First Monday

Command tones: Digitization and sounded time by Jonathan Sterne and Emily Raine

Keeping time is a crucial aspect of governance. Timekeeping orchestrates individual and collective activity and shapes relations between individuals and institutions, between institutions, and within networks of individuals. Though some aspects of time, such as time zones, are nationally and internationally regulated, the regulation of time is often a case where governance extends far beyond government. This “experiment in theory“ provides an account of the role of sound in orchestrating social action, and then uses a long history of sounded time to situate a short history of sounded digital time. Though the project is deliberately speculative, it suggests an important hypothesis: Rather than splitting the world into “real” and “virtual” domains of perceived experience, digital technologies might better be considered in terms of the disconnect between the perceived and imperceptible modalities through which they organize social practice.


Sound and the organization of movement
The arc of time’s arrow



Tucked away in the section of Capital on factory labor is an anecdote about the politics of time. Marx tells the story of about 30 weavers who went on strike against a textile manufacturer named Harrup, who levied exorbitant fines upon his workers for arriving late to work — as much as a week’s wages for a single hour’s tardiness. This was compounded by the fact that there was no clock on the premises. Instead, Harrup hired a young boy to blow a whistle to begin the morning’s work, often before 6 AM. The doors to the factory were then shut and fines levied. Among the demands of the striking workers was a clock that would provide a clear indication of the time to all present. Harrup brought 19 women and girls before the local magistrates for breach of contract. The magistrate found in his favor, though Harrup was supposedly hissed out of the courthouse by an angry crowd after his victory [1].

Time often seems like a technical matter outside the conduct of social life, but the keeping of time is a crucial aspect of governance. It orchestrates individual and collective activity and shapes relations between individuals and institutions, between institutions, and within networks of individuals. Though some aspects of time, such as time zones, are nationally and internationally regulated, as the example from Marx shows us, the regulation of time is often a case where governance extends far beyond government. Lawrence Lessig’s adage that “code is law” (2000) might seem anachronistic here, but then anachronism is precisely the point: just as the code of software sometimes does more to legislate activity online than any government act or regulation, so it was for earlier technologies of time.

Taking the factory boy’s whistle as our point of departure, this paper tells a story about the changing status of sounded time in the digital age. Casting this essay as what Theodor Adorno would call an “experiment in theory” (Adorno, 1941; see also Rothenbuhler and Peters, 1997), we provide an account of the role of sound in orchestrating social action, and then use a long history of sounded time to situate a short history of sounded digital time. Though the project is deliberately speculative, it suggests an important hypothesis. Rather than splitting the world into “real” and “virtual” domains of perceived experience, digital technologies might better be considered in terms of the disconnect between the perceived and imperceptible modalities through which they organize social practice.

Is a cell phone ring digital because the basic program of the phone, the enabling technology for its use is digital, or is it manual because its acoustic signal is dependent upon someone punching in the corresponding number for a given phone?

Perception is an important path through the problem of sounded time, because the distinction between digital and analog technologies makes little difference in the ways they are perceived by listeners, though the differences may be important for understanding how time itself is regulated. Sound techniques that organize social space include manifold combinations of digital, manual and mechanical devices. Sounded time can become perceptible through uniquely digital technologies (such as car alarms); entirely manual or other non–digital technologies (such as police whistles or car horns); systems of ambiguous analog or digital origin (including some elevator signals and announcements on public transit routes); and, systems that have been adapted from analog to digital technology (alarm clocks, to which we will attend in greater detail shortly, being an eminent example). In a sense, even writing such a catalog of distinctions seems both absurd and arbitrary. It seems absurd because in most cases people are incapable of distinguishing between digital and analog cues by only hearing them, and it seems arbitrary because it is often difficult to determine where analog or manual technologies end and digital ones begin. Is a cell phone ring digital because the basic program of the phone, the enabling technology for its use is digital, or is it manual because its acoustic signal is dependent upon someone punching in the corresponding number for a given phone? How does one know whether the announcement of a subway stop is digital or analog, or read aloud by the train’s driver? And do such distinctions bear any relation to the way the announcement is socially received? In the context of music production, Paul Théberge (1997) has written at length about the interplay of analog and digital sound technologies, analyzing (for instance) how nostalgia for old analog sounds led to the digital reproduction of what were essentially flaws in analog technology, which then serve as sonic signifiers in new music creation. At the level of perception, the distinctions between analog and digital, between online and offline in acoustic signals is blurry at best and has little significance in how these are deployed in timing social maneuvering. Thus, the separation between analog and digital sound seems arbitrary because strictly speaking, there is no such thing as virtual sounds — only sounds.

