The MP3 Is Dead… Long Live the MP3?

Despite the expiration of the MP3 patents, users across the world are still going to be using this format for some time. But how long will its cultural influence last, and how are Digital Humanities projects facing issues like long-term digital preservation in view of the format’s so-called “passing away”? The MP3 audio compression format triggered some major shifts in the music industry, reconfigured audio playing devices and rematerialized the way we approach our music collections. It also became the object of many scholarly studies, such as George Yúdice’s Nuevas tecnologías: música y experiencia, Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format, and Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free. But the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits recently announced that their patents for the MP3 have expired and their licensing program has terminated after 24 years.

Perhaps due to the announcement’s conclusive tone (shouting out to all who took part in the project, thanking them for their support), it has been interpreted by some media as “the death of the MP3.” As both Sterne and Witt make it clear, other “deaths” have been previously heralded, as it struggled from the very beginning with other competing formats, like RealAudio, or MPEG-2, which for some time seemed to win the match. As early as the mid-90s, Sterne reminds us, an Australian hacker reverse-engineered a Fraunhofer MP3 codec and released it under the name “Thank You, Fraunhofer.” Here is where both narratives of the format’s history diverge—whereas Witt considers the MP3 thrived on despite being hacked, for Sterne this contributed to its popularization.


In a typical reaction to the news, NPR’s Andrew Flanagan considers, “We may still use MP3s, but when the people who spent the better part of a decade creating it say the jig is up, we should probably start paying attention.”


But is this really the end of the format? 
It probably would be if it hadn’t been released to the public domain—and officially it hasn’t—but there are other “liberation” stories besides “Thank You, Fraunhofer.” Since the late 90s, LAME, an encoder licensed under LGPL, has cleared the way for open source audio compression. It is used by digital audio workstations like Audacity, CDex, and Virtual DJ. Although its developers claim it does not infringe any copyright law, since its source code is released only for educational purposes, they do remind us that, in some countries, using it can interfere with Fraunhofer’s patents—that is, until now. Version 3.99 was released in October 2011, and its most recent revision was in February 2012. The latest version, 3.100, has not been released yet, and there has not been any news from the developers after the expiration of Fraunhofer patents. However, open source software programs like freeware audio player Foobar2000 are already adding LAME to their encoder packs after the announcement.


It is true that there will be no more industrial development to the techniques that brought about its creation. But the MP3 will be circulating in Western and Westernized cultures as long as the infrastructure that supports it still works.


This is not the same as when the last company manufacturing VCR players announced they would stop producing them. People can still create MP3 files without Fraunhofer; new improvements to the format (if any) will come from open source communities, rather than the industry. AAC has been usually referred to as the “natural” heir of the MP3’s kingdom, but it will hardly have the same cultural impact. As Sterne reminds us, “To succeed, the MP3’s eventual replacement will require its own combination of technical processes, multi-industrial and transnational regulatory formations, user practices, and opportunities. Whatever it will be, we know that simple technical improvements or new business models are never enough.”


There has also been a severe “path dependence” (the tendency to using one particular standard or a technology instead of another) from audio industries on this format, which is difficult to resist. This concept, coined by Paul A. David, and studied by media scholars such as Trevor Pinch, explains the success and domination of MP3—a format that shares the histories of the music, computer, electronics, and broadcast industries—not by having the best audio quality in the market (which it hasn’t had, and probably never did), but rather by the strong inertia this standard exercised for years upon the very media that made its birth possible in the first place.


Sterne explains, “Once manufacturers and users adopt a system built around a certain standard, the standard becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon. Both manufacturers and users have interests in the persistence of the standard (or ‘path’), since a change in standard means a transformation in manufacturing equipment and sometimes major purchases for users. So the potential advantages of a new standard have to outweigh the cost for either manufacturers or users.”

This transition to a new standard will take longer to happen in, for example, Latin America, where selling CD-Rs of USB drives full of MP3 files is still a business for informal computer stores and marketplaces. In underdeveloped or developing nations, the fading away of the MP3 infrastructure will take much longer than in Western Europe or North America.


So what will happen to MP3-based audio repositories, like PennSound or UbuWeb? In fact, this question raises the conundrum of digital preservation in general—we do not really know how to preserve files that in the long run will become obsolete (that is, inaccessible through available infrastructures). Some suggest the use of prevailing standards in digital formats, software, and protocols to tackle this question. Others consider emulation as the best option without reconverting files and losing data in the process. Format migration is not recommendable for MP3 files, since it is an end-use format, and re-codification is strongly discouraged by its promoters. However, people regularly re-code and circulate MP3, as in the case of mash-ups. The result, of course, is a loss in definition, just as when you photocopy a document’s copy too many times.

