(coauthored with Dylan Mulvin) “The Low Acuity for Blue: Perceptual Technics and American Color Television,” Journal of Visual Culture 13:2 (August 2014): 118-138.

This piece is the first of a pair of articles on colour television that Dylan Mulvin and I wrote together (the second has been accepted to Television and New Media and will appear in 2015 or later; an online, image-rich Scalar version will appear once we’re through copyedits).  The work began, I think, in 2010, when I had an “oh, holy shit” moment while finishing up the MP3 book.  What if everything I’d written about compression had happened already with video compression for colour television?  Dylan was my research assistant and I sent him off to find out.  He read up on the material, and based on what he found, I decided it didn’t transform my story so radically that I had to change it.  But the material was really interesting.  And there wasn’t much in terms of understanding colour TV as a cultural technology.  So we dug in deeper and fanned out a bit, and produced two pieces.  Along the way we got to know Susan Murray, who’s writing a whole book on the rise of colour TV in the US (her source materials are super cool to look at), and also got familiar with Carolyn Kane’s research on colour and video.  (Andreas Fickers has a book on colour TV as well, but it’s in German).  Of course, there’s tons of work on colour in cinema and art, but television and video are very different cases (as the four of us all argue), and it’s been a fun spinoff project.  It also helped shape Dylan’s eventual dissertation direction: a history of the materials of commensurability.   You know, like the actual kilogram.

So I can say that this project is a great example of how the Canadian grant system can work well: funding goes to a doctoral student, research gets enhanced and new directions emerge, and prof and student publish something together that they never would have alone.

Ambiguous Cancer Update for 2014+New Website

by Jonathan Sterne on August 20, 2014

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged about cancer.  Partly this is because being post-treatment is part of my life.  But every year I go in for a scary scan, and every year it shows the same thing: there are some nodules in my lungs, probably metastatic thyroid cancer.  They have been growing very slowly.  This year’s scan showed the biggest one had grown by 3mm.  Since 2011, it’s been “watchful waiting,” since the alternative they offered me was exploratory lung surgery that had no curative purpose–all it could do would be a positive diagnosis.

This year, things are different.  They have decided to do another dose of radioactive iodine, combined with lithium (this part is based on new research) which is supposed to make the cells hungrier for iodine.  To refresh your memory, radioactive iodine is administered as a pill.  I am then radioactive for a week and have to stay away from people.  Happily, this can now be done as an outpatient treatment, so long as I have a toilet of my own.  I managed to get it schedule while Carrie is giving a talk at Michigan October 30th.  So I will be glowing for Halloween.  Not actually, but I kind of wish I did glow.

I went through RAI in March of 2010 and it was relatively painless apart from the unpleasantness of isolation and a hospital stay.  There can be nausea the first day or two, and I couldn’t taste sour for about a month.  For two weeks before I have to go on an insane low-iodine diet.  (The diet is insane because iodine is in pretty much every processed food and most commercially available salt.)  The outcomes of this year’s treatment, close to the 5th anniversary of my first thyroid cancer surgery, are unclear.  It might do nothing.  It might slow down the growth of the cells a little.  It might clear them out a lot.  Or it might get rid of everything (for now), which would allow me to actually claim that I am in remission.  We don’t know.  But the risks are relatively low.  And honestly, this is what I wanted them to try in 2011 when they found the growing spots in the first place.

There’s not much else to say on this subject until mid-October.  I may do a low-iodine food blog starting around October 15th, since that will be fun and experimental, and I’m not fresh off a 17-day hospital stay (as I was in 2010 when I last went on the diet).  And there’s not much for you to do.  Food gifts are unnecessary now and will be useless while I am on the low iodine diet, since if I don’t cook it myself and know exactly what’s in it, I won’t eat it.

I owe the world a voice and swallowing update, but I’ll write that separately


Unrelated to the latest treatment plan, I have created a website called http://cancerscapes.ca .  I blogged my cancer experience in 2009-10, and now it can be read in proper form from beginning to end.  I also made a series of audio projects during cancer treatment, and they are now all listenable (total duration=@30 minutes).  The “..and this is my voice” piece was  anthologized by New Adventures in Sound Art in 2011.

Cancerscapes is a living archive.  The text section of Cancerscapes will automatically add new entries as well, like this one.  And who knows, there may someday be more audio to include.

There Is No Music Industry

by Jonathan Sterne on May 21, 2014

New text in the inaugural issue of the new journal Media Industries.

What Is Music Technology For?

by Jonathan Sterne on May 13, 2014

(x-posted on the Social Media Collective Research Blog)

In late March and early April, I attended three events that together signal some interesting shifts in thinking about music technology and sound.  The first, a day-long symposium on March 24th I co-organized with Nancy Baym, was entitled “What Is Music Technology For?”  It came after a weekend-long instalment of MusicTechFest, which brings together people from the arts, industry, education and academe to talk about music technology.  For our more academically-focused event, we brought together humanists, social scientists, engineers, experimentalists, artists and policy activists (among others) to discuss our mutual interests and investments in music technology.  Rather than editing a collection that would come out two years from now, Nancy and I decided to try assembling a manifesto, a project that gave direction to the day and also helped us think in terms of common problems and goals.