As examples like clocks, alarms, and cellphones suggest, sounded time is process that regulates everyday practice in countless ways. It connects the very small and personal to larger systems of social regulation and coordinated action. To use an ugly word, our questions fit in with the broader inquiry into the “governmentalization” of everyday life that has gained critical momentum in recent years. The word comes from Michel Foucault’s (1991) essay entitled “Governmentality,” and it is closely connected with the extension of the critique of regulatory apparatus from states and organizations into the minutia of everyday life. To be sure, the idea is an old one. Depending on how Foucault’s propositions are interpreted, the conceptual analogy between the subject, the household and the state that Foucault and his readers find so uniquely modern has roots that go as far back as Plato’s Republic (1961).

What we might now call the “governmentalization” of everyday life also has much deeper historical origins in the development of sounded time. Where Plato sought a conceptual analogy between the state and the soul, early Christian monks created a material connection between the monastery and the soul through the social orchestration of time using bells. Lewis Mumford calls tenth century monastery clocks the first example of modern technics: “monasteries [...] helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” [2] Hence Mumford’s claim that it was “in the monasteries of the West that the desire for order and power, other than that expressed in the military domination of weaker men, first manifested itself after the long uncertainty and bloody confusion that attended the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire.” [3] Monastic time smells of what Foucault [4] would later call “government in general.” The sonic organization of time through bells and through ritual tied together the minutia of bodily practice with the passing of hours, days and years, and the sacred time of eternity. Sounded time made religion material for these monks, it guided their movement through social space and endowed their daily activity with meaning. Mumford argues that the monks’ socialized time is a precondition for all other forms of modern technics. It was as central to the doxa of industrial capitalism as it was to the doxa of the medieval Catholic Church.

The measurement and demarcation of time has undergone multiple historical permutations, graduating from the complex combinations of astrolabes, waterclocks, celestial calculations, hourglasses, candle clocks and sundials of antiquity to the geared and digital clocks of today. While each mode corresponds to a somewhat unique social configuration, there is also a sense in which one can trace a long arc through the history of regulated movement by studying the technological organization of time. That is our task in this essay.

Sounding clocks have been central to the orchestration of social time and movement through social space for centuries.

A long view of “government in general” is necessary when considering the history of time. Sounding clocks have been central to the orchestration of social time and movement through social space for centuries. Today, precisely clocked digital time regulates the transmission of millions of packets of information all over the globe. It guides the unfolding rhythm of streamed sounds and images. It times the movement of trains, cars and airplanes. It affects the conduct of conduct in countless other barely perceptible ways.

For the past few years, a group of writers has been charting the use of sound to organize social space and social action. Their work covers a vast range of regions and periods, but together it suggests a unified proposition: that sound is an important mode of social governance. Alain Corbin’s (1998) book on village bells, for instance, show the ways in which the presence and sound of bells organized community life in nineteenth century French towns. Richard Rath’s (2003) history of churches in “early America” argues that reverberation symbolized religious power and the relationship between minister and congregation. Karin Bijsterveld (2003) and John Picker (2003) each offer histories of complaints about urban noise that demonstrate the link between noise abatement and class distinctions in the modern city. Emily Thompson (2002) has described a “modern sound” that fit mid–century American mentalities about the nature and purpose of buildings and the practices that went on in them — from prayer, to musical performance, to the conduct of everyday bureaucratic business. To this body of work, we aim to contribute a speculative history of sounded time as a mode of governance. Does the advent and proliferation of digital technologies require us to significantly revise an emerging consensus about the nature of sound, power and the regulation of social activity? Certainly, the emphasis upon space in sound studies has been productive, if for no other reason than its shattering the misconception that vision was a spatial sense while hearing was a temporal one [5]. But sound is of course both spatial and temporal, and we will argue that its temporal characteristics are particularly important for understanding sound’s role as a social regulator in the digital age.