The dominance of MP3 over other files may not be that critical for already established digital audio repositories, but it certainly is for a work in process like PoéticaSonora. Created by faculty members and students from Concordia University (Montreal) and UNAM (Mexico City), PoéticaSonora is engaged with promoting and preserving sound art and sound poetry in Mexico.


One of our most ambitious projects is the creation of an online database with refined search tools to access sound art and poetry works. Sound files have been donated by several sources—cultural institutions, private collectors, artists themselves, and so on. Most of them come in MP3, a few others in lossless formats, or on CDs. In these cases we follow suggestions from digital preservation experts Lisa Goddard (U Victoria) and Kelly Stewart (SFU) and use lossless formats for preservation, whereas MP3 is intended for access purposes. This way we get a backup that is not dependent upon external supports prone to deterioration, like CDs. It also means, however, that there might not be a high-definition replacement for some files.

 

In these cases, we will have to make do with MP3s. We still do not have a definite answer for this problem, and we keep up to date to innovations in the field to figure this out.


Overall, it is good that the industry is moving forward from the MP3. For authors like Sterne, the perceptual limitations behind it made it a perfectible format. Paraphrasing John Philip Sousa’s derision of recorded sound as “canned music,” Sterne claims, “MPEG audio is processed sound for listeners who live in a processed world.” 
The AAC is not as hip as it predecessor, but it is just as processed. Until another format does not break its ties with psychoacoustics and its history of biased sound processing, we cannot claim there is a strong candidate to occupy the place that MP3 has had in our cultures during the last three decades.

 

I’m One of Those Geek Girls!

“I am here, making a film about geeks,” filmmaker Gina Hara says at the beginning of her documentary Geek Girls. Although seemingly straightforward, being “here, making a film about geeks” is more complex than it might seem and these complexities are exactly what Hara’s documentary delves into. Growing up in Hungary, Hara had no word for “geek” and no way to describe her identity within a community. In 2017, being a “geek” is in style and even commercialized. But the word’s connection to bullying and discrimination is still strong. Where geeks were once outcasts, the geek community has produced the isolation that once defined it, although now it excludes women, trans individuals, and non-binary people. Geek Girls considers the empowerment of self-identifying as a geek in order to look closely at the simultaneous costs and dangers of that label.

“Only a few years after learning the word ‘Geek’,” Hara narrates, “I had to learn another word—cyber-bullying.”

Geek Girls begins in Japan, at the centre of geek culture. Although the film travels across many different locations, it continually returns to Japan, as if to bookmark the fragmented structure of the film. Instead of following one interview at a time, Geek Girls weaves together the experiences and stories of 11 different women (including Jamie Broadnax, a podcaster from Black Girl Nerds; NASA Aerospace Engineer Anita Sengupta; and competitive gamer Stephanie Harvey.) The documentary’s interwoven structure parallels the complexities and constant negotiations involved in identifying as a geek.


Geek Girls depicts the wide range of interests that can make someone “geeky,” such as cosplaying, video games, comic books, science, and aesthetic choices. But the documentary also makes clear that, despite all these variations, geek communities are often far more homogenous and exclusionary to women.


In her book Cybersexism, feminist columnist and author Laurie Penny describes this exclusion as “perhaps the most insidious part of the misogynist defence of geekspace.”


Some geek girls resist this misogyny by making new and safe geek spaces. Mariko McDonald, for example, organizes a monthly brunch for geek girls in Montreal and works hard to create communities without exclusion. “I’m a gamer if I say I’m a gamer,” she says.

As Laurie Penny writes, “We have to take back the word ‘geek’.”

But resisting misogyny and reclaiming the word “geek” requires a lot of emotional labour and can even be dangerous. Geek Girls makes geek misogyny uncomfortably visible. During the Montreal Harajuku walk, in which people come together to wear and celebrate Japanese fashion, the camera happens to catch a moment of harassment as an unknown man grabs one of the participants. The candidness of the scene reveals just how common it is for geek women to encounter misogyny.


Élisabeth Fallen, who runs the Montreal Harajuku walk, describes how she must hide her ‘geeky’ lolita and steampunk-inspired fashion from her co-workers for fear that it would affect her employment. Although her style is celebrated in online communities, the labour and love she puts into her craft remains invisible to many who know her.