The result is now available online at musictechifesto.org, and I encourage you to visit, read and sign.

That event was followed by two others which I think show at least a possibility for a sea change in how we talk about music technology and with whom.

The following weekend found me at the University of Maryland, for their “Sound+” conference.  I presented a (still early version of) my work on Dennis Gabor and time-stretched audio, and listened to a wide range of papers from (mostly) English and literature scholars on sonic problems.  But of course Maryland is home to the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and that combined with a critical mass of people interested in theory and interdisciplinarity meant we also had some conversations that looked outward, especially a roundtable on mutual sonic interests across the humanities and sciences at the end of the second day.

The weekend after that (4-5 April) found me at the Machine Fantasies conference at Tufts University (across town), which brought together musicologists, anthropologists, composers, engineers, artists and computer scientists to have conversations about what it means for machines to make music, and how we might think about both the pasts and the futures of music technology.

Combined with other events, like the huge MusDig conference at Oxford last summer, there seems to be a growing interest in working across established interdisciplinary boundaries.  In other words, while humanists and social scientists are used to talking with one another, and while engineers and computer scientists are used to talking with one another, there now seems to be a growing (and one hopes, critical) mass of people who want to work across intellectual and institutional boundaries.

Speaking as someone coming out of the humanities and “soft” or “critical” social sciences, this is a major change brought on, I think, by several concurrent developments (and keep in mind this is musings in a blog post, not a careful intellectual history):

1.  A renewed interest in making, probably heavily lubricated by the turn to the “digital humanities” in some fields, but also by a re-assessment of the role of critique.  A generation ago, I came up learning that to be critical required one to be separate.  But increasingly, we are seeing integration of critique with other scholarly modes. Anne Balsamo’s mapping of the technological imagination in Designing Culture captures this beautifully.

2.  A new openness to humanistic and interpretive approaches in the world of music engineering and science.  I can’t say that I know them to have been “closed” in previous generations–that may well not have been the case.  But I have personally spent the last 10 years or so in dialogue with people in a variety of scienc-y and engineering-y spheres of music technology design, development and research.  I have found a great deal of openness to and interest in the kinds of ideas in which I usually traffic, and what began really as a “study of” a group of people has evolved into a series of “collaborations with.”  To that end, and to provide a little institutional leverage (or play space), I have joined McGill’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media and Technology (CIRMMT, pronounced “Kermit,” like the frog).

3.  Some of this may also be the result of changing institutional configurations and easy familiarity with tools. Two generations ago, when places like Stanford’s Center for Computer Music and Acoustics were getting off the ground, to do anything with computers and music (or music and technology more broadly), you needed a space and resources, you needed specialized equipment, and you needed specialized knowledge.  Today, those tools are cheaper and more available than ever.  There is something lost when people aren’t heading over to the mainframe or computer lab and running into each other that way–common spaces are so central to interdisciplinarity.  But there is something gained when we all have an easy sense of the available tools, and some of our questions are beginning to converge.

4. Some of the theoretical concerns of humanists, like what it means to make or listen to music, what it means to be a musician or fan, what technology is or should be, how the various music industries ought to be organized, and what the nature of an instrument or instrumentality is–these questions are suddenly on the table and pressing issues for everyone.  The answers we come up with now can have practical impact as we imagine the next generation of music technologies, or worry after the increasingly precarious status of people who make their living from music or sound work. In other words, we are in the enviable–and impossible–position of having a lot of thinking to do, and having a chance to act on those thoughts.

These are exciting, challenging, messy and incomplete developments.  They hold a great deal of promise.  It is up to us to pop our heads up from our silos, to think big, and try to work together in different kinds of spaces to move some of these shared agendas forward.

Trigger Warnings Are About Violence: An Open Letter to James Turk (and the Montreal Gazette)

May 12, 2014

Dear James Turk: Faculty can either take a stand against sexual violence and intimidation on campus, or we can passively promote such a climate, but there is no neutral position to occupy. That is why I was surprised to read your very dismissive-sounding remarks in this morning’s Montreal Gazette article on the subject of trigger warnings […]

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On writing: assume you’ve won

April 22, 2014

I was asked by a colleague who assigned some of my work to say something useful about the writing process for her grad students.  Here’s the request: my charge is to invite you to jot down in one paragraph any helpful thoughts you can offer about any aspect of the writing process–choosing a topic, figuring […]

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…and we’re back!

April 19, 2014

I’ve been neglecting the blog for over a year now, but it’s time to dust off the cobwebs and get things started again.  In recent years, I’ve posted more “least bloggable units” directly on my Facebook status.  It seemed I got faster and more satisfying response, but this is a problem for several reasons: 1. […]

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