Sound and the organization of movement

Sound is used in a wide variety of situations to regulate contemporary social life, often working in ways and places that individuals barely recognize [6] . One such example is the use of acoustic cues to regulate people’s movement through social spaces. Erving Goffman [7] remarks on the wealth of techniques employed by individuals to coordinate their activity in a culturally accepted pattern of moving through space: “Take for example, techniques that pedestrians employ in order to avoid bumping into one another. These seem of little significance. However, they are constantly in use and they cast a pattern on street behavior. Street traffic would be a shambles without them.” Such strategies are so normalized that we barely notice them, yet these are a necessary precondition for the fluid arbitration of densely populated areas.

People regulate their movements in numerous ways: by looking at pedestrians’ and vehicles’ progress, watching for traffic signals, listening for oncoming cars on quiet streets, and so on. Michel de Certeau (1984) describes these approaches to movement through space as “an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g., by a wall that prevents one from going further).” [8] To this we would add that there is a temporal imperative, inasmuch as one must not only move between objects in space but also in time, and the regulation of objects in time requires the cultivation of systems of signaling and response. In such negotiations, a battery of audible signals are held in reserve, to be called upon at precisely those moments when our own resources for negotiating spaces fail. Audible signals work well in orchestrations of public space that are synchronized by designating the relative timing of movements rather than coordinating actions to occur at a set time. The attention–grabbing capabilities of sound leave acoustic markers as the reserve fleet of social regulation, making it particularly well–suited for warnings, alarms and social–spatial actions that are temporally contingent.

Audible signals work well in orchestrations of public space that are synchronized by designating the relative timing of movements rather than coordinating actions to occur at a set time.

Bodies that move through social spaces are essentially spatial territories in motion, which is what makes the timing of their interactions so important. Sound has a long history of use as a means of creating boundaries, one that continues in the present (Bijsterveld, 2003; Jones, 1993; Sterne, 1997). Deleuze and Guattari (1987) point to the importance of “sonorous or vocal components” in territorialization, that are able to articulate “a wall of sound, or at least a wall with some sonic bricks in it.” [9] The use of sound to circumscribe territory is self–evidently manifest in security alarms, where sounded systems are deployed to announce the transgression of barriers around sanctified spaces that must at all cost be protected from outsiders, such as cars, domestic property, commercial buildings, and objects of cultural value. Here, sound is used to enunciate an often invisible but culturally understood barrier or to complement and enforce visually represented ones (Smith, 2003). Alarms mark time as well as space: they are meant to go off only when someone is not supposed to be in the guarded space. These audible territorial signals can also be used in negotiating proximity. Airplane ground proximity alarms, for example, measure the craft’s closeness to what is, in flight, its greatest threat: immediate and sudden contact with the ground. As with the security alarm, this is really about when the airplane is supposed to be in the air and when it is not. The alarm conveys to pilots and passengers alike the need to mobilize for emergency as well as a failure to properly negotiate space, a similar function to that performed by car horns in urban centers. The social orchestration of timed movement becomes more evident in the example of ambulance, fire, police and snow plough sirens, which signal through their distinct wails the need to conform to a different pattern of movement on the roadway, namely ordering existing traffic to dislocate from the arteries of emergency vehicles’ passage. One could go further and include, for instance, truckers’ chatter on CB radios, which allows them to coordinate collective action up and down interstate highways, to trade surveillance with police cars that seek to enforce speed limits, and to provide a medium for idle chatter to pass the long hours on the road (Packer, 2002).

These are simple points, and yet together they form an important building block for social theories of everyday practice. They are not far from, for instance, Louis Althusser’s (1978) essentially acoustic theory of ideological process, where people are interpellated into ideology through a hail: “Hey! You there!” Inasmuch as social action is coordinated movement, sound is a crucial axis along which it is organized. Thus, we now turn directly to a speculative history of sounded time.



