Jonathan Sterne, "MP3: The Meaning of a Format" (Duke UP, 2012)


MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012) is a fascinating study of the MP3 as a historical, cultural, conceptual, and social phenomenon. In the course of an account of the MP3 that has surprising connections to telephony and the economics of perception, Jonathan Sterne usefully shifts our attention from media-in-general to a more specific focus on material formats, "the stuff beneath, beyond, and behind the boxes our media come in." MP3 explores the process by which AT&T learned how to make money from the gaps in human hearing. By the 1980s, Sterne shows, engineers had developed methods for using what cannot be heard within the audible spectrum as the basis for a system of data compression for digital sound transmission. The same decade saw a subgroup of the International Organization for Standardization, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), devise a standard for digital video and audio with the help of a series of tests that gauged listeners' levels of sonic annoyance. Sterne shows how the MP3 format emerged out of these overlapping material and social contexts of perception, technics, and experimentation. There are cat pianos and cat telephones (not what you think!) here, as well as accounts of cybernetics and information theory, histories of the domestication of noise, considerations of the challenge of archiving digital mashups, and vignettes about Suzanne Vega and Tom's Diner. It's a wonderful book about an important part of our daily media landscape, and it was great fun to talk about it! A review of MP3: The Meaning of Format can be found in Public Books here.

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