5. Smart Media Spaces and Selves





09:29 250420 / 18:57 190221

I had a dream about my phone – living inside it, living through it

home is eye strain frozen zoom selfie

‘while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating’ (Steyerl 2012: 13)

accelerated drift in liminal space explodes positionality

more spasm and burnout

11,060 Hz

ears inverted

my finger is trembling over the light

smart radio replays my clubbing past as breakfast cereal


The folded nature of digital communications […] only intensifies the complexity of how people’s relations to space are differentiated through their variable uses of media. (Couldry and Hepp 2017: 89)


As is increasingly common, this flat is home to multiple smart media devices, and the soundscape here is also a mediascape. Tablet, smart TV, smart speaker, and smartphones function as interfaces, windows to the networked world of the internet and global media. These devices connect domestic space to other spaces and selves, people outside of and beyond the proximities of home, and perhaps never more so than during lockdown. The requirement to stay indoors has resulted in much of my social and professional life moving online. At any given moment this flat is permeated by the sounds of a serious Zoom work meeting, upbeat music from the smart speaker in the kitchen, video games in the kids’ bedroom, irregularly interrupted by jarring phone and email alerts, ringtones, and vibrations. The physical form and permeable boundaries of this basement flat, a warren of connected rooms through which these sounds resound, is to an extent acoustically manageable, playable, with doors acting as filters and dynamic processors. By day, the flat is multi-layered with media sound, the space multiplied by the sonic-spatial simultaneity of competing, territorializing, sounding media. Within the flat, these smart media sounds – alerts, audio memes, music – open up digital spaces, activating various lines of escape from the confines of living here together. They are portals to work-world, cartoon-world, friend-world, music-culture-world, activist-world, streaming constantly until we remember we can say “stop.” While the affordances of these media spaces are useful, such sonic and spatial complexity can be overwhelming, as it manifests and renders audible our overlapping priorities, desires, and personal realms. We cannot all live here everywhere at once. Sometimes it is intensely stressful just to stand and try to think among these multiple orders of space.


As we listen to and through these smart devices in our home, each device listens back. The songs and shows and memes that permeate our living space are often present not because they have been actively selected by a human user, but rather they have been automatically transmitted – “recommended” – by devices engaged in machine learning, built and optimized to understand their individual users ever more intimately. While each device provides a function in cultural provision – music, tv, games, social media – it simultaneously carries out data extraction, learning through this family’s individual voices, bodies and selves, our likes, habits, identities, movements, moods, health. Our listening and our soundscape are conditioned by machine listening processes that connect us to the virtual realm of techno-capital. Holger Schulze relates the machine listening of smart devices to Oliveros’ earthly listening practice:


A machined culture of interacting apparatuses is emerging, created after an idealised model of