The arc of time’s arrow

Each technology of time contains its own cues and modalities for usage, and the ways in which these are taken up socially affects the means by which time, itself a technology, regulates human social life. This section compares two points of emergence, that of clock time’s introduction as a primarily acoustic phenomenon into European towns in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and that of its silencing and the delegation of responsibility to the subject for temporal self–regulation in the digital era. In outlining these configurations, we elucidate the interaction of acoustic time with the social experience of temporality.

Lewis Mumford [10] characterizes the introduction of hours as stripping human time from more organic or natural temporal orders, such as the cock’s crow as wake–up call at dawn or the regulation of time based on bodily cues such as hunger or fatigue. Measured time began to be announced into Benedictine monasteries in the thirteenth century, where bells were rung seven times daily to punctuate time passage according to canonical hours. The goal was to have the monks perform the activities of each period simultaneously, an operation that necessitated time’s counting and a consistent repetition of its enunciation. Thus, as we noted above, following Mumford, clocks do not merely keep time, but synchronize action.

When clocks began to circulate through European lay society, they were costly and usually obtained on behalf of a community. The town clockworks were generally installed in the local bell towers, whose bells were called upon to announce the passage of the hours and the logic of their purchase. The acoustic publicity of time in fact preceded public visual representations because, for the most part, the addition of clock faces to bell towers took place some time after the mechanization of hourly peals [11]. Thus, at its inception, the communal clock demarcated a public through their shared acoustic space, and such acoustically constituted communities were both socially and politically recognized. Parishes, for example, are defined solely by the sonic range of their bells, perhaps the most infamous example being Cockneydom, which is still delineated as that area within earshot of Bow Bells [12].

Before the inauguration of clockworks into the belfry, bells were used to mark the timing of events by generating varied signals according to established codes for specific events. For example, in a given town four long strikes with a weighted rope might be a cue for a municipal meeting, while two hits to a smaller bell with a hammer would denote a call to arms. The townspeople memorized all those cues which applied to them and were relied upon to react to them as a signal to a small audience of which they were a part. Thus, like the car’s horn that today asks you to remove yourself from its path, using bells to send precise scheduling messages depends upon a self–differentiation by the discrete audiences within acoustic range, who are called together by an acoustic hail from a distance. Rossum (1996) suggests that by the time clockworks were introduced into towns, this system must have reached its threshold to carry meaning in cities that were cacophonic with interminable peals to signal distinct groups [13]. By introducing regular signals rooted in abstract time, people were asked to co–ordinate their social participation alongside the general register, rather than relying on a specific cue for a particular event, effectively placing the responsibility on the individual for self–regulation.

So, western civilization’s calibration of the hours has had a profoundly sonic bias since the introduction of the hourly clock — the ringing of time by church bells is a particularly boisterous example, but this characterization holds for the manifold sonic add–ons of mechanical clocks including bells, chimes, alarms and even cuckoos. The very mechanisms of the analog clock have an acoustic dimension, rife with small metallic sounds as their gears shift and grind and the diminutive ticks of hands as they rotate around its face. A mechanical clock is a social metronome, and its audience can be considered a proper public linked by their shared consumption of its time (Warner, 2002).

With the introduction of digital time, most acoustic markers of abstract time have been silenced.

In many western communities there are still town belfries that ring the hour, but nowadays people are more likely to maintain their own personal systems for verifying the hour. Refinements to mechanical technology in the nineteenth century led to the possibility of portable timepieces, so that myriad commodities such as pocket– or locket–watches made time transportable and individualized, sealed from vision to be consulted as necessary [14]. While there are lingering common timed acoustic markers — the proverbial whistle at the completion of a factory work day, a bell signaling the start of a school class or the buzzer marking the end of a period or game — these seem to be in decline as more timed cues are scheduled to signal individual rather than collective action. With the introduction of digital time, most acoustic markers of abstract time have been silenced. The grandfather clock that chimed on the hour was a staple of middle–class homes well into the last century, but clocks have gradually dispersed further into the private quarters of the home as digital pieces have been integrated into virtually anything containing a microchip, making them cheap, portable and ubiquitous. This marks a reversal of the kind of local publics remarked upon by Henkin (1998); where he finds the creation of a community through their shared consumption of written texts in the city, the digital era reveals a dispersion of time keepers and the atomization of individual subjects who no longer seem to be reliant on shared signals for timed information.

