View of Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher's installation Reel to Reel, 2007, wood, wires, motor, cameras, computer and mixed mediums, dimensions variable. Courtesy Derek Eller Gallery, New York.

Jonathan Sterne
MP3: The Meaning of a Format

Durham, N.C., and London, Duke University Press, 2012; 360 pages, $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.


Imagine an "expert listener" ensconced in an ideal listening environment: a medium-size room with a carpeted floor and an array of sound-absorbing acoustical foam. He is a recording engineer, a piano tuner or an audiophile, and has been trained to test a new coder-decoder, or "codec," for transmitting digital audio. His task is to determine whether the program's compression of sound produces "artifacts," perceptible losses or disturbances. His reactions may help shape the listening experiences of millions of people for years to come. He is a white, middle-class male around the age of 40; his favorite band is King Crimson. He switches between a reference audio and the coded audio and wonders: Am I testing the technology or is the technology testing me?

For a long time, he concentrates on the seemingly arbitrary procession of sounds: a melodious phrase rung by tubular bells, an organ riff from Handel, an arpeggio played on a saxophone, a disco beat he recognizes as coming from ABBA's "The Visitors." He strains to hear the codec at work. He is equipped with a five-point scale that contains 50 gradations of annoyance. He asks himself: Are there subtle differences in the signals and, if so, do they annoy me? 

"Annoying is an aesthetic category, and one of some refinement," Jonathan Sterne writes in MP3: The Meaning of a Format (2012), which chronicles the creation of the ubiquitous file format. This process, initiated in 1988 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a Geneva-based consortium of national standards agencies charged with setting voluntary technical guidelines for industry and commerce, was largely scientific. But all along the engineering experiments and listening tests were accompanied by political wrangling, negotiations between international telecommunications companies, and value judgments. The expert listeners and the machinery inevitably influenced one another. The MP3 standard issued in 1992 by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), an offshoot of the ISO, effectively universalized the sonic tastes of the expert listeners.

To Sterne, a musician and professor of media studies at Montreal's McGill University, the story of the MP3 reveals much about the politics of media today. Just as in representative government, an elite cadre—here, individuals with an ear for the proper timbre of an organ swell—stand in for the rest of us. In the case of the MP3, this flawed procedure ended up working quite well. Who actually notices, much less complains about, MP3 coding, which excises redundant, imperceptible data from a file, making it smaller and easier to transfer? Though the expert listener in a controlled environment might detect the missing information, the average listener using bookshelf speakers or cheap headphones is none the wiser.

Sterne's primary concern is not that anyone has been wronged by the MP3, but rather that standards in general should be regarded as a potent force for reshaping social and political life:

If we are moving into an age in which important technological shifts in communication happen as often in software as in hardware, if new formats can sometimes eclipse new media in importance, then the politics of standards may eclipse the governmental regulation of broadcast or telecommunications as a crucial site where policy happens, and where the everyday affordances and constraints of media are shaped for the end-user.

Sterne, whose previous book, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (2003), examines the evolution of modern recording technologies and musical cultures, argues that end users give meaning to formats by establishing cultural practices around them: listening to playlists on an iPod, composing with Ableton Live software, sampling and remixing, copying and sharing. For that reason, the task of creatively determining how to use and value media (rather than accepting industry prescriptions) should be shared by artists, musicians, engineers, lawyers, so-called pirates and policy makers.

Sterne considers the file format a prime nexus of our algorithmic culture. He argues that the use of compression, which makes communication more economical and mobile, is eclipsing the effort to achieve ever greater fidelity to real-world referents. Despite the fact that digital files now tend to fluidly inhabit various kinds of hardware, most historic accounts still focus on the progression from one physical medium to the next, from vinyl to tape to CD and beyond. Sterne shows that the desire to achieve greater compression rather than greater fidelity is nothing new, tracing the MP3 to early 20th-century research in psychoacoustics by scientists and corporations.

While we tend to think of telecommunications as being governed by rules that are formed more or less in public, with state oversight and a modicum of public engagement, the history of the MP3 shows that standards—which are both crucial and insidious—often get hatched in obscurity and disseminated quietly. The dominance of the expert listener in the MPEG negotiations may not seem remarkable until you consider how analogous processes result in standards that increasingly govern not only file formats but global trade, agricultural production, professional accreditation, scientific research and higher education.

Rooting the MP3 within the broader history of psychoacoustic research, Sterne provides an extensive chronicle of experiments, methodological shifts and innovations in telegraph and telephone technology. The short version: to increase profits, AT&T wanted to maximize the number of calls that phone lines could accommodate, and so needed to figure out which audio frequencies were not vital to transmitting intelligible speech. Once those frequencies were eliminated, AT&T could use the bandwidth for additional calls. Essentially, the origins of compression involved wiring the human ear into the telecommunications system. By 1924, thanks to new filtering techniques, AT&T managed to quadruple the capacity of its lines.

However, the science of hearing was still shoddy. Until the audiometer came into widespread use around 1930, clinicians conducting tests had to rely on tuning forks and ticking watches. Without a stronger empirical understanding of hearing, AT&T couldn't fully exploit its infrastructure. Then in the 1940s, while working alongside a number of other brilliant mathematicians and engineers at AT&T's research wing, Bell Labs, Claude Shannon developed the fundamentals of information theory. By quantifying signal content, this model enabled the company to minimize the "noise" within its system, achieving clear transmission with much greater efficiency.

The rest is . . . dense. Suffice it to say that this symbiotic relationship between corporations and scientists revolutionized information technology. When the MP3 became a standard, Sterne writes, it reflected "the administrative mentality of the modern corporation," which we all unconsciously imbibed. But the MP3 didn't become the standard immediately. The holder of the key algorithm patent, a German institute called Fraunhofer IIS, had little luck with the market until the mid-'90s, when its MP3 compression software was pirated and widely distributed, an accommodating media player called WinPlay3 was released, the name MP3 displaced the mystifying "MPEG-1 audio layer 3," and faster Internet connections led to an explosion of file-sharing. Sterne shows that, despite much post-Napster hand-wringing and doomsaying, piracy often enables all kinds of legitimate market activities, and in much of the developing world it has actually conjured up markets for cassettes, CDs and DVDs. Fraunhofer now rakes in more than $130 million each year from corporate licensing fees.

Sterne also discusses the social and legal structures the MP3 has engendered and the problems it has caused. The format is perhaps best understood as a "bundle of affordances" that enables you to do things you couldn't otherwise do. Relatedly, we might understand a song as offering a record label a "bundle of rights," primarily to circulation, that can be exploited and exchanged over time. Intellectual property is "a temporary trade monopoly guaranteed by a state."

While users may experience file-sharing as a challenge to corporate capitalism—a way to "liberate" information, drain commodities of their exchange value and create communities based on alternative economies—the format carries within it rules and regulations to which we must adhere, as do the electronic networks through which files are circulated. Thus the mechanisms of "free culture" may, paradoxically, lead to an extension and intensification of capitalism via nebulous protocols that are not subject to the same scrutiny as laws formulated in public.

Our culture is increasingly characterized by disputes over the management of digital identity and the responsibility of governments to recognize and protect the rights of authors and readers, editors and distributors, designers and programmers. A new digital environment, shaped by social contracts between end users and content creators that are not exclusively commercial, would look quite different from the current environment, which has been formed by not-so-representative figures like the expert listener and by the imposition of norms by self-interested corporations. In formulating such an alternative, we might extinguish many universalist pretensions that effectively mask rampant structural and political biases and valorize uniformity.


Alexander Provan is a founder of the editorial collective Triple Canopy.