Nazi Soundscapes, but you can see that principle applying elsewhere too. You can see it today in protest movements around the world.

[rhythmic clattering sounds fade in]

In, the sound politics of making noise among marginalized populations, the fact that they’re kind of claiming their right to space by creating an acoustic envelope for it. So, these are still examples of this principle of affirmative resonance. It’s enclosing people who are within the earshot as being within a community of some sort.

[clattering fades]

Mack:              I can’t help but think about Trump rallies when I’m, uh…

[both laugh]

I mean, Trump is sort of a master architect of effective spaces –

[fade in an unintelligible Trump speaking through a megaphone, crowd cheering]

[fade out clip]

– Trump is a sort of architect of effective spaces, and sound is a big part of what he does.

Shannon:         Yeah, so I guess you could say that the idea of affirmative resonance does not necessarily suit one particular political orientation over another, it’s not an inherently democratizing, progressive type of thing, it’s not necessarily for radical protest, for instance; it is a method, I guess you could say a socialization method, for lack of a better phrase, that could serve multiple political purposes and end goals.

Mack:              Yeah, I think that’s very important, because we get excited about things like The People’s Microphone in Zucotti Park, and, I mean, that’s very wonderful, but these resonances can have all kinds of effects, and it’s definitely not only progressive, for sure.

Shannon:         Right. The Third Reich used that principle very well too, just as the liberation movements in the Middle East around 2011, and, as you mentioned, Zucotti Park, so, yes, it operates for multiple ideologies.

[♪ ethereal music and radio interference fading in, a man’s voice ♪]

Mack:              But I also want to talk about the radio stuff.

Shannon:         Okay.

Mack:              In chapter one, you focus on radio as what you call an ‘ethereal medium,’ so, it’s a medium that almost supernaturally affects the atmosphere of a city with sounds and voices that are carried on electromagnetic waves, but at the same time, it’s also a heavily material system. As you mentioned, there are wires and tubes and transmitters and switches. So, maybe we could say that this chapter is about radio as a force that reshaped the city both materially and immaterially?

[ ♪ fade in song “Mr. Radio Man” broadcast over a radio]

Shannon:         Yeah, absolutely.

[♪ music continues to play ♪]

Sound, we could say, is a medium without a body. It doesn’t really have a material instantiation in the same way that a printed book does, or a carved clay tablet, for instance. So, it is ethereal, in that way, and particularly if you look at some of the early writing about radio when it first came into existence, it kind of was, there was a lot of spiritualized language surrounding it. It was very much connected to kind of the rise of spiritualism, with some of its wired predecessors, the telegraph and the telephone as well.

[song becomes clear. ♪ Mr. Radio Man, tell my mama to come back home, won’t you do what you can, `cos I’m so lonely, I’ve been listening here every day, since she went away, but no word from Heaven’s been heard, can’t the angels hear me pray, when the sandman is nigh ♪]

[♪ music fades ♪]

But, these seemingly ethereal media do have, as you said, a lot of very material kind of effects on the landscape. And this is something that sounds like a new revelation in the Data Age, and the past few years a lot of theorists and artists and designers have talked about, surprise, the Internet is a place, you know, it actually has a material existence, it lives in data centers and cables and satellites, et cetera, and that was very important for us to recognize because it helps us to realize the uneven distribution of connectivity, it helps us to recognize there’s a political economy and ownership structures, to see the Internet as a thing with a geography that shapes space and is shaped by geography, which I think is a very kind of important revelation for us in the Digital Age, to think critically about these seemingly placeless ethereal media. A similar thing was happening in kind of the radio and telegraph and telephone age – these things that were kind of discussed in this romantic, often spiritual language, had a very physical, architectural impact on the landscape. Again, laying cable, building new architectures, new purpose-built buildings, the rise to new in some cases beautiful antennae that inspired a lot of aesthetic movements at the time, so their traces were very physically present in the landscape, too.

[♪ fade in ethereal music and radio interference ♪]

Mack:              And this is where we come full circle. Because, you know that ethereal magic we all love today – WiFi, and LTE? Yes, that invisible connection that allows us to text our friends and control our thermostats from afar, and imagine our data as sending into the Cloud just like the angels – that’s radio too. Both the hardware and the spiritualism of the Smart City show evidence of radio’s material and ethereal influence.

[fade in clicking computer processing sounds]

Shannon:         And also today, with the rise of Smart Cities and the Internet of things, is the fact that we have these devices that are talking to each other all throughout our cities, supposedly making life much more efficient and allowing us to monitor things like air quality and traffic, et cetera, we’re still relying on radio technologies and a lot of line of sight communication to make that happen. So, radio might be used by different devices, but radio, kind of the whole world of radio technology, is still super present in our cities today.

Mack:              Shannon Mattern, talking about her book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt:  Five Thousand Years of Urban Media, out on Minnesota Press, and this episode was written, edited, and musically scored by me, Mack Hagood. Special thanks to Shannon Mattern and special thanks to Orfeas Skutelis at The New School for his engineering assistance. This episode was produced in conjunction with Mediapolis:  A Journal of Cities and Culture. Mediapolis is edited by Brendon Kredell and Erica Stein. The reviews editor, who suggested today’s interview, is Noelle Griffis. You can get lots more great content on media and cities at Phantom Power is produced by me and my cohost, the poet and media artist cris cheek, and you can get more information at Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.