In digital clocks, time is silenced. Even the quiet ticks that documented the second hand’s passage around the face are made still. Pardon the pun, but digital time seems almost exclusively visual at first glance. It is information that is solely available through the conscious inspection of the display of serialized digital numbers or the planned setting or programming of a timed alarm. Digital time quells progressive and physical aspects of time because it is measured in series, as discrete instant–values rather than as points of time in a continuous progression. Time values are generally measured in whole hours or minutes, with the potential add–ons of seconds and milliseconds on separate counters. Paradoxically, considering that the digital face shows only distinct moments (12:22, 12:23, 12:24) and not the rotational consistency of sweeping hour hands, the experience of digital time marks a return of temporal perception that is only called into existence in the case of a demand, when human agency calls upon its technologies. Time becomes the moments when people check their watches or set their alarms; thus, self–regulation is delegated entirely to the subject.

Alarms are the acoustic dimension of digital time, and, unlike the acoustic trace of the ticking analog clock or even the hourly bell tolls, the alarm is an event. It is, after James Lastra, “inseparable from the time and space of its production, each sound becomes an essentially unrepeatable event distinguishable from all others.” [15] Like the bells tolling incessantly and with seemingly infinite variation in the middle ages, the alarm is audience specific: a beeping alarm clock in the morning signals (or is intended to, at least) only those in the adjacent bed to rise. An alarm is set with the intention of having an established and limited audience receive and understand its temporal message. Further, the alarm must be set: conscious human action gives the hardware responsibility for keeping the subject in time, but it asks for time–on–demand.

Digital time marks adherence to a personalized schedule that operates within a more broadly systematized social time.

The easy portability of digital time makes its perception atomized rather than communal, because individuals can mark and track time on several personal clocks (on watches, cell phones, laptops and so on) rather than relying on the shared time of common hour keepers. This atomization indexes a more profound disengagement from rigid social structures in the contemporary era, what Zygmunt Bauman (2000) describes as “the liquid modern,” wherein individuals are “emancipated” from long–term commitment to individual identities, social relationships, labor systems and spatio–temporal logics, making society itself increasingly individualized. This disengagement does not, however, relieve the subject from the constraints of temporal regulation; rather, adherence to time guidelines and time checking must be internalized by the contemporary subject in order to complete virtually anything deliberated by social time — which, according to many sources, is increasing all the time (Brostrum, 1996; Slouka, 2004). A doctor’s appointment, catching a TV program, getting to work on time; all of these are situated at specific points in time, to which an individual must attend in order to participate. Digital time marks adherence to a personalized schedule that operates within a more broadly systematized social time.

The practice of setting digital watches or cell phones to beep every hour on the hour, ostensibly to keep the listening subject attuned to the passage of time, illustrates the fragmentation of acoustic time in the digital age. While this practice mimics that of community bells’ tolling on the hour, it does not carry the same social meaning. Although the sound can often be heard by people besides the digital timepiece’s owner, it does not carry the same message for those who overhear. An eavesdropper cannot know for certain that the digital ding! of the watch is the ringing of the hour, versus an alarm or incoming message. The sound is still intended for an audience of one.

There are, of course, still signals intended for distinct groups — school bells, work whistles, corporate meetings announced by Microsoft Outlook alarms — but each of these addresses a specific and finite audience, much like the coded bell chimes of yore. Such signals are not intended, like the tolling of bells on the hour, to address an abstract sonic community; rather, these index a remarkable trend toward networking time. Here, the atomized time frames of individual participants in an organization are occasionally reined in to the larger community at singular, network–designated moments in time. Community–specific or networked alarms do not mark a full reversal of atomized digital time — if anything, these serve to illustrate the complex technologies that quietly order individual time to keep it linked with external, participatory regimes as necessary. As new systems of temporal governance emerge, individual grows atomized in the digital era. Timekeeping systems, such as Outlook or alarms, operate either on–demand or below the level of perception. Increasingly, networked or imperceptible systems govern individuals’ participation in group endeavors.