 

What Geek Girls does best is pay tribute to the emotional labour and energy that goes into “tak[ing] back the word ‘geek’.” It honours the people who say “I’m one of those geek girls” despite the risks it may pose, while also acknowledging the many people who are too scared to.


“All this for being a geek,” Hara says near the end of the film, and that’s the crux of it. “All this” work. “All this” harassment. All of this made visible.


Geek Girls will be showing in Montreal on July 30th at the Fantasia Film Festival.

 

Global Urban Wilds: Layered Explorations of Digital and Green Space

Springing into summer here in Montreal, there is little time better spent than frequenting the city’s many parks and green spaces. But whether sunbathing on the slopes of Mont Royal or picnic-ing in Parc Jarry, it is easy to overlook the careful curation that attends ordered trees and levelled grass.


Addressing green space as a place for retreat and scenic appreciation is tied to a distinctly colonial approach to ecological control. Across North America, lands and waterways are often altered to make them appear “wild” and “untouched” from particular vantage points. Parks are labelled as green spaces with views framed as picture points. Whether in a city or national park, the viewer is set apart from the land itself, placing the individual in a position of power. The 18th century obsession with the environmental aesthetics of a “picturesque” landscape remains strong (Byerly 53). 
At the same time, on the edge of Montreal’s eclectic Mile End neighbourhood, Drs. Jill Didur and Lai-Tze Fan of Concordia University’s English Department and TAG Research Centre are using locative media technologies to encourage an alternative approach to understanding and appreciating the layered histories of urban green spaces.

 

Nestled between 70s’ industrial architecture, Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, and the high grey walls of a Carmelite convent, the Champ des Possibles stands as a “re-wilding” of sorts, designated as a community green space cooperatively managed by Les Amis du Champ des Possibles and the Borough Plateau-Mont Royal since 2013 (Ambard). The site provides a place for citizens to interact with nature, for wildlife to live and move safely within an urban environment, and for countering the ecological effects of storm-water run off, land pollution, and an urban heat island (Ambard).

While the Champ des Possibles is currently home to more than 300 species of plants, animals, and insects, serving as a thoroughfare for foxes and commuting residents alike, Drs. Didur and Fan hope to further complicate the community’s relationship with this particular space through the development of Global Urban Wilds, a locative media application (Bruemmer; Didur and Fan 5-6). As the latest research creation project within Dr. Didur’s larger, SSHRC-funded Insight grant entitled, Greening Narrative, both Didur and Fan, along with computational artist Emma Saboureau and sound specialist Eric Powell have been collaborating with the park’s caretakers, experts in biodiversity and urban wilds, as well as local residents and business owners to develop an interconnected web of stories, pictures, and “found sounds” that can be accessed by moving through the park with a GPS-enabled mobile device (Ibid 5).

This form of distinctly place-based storytelling, accessed through the Global Urban Wilds app, “prioritizes thinking about how locative media can engage citizen publics in thinking about the history of the environment and its relationship to culture, industrialization, colonialism as well as climate change” (Didur interview). While urban green spaces are often considered places to escape from the chaos of the city, they too retain industrial and colonial histories that remain part of a larger urban environment. Working to “complicate romantic ideas of retreat associated with greenspaces in urban contexts,” not only do Didur and Fan encourage an inquisitive understanding and interaction with “environmental placemaking,” but also they do so in a way that draws the eye beyond the green space itself, to the buildings, peoples, and histories that make up this city as a whole (Didur and Fan 1). Beginning to understand the stories of individuals and communities that have contributed to the Champ des Possibles over the years can help residents to engage with Montreal’s own complex history.

As wireless technologies and GPS receivers have become more readily available since the beginning of the 21st century, this new platform has inspired alternative methods of exploration, education, and entertainment through the development of locative media projects. Whether avoiding digital “minefields” in Brazilian public parks (Claudio Bueno), hunting Pokemon on the commute to work (John Hanke), or mapping multifaceted ecological explorations in Montpellier, France (Teri Rueb), various applications of locative technologies enable users to bear witness to the overlapping experience of other spaces, times, and subjects. At the Champ des Possibles, Global Urban Wild users will be encouraged to wander beyond well-worn paths in search of historical accounts, interviews, and soundscapes of other seasons, individuals, and stories that are woven into the fabric of the place itself. For instance, by entering GPS locations in the Champ, “collectibles” in the form of icons are added to the screen, with each icon corresponding to a series of pullouts with added information.