As we have argued, digital time indexes a changing cultural relationship to time, which has become molecularized and idiosyncratic yet is still governed. Time is stripped of the audible marks that make its perception communal and is subjected to those events determined to be such by individual will or participation in organizations that regulate activity in time. As flexible work hours, an increase in night–time and shift labor, the availability of 24–hour conveniences, Internet shopping, increased travel across time zones as a matter of course and more mobile communications technologies disengage contemporary individuals from rigid shared temporal structures, time becomes flexible and individualized (on the politics of flex time and the working day, see Basso, 2003; Ross, 2003). Individuals are still accountable to temporal exigencies, but the expression of these exigencies has changed.

Digital technologies still operate as social organizers, but they do so in ways that do not make the particularly digital workings of a technology or practice perceptible ...

The digitization of time might seem like a classic Weberian or Foucauldian tale — where the festive, violent or otherwise spectacular apparatus of the state disappears into the inner reaches of a self–regulating individual’s subjectivity. But while the social regulation of time has definitely disappeared, it has not gone away. Rather, it has become almost imperceptible, and thus operates in a manner more akin to a splitting of planes, of registers. Digital technologies still operate as social organizers, but they do so in ways that do not make the particularly digital workings of a technology or practice perceptible, or they operate in ways that make the practice but not its grander function evident to its audience.

The ambiguity of the analog/digital distinction deflects attention from the many ways in which social timing functions outside of the sphere of our perception. The irony here is that while collective digital time has become less audible and less perceptible, its regulation has moved from a massive social undertaking controlled directly by institutions to a system of just–in–time manually–instigated signals or an artifact of microchips that regulate time in such miniscule fragments that it can neither be perceived by eye nor ear. From the monk in the bell–tower to the microchip in the DVD player, timekeeping has most often been a process that for most people has been delegated to others, but our silicon delegates now work beneath the level of perceptibility to ensure a level of harmonization not otherwise possible.

In an essay on the “Vertical Net,” Greg Elmer (2006) argues for a conception of digital media as “layered.” Elmer’s point is that while the hypertext–laden Web provides the experience of tremendous mobility and flexibility to users, if one starts moving from the layer of user experience down into other layers such as technical protocols for networking or technical infrastructures, whether firmware or hardware, digital media become more and more susceptible to the classic critiques of political economy. Elmer restricts himself to the example of the World Wide Web, but his argument is applicable to many digital media. The experience of user flexibility — so characteristic of a wide range of digital interfaces — is in fact predicated on tightly organized networks bound by a single regulated technical standard and controlled by relatively authoritarian institutions, as is well documented by Lawrence Lessig and others (Lessig, 2000).

To show how this works, consider the clocking of audio recordings for replay. All recorded sound is clocked during its registration and timed in playback. The earliest phonographs and gramophones, those hand–cranked by their owners, were accompanied by instructions telling users how many times per minute they should rotate (it would be interesting to know if early listeners even comprehended the concept of revolutions–per–minute). The adaptation of the aptly–named “governor,” a device originally designed to regulate the rotation of spindles on sewing machines, allowed early phonographs to maintain an even rotation speed and freed listeners from hand–cranking. A version of the “governor” technology is still included in all mechanical phonographs (Read and Welch, 1976; Sterne, 2003). The governor clocks time in seconds and fractions slightly smaller than a second — from 16 RPM to 78 RPM. The turning of early records was a clearly perceptible practice of timing, a fact not missed by early critics who found the spinning to be of particular interest: “There is only one point at which the gramophone interferes with both the work and the interpretation. This occurs when the mechanical spring wears out. At this point the sound droops in chromatic weakness and the music bleakly plays itself out. Only when gramophonic reproduction breaks down are its objects transformed.” [16] Here, there is at least a recognition of the role of timing in the final product, the listening experience itself. So, while the listening experiences on early gramophones were different for each listener, the governor device was introduced to regulate the timing and sound of the final product, so that the whole body of listeners could enjoy a consistent and homogenous product.

In contrast, the clock time that measures digital audio is practically imperceptible. It is true that compact discs spin, but the speed of their rotation is incidental to the reproduction of sound. Consider a file in PCM format, which is the format used on CDs and the basis of .wav and .aiff files that might appear on your computer. Just as a film contains multiple static frames, PCM files are made up of tiny discrete samples, 44,100 of them per second. That means that the digital clock operates in terms of microseconds (millionths of seconds) and picoseconds (millionths of millionths of seconds). The clock regulating most CD files has a base measurement of 22.7 microseconds, but good audio clocks are actually more sensitive than that; note, for example, that variations in that basic sample length as short as 10 picoseconds can be heard by audio professionals [17]. Clearly, nobody can perceive time in such short intervals — professionals simply hear the clock errors as distortion in the sound, much like Adorno’s identification of a timing problem in the “droops” of his gramophone with a worn–down spring mechanism.

The clocking of digital audio is a perfect illustration of Elmer’s verticality hypothesis, because practically speaking, users have tremendous flexibility in the management of their audio files on their hard drives. From database management programs like iTunes that make users’ collections available at their fingertips, to sampling and sound editing programs that allow users to turn their computers into DJ instruments or samplers and synthesizers, the most basic forms of digital storage seem to open up all sorts of possibilities for users. But if we peel away that relatively convivial interface level, we quickly find the more autocratic technical systems Elmer hints at. PCM audio is a non–proprietary standard governed by the International Organization for Standardization; the clock that guides the playing of files must be meticulously accurate in order for the sound to be even bearable; and, the relative conviviality of digital audio formats like mp3 — the very basis of its ability to be easily shared across platforms — has mobilized corporate efforts to restrict the sharing of files through digital rights management strategies (on DRM, see Burkart and McCourt, 2004). Alongside property relations, then, lies the demand for the increasing segmentation and regulation of time.

Throughout the history of digital audio ... the actual interface design, that part which is oriented toward users’ perceptions of agency and flexibility, is the last phase of a technical product’s development.

So in digital audio, the operative split is not between “real” and “virtual” but between the perceptible and the imperceptible. This is true in experience; it is also true at the level of design. Technologically, the interface is something of an afterthought. Throughout the history of digital audio (and even some analog audio technologies like the synthesizer — see Pinch and Trocco, 2002), the actual interface design, that part which is oriented toward users’ perceptions of agency and flexibility, is the last phase of a technical product’s development. As Georgina Born [18] writes of computer music, there is a sort of receding tactile horizon with digital audio technologies that has to be reinserted later:

Analog music technologies took the form, crudely, of boxes with controlling devices that could be played around with — knobs turned, faders moved, different patches made — while sound was being produced or with a slight delay. Instead, computer patch languages were characterized by profound abstraction, complex scientistic conceptualization and delay: in other words by extreme mediation, both temporal and conceptual.

The same point can be made for recorded sound in general: there is a receding horizon of tactility in digital audio compared with its analog predecessor. Eric Rothenbuhler and John Durham Peters (1997) make a similar point in their own “experiment in theory,” an attempt to define phonography. For them, the tactility of the phonograph, the needle that touches the groove, has no analog in laser that scans the compact disc (yes, we are sorry for that pun as well). One of the most dramatic dimensions of the analog/digital difference is in the temporality of the sound being reproduced, as we move from perceptible fractions of minutes to imperceptible fractions of millionths of seconds.

Thus, the distinctive character of digital audio — many of its most salient and exciting features for its users — is predicated on a bifurcation of perceptible and imperceptible time. It would be tempting to designate this split as one between human time and machine time, but that would be to efface the all too human aspects of what we might otherwise call “machine” time. The clock that allows digital audio to unfold is intensely social, whether we treat its social origin as emanating from the design philosophy behind the technology, as rooted in agreements among corporations, as administered by an international agency, or as structured by the splits between manufacture, design and use so endemic to modern capitalism. The problem is the same, whether the end result of the temporal–sonic process of digital audio emanates from studio monitors, home stereos, answering machines, phone lines or speakers on trains. Digital audio marks the moment when the picosecond becomes a socially meaningful unit of time to listeners, even if it is not a strictly perceptible unit of time.

Digital audio marks the moment when the picosecond becomes a socially meaningful unit of time to listeners, even if it is not a strictly perceptible unit of time.

So, while time in the digital age, as we have argued, is ostensibly atomized and made individual, it is this very atomization that necessitates the development of new strategies and technologies to regulate individuals’ timing to coordinate with others. Individual time must occasionally be linked into larger systems of collective time, either through regulatory standards that imperceptibly coordinate timing or networking systems such as Microsoft Outlook that schedule actions, in order to participate in various communicative regimes.