As the Champ des Possibles strives to honour the history of the land by encouraging the introduction of native plants and local wildlife, Global Urban Wilds enables the park-goer to access and acknowledge a complex history of the community and the land itself, “celebrating its current status as a protected green space while also guard[ing] against the potential erasure of the precolonial role Indigenous communities have played in shaping the landscape and the environment” (Ibid 4). While the city of Montreal gears up to celebrate the 375th anniversary of its establishment on unceded Indigenous land, it is important to acknowledge the alternative histories that have contributed to the development of an urban, colonial space.

Pushing back against idealized greenscapes and seemingly “wild” urban ecologies, projects like Global Urban Wilds, point to “the need for further inquiry and consciousness of the precisely non-urban and non-human” (Ibid 7), laying the foundation for the inquisitive exploration of spaces we already occupy and believe to understand.

Global Urban Wilds will be available for free download at the Apple App Store by the end of 2018.

 

 

Open Up! On Laboratory Cultures

SenseLab. Mobile Media Lab. Speculative Life Lab. As I’m giving a tour of the Milieux Institute, I catch myself repeating the word “lab” and thinking of the varied problematics that each of these labs take up in their respective research. Rather than trying to pin down definitions of what constitutes a lab or police what counts as a lab, I find it more useful to wade through different laboratory spaces and observe what thematics emerge.The history of traditional, bounded, scientific laboratories can be limiting and have a legacy of exclusion. In a recent interview, Dean Duclos of the Faculty of Fine Arts commented that calling a space a lab already privileges certain kinds of intelligences over others. She adds, “It’s an interesting time for us to think about how we can use some neutral terms—like zones, hubs, or fields—to then parlay into discussing or even adding a new contemporary history onto the way we think about [these spaces].” Some labs in and around Milieux are deliberately mixing vocabularies and methodologies in order to bridge these gaps and welcome a larger variety of research interests and approaches.

FLEXIBLE LEXICONS

mLab is a lab devoted to methods in games research. As one of its members, Sarah Ganzon, explains, “the mLab feels like our play space that also happens to be our work space,” adding that in many ways “a lot of things we do destabilize the work/play divide.”

The notion of play can extend beyond subject area and figure into the philosophical backbone of a space. This is also true for the Topological Media Lab (TML). Navid, one of the co-directors, explains that TML uses play as a self-perpetuating process. This constant opening up to more and more play imbues research with childlike wonder and the power of “what-if.”

Similarly, Céline Perreia describes the SenseLab as creating an open space for possibilities to emerge. Epitomizing the emergent properties of process philosophy is SenseLab’s current project on “anarchives.” The oppositional prefix an- alludes to the too-linear, too-curated nature of traditional archives. The anarchive is meant to act as seed for future projects which, in the room SenseLab occupies, doubles as a space full of latencies. Trying to describe the complexity of research necessitates an equally complex vocabulary set. Whether it be play-work, what-if, or even (groan) research-creation, these mish-mash thematics —or what Dean Duclos calls a hyphenated practice— allows for the type of complexity that labs thrive on.

THE CREATIVE COLLECTIVE

How do we come to ideas? And, how are those ideas decided upon within a lab? Céline at SenseLab reported that nobody comes in with an independent project at SenseLab: “We all think creatively together without any sort of preformed idea.” Navid at TML referred to a similar ethos, describing the process as “felt knowledge, which isn’t taught, but felt through living together.”

Sarah at mLab reiterated that “Mia [Consalvo, the director] allows us to bring our own research interests into the lab space, and because of the diversity of interests that we have alongside hers, I think that allows for a lot of creativity.”

Creativity, then, emerges as a collective phenomenon instead of an inherently individual trait. Parallel interests generate the buzz of a group, contributing to the liveliness of research labs.

“Access alone is gold dust around here.” – Dean Duclos

Supporting hybrid programs like the Convergence Initiative: Perceptions of Neuroscience and FOYER, Dean Duclos described that one of the fruitful seeds of thinking across disciplines is when participants get to cross fields literally as well as figuratively. A space where engineers can walk into artist spaces and vice versa, seeing and feeling the very stuff of knowledge production, live, in situ, and in vitro.

She lamented that even her status as Dean could not open the engineering labs. She described how “Access alone is gold dust around here,” and I immediately thought about my own keycard to access the Speculative Life Lab. By the very fact that it is a scientifically registered laboratory space, access is limited to the few who have cleared the requisite trainings and standardized tests. The term “laboratory” then, while latent with possibilities for openness, wonder, and collective research, is still a term of exclusion.

Porosity is the lifeblood of all that is lively, from cellular respiration to the creative spark of research groups. I agree with Dean Duclos, who comments, “We’re sitting on this delicious network of ideas and it’s just a shame to think that we spend so much time in our cubbyholes.” I spend so much time in my own cubbyhole of EV10.835, aloof to the myriad of other fantastic ideas taking root in other labs within Milieux. How could we cross over more from one lab to the next?

As a start, I invite you, dear reader, to please come by. Yes, our door has the tiniest of windows and, while laboratory protocols prevent me from propping open the door, I would happily walk you through our peculiar, playful space.

Media Archaeology as Platform: An Interview with Jussi Parikka

In May, the Media History Research Center hosted a weeklong seminar on Media Archaeology co-taught by Professors Darren Wershler (Concordia University), Lori Emerson (University of Colorado at Boulder) and Jussi Parikka (Winchester School of Art) who are collectively working on a book on labs and lab culture.


The course began with an introduction to Media Archaeology. Starting with Kittler’s work on Discourse Networks, we worked through German Media Theory’s approach to technical media as a way to think through the entanglements of labour, maintenances and infrastructures. As the week continued, we tried to address how labs afford specific encounters with technical media, and how we can develop methodologies to rethink these objects and the subjects they produce. To that end, students worked on projects in dialogue with daily seminars. Two teams of students built Raspberry Pi arcade cabinets with help from Anne-Louise Davidson, while other students worked with the Depot‘s collection of retro-gaming hardware.

These projects enacted the problems we run into when we try and historicize, interpret, and collect media. They were instrumental in thinking through the lab as performance space.

After a seminar on the problems of navigating institutional infrastructures, I talked with Jussi Parikka about the platforms and infrastructures at play in his own scholarly practice.

After his book on computer viruses, Digital Contagions, Parikka was left with a heterogeneous archive: composed of “three and a half inch floppy disks, but the bulk of that research is photocopies of archival materials like cartoons, newspapers.” It’s easy to see how an interest in media archaeology can emerge out of the infrastructural breaks that a long-term research catalog articulates. Maintaining such a long-term research catalog is a media archaeological project in itself.

I asked Professor Parikka how his research practices have changed since then. “I’m not as systematic as other people,” he responded, “[My process] has to be so intuitive that I don’t have to spend time on it.” Parikka favors research practices that reduce the friction of writing, rewriting and annotating. Though he was hesitant to adopt it at first, he now uses cloud-based Evernote in his writing practice. “The cloud is great for stuff that you might not need but you might want to write an article on it.”

Similarly, he generates arguments by trying to “get the broad sweep of an argument without editing. [It’s] a way of articulating all the possible avenues without getting stuck in the details.”

I think Media Archaeology’s platform functions in a similar way. As Parikka told me, “[It’s] not about enforcing a restriction of what counts as Media Archaeology; it’s set of cultural techniques”. Parikka’s methodology evokes a recurring theme of the course: how can a scholar avoid reproducing the logic of their object of study?

For Parikka, Media Archaeology is a creative intervention into this problem. By subverting the logic of an object, there is a moment of subjectification that opens up the possibility for the new to emerge. Following a genealogy of thinkers from Heidegger to Deleuze to Latour, Parikka says: “Once things fail, then you start to see their complexity”.

This is the Media Archaeological move: to un-blackbox; to tinker and glitch; to use postdigital practices as methods of creative rupture. The infrastructural breaks that these methods expose can open up new questions about production and reception. This evokes the figure that Parikka adapts from Erkki Huhtamo’s artist-archaeologist, the t(h)inkerer:

“an archaeological circuit bender and hacker, [who creates] a link between media archaeology and the political agenda of contemporary media production.” (Zombie Media)

Back in Winchester, Professor Parikka will collaborate with their computer and web sciences departments through the AMT research group, where he hopes to expand the Media Archaeology platform. His goal: to make more with collective resources.

This work speaks to another theme of the course: how the infrastructures that make scholarly work possible includes and excludes people. How can labs work through the affective costs of participation; or, as student Jeffrey Moro put it: What (or who) gets to be infrastructure?