In the digital era time and sound are rife with ambiguities and layers of perception. Most crucially, as we have argued, digital audio is organized, patterned — governed — according to a split between the perceptible and the imperceptible, a split that conditions sounded time. While the split between “real” and “virtual” has made sense — perhaps too intuitively — for analyses of the visual dimensions of digital media, it has perhaps occluded other key binaries worthy of investigation and other heuristics for setting up our studies. By considering digital audio, a field where “the virtual” is not an operative concept, we have exposed another crucial dynamic by which digital media operate. We would add that this “layered” dimension of digital media is itself intuitive to designers, network administrators, and others who have cause to consider the less easily perceived dimensions of digital technologies. If Lev Manovich (2001) is right, and attention to interfaces and mathematical representation are two key nodes of inquiry into so–called “new” media, then the division between the perceptible and the imperceptible will certainly be one important way of understanding how those nodes come together. Indeed, as we move from visualist definitions of cyberculture to more robust understandings of the digital environment, the perceptible–imperceptible dyad and the study of social and technological layers may take on an ever greater importance for our analyses.

At the level of perception, manifold acoustic technologies are called into play to govern flows of people and information. People can hear and respond to temporal acoustic cues without distinguishing between digital, analog or manual, and they often do so without recognizing or understanding precisely what operations lie beneath such orchestrations of timing. Sounded time today is more likely than ever to be atomized, customized and personalized — ever more ambiguous to eavesdroppers and passers–by, yet countless techniques and devices have been developed to account for this atomization and to ensure the smooth integration of individual temporal regimes into collective action. Such is the perceived world of sounded time governed by digital clockworks.

Beneath the level of perception, however, the layered character of digital technologies becomes all the more important. Sounded time is governed by abstract time, measurable only by machine. Beyond or beneath the level of perception, then, time seems as social and collective as it ever has been. It is only that those collectives are now less readily apparent to the naked ear or eye. At the level of analysis, they require a peeling away of the layers of individual, subjective experience. They require a move to time and attention to the social, political and technical networks that crystallize together in microchips, in digital clocks, in synchronized networks, and in the simple unfolding of 44,100 samples each second, one after the other.

Governance itself in the digital age has become an ever more layered affair. While Mumford’s monks and Marx’s factory boy with a whistle show the degree to which time has been central to social governance for centuries, what has changed is the compounding of time. Time is both atomized and collectivized, depending upon which socio–technical layer we consider. The interplay among layers is where the governance of time now happens: for instance between an individuated, “friendly” temporality embodied in a user interface and the suprahuman rhythms of CD clocks, networked scheduling tools and router. In that sense, perhaps the end of the town bell and the reduction of the clock in the square to a nostalgic reminder of its former function mark the end of a moment in the history of governmentality. Or perhaps they simply now exist as one layer among the many layers of social and technical governance that people negotiate in their everyday lives. End of article


About the authors

Jonathan Sterne is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He is author of The audible past: Cultural origins of sound reproduction (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003) and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He helps edit Bad subjects: Political education for everyday life (at, one of the longest running publications on the Internet. His next book is tentatively titled MP3: The meaning of a format.
E–mail: jonathan [dot] sterne [at] mcgill [dot] ca

Emily Raine is a doctoral candidate in Communication Studies at McGill University. Her work has appeared in Reading Montreal, Bad Subjects and Avenue. She is interested in service industry labour, graffiti and urban hygiene and renewal.
E–mail: ebraine [at] gmail [dot] com



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5. This position was advanced in its most developed form by Walter Ong in The Presence of the Word (1967), where he argued that hearing, as a temporal sense, was more attuned to the “economy of salvation.” For a more thorough critique of the theological bases on Ong’s theory of sonic temporality and McLuhan’s variants, see the introduction to The Audible Past (Sterne, 2003).

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15. Lastra, 2000, p. 125.

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Editorial history

Paper received 15 August 2006; accepted 25 August 2006.

Contents Index

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Command tones: Digitization and sounded time by Jonathan Sterne and Emily Raine
First Monday, special issue number 7 (September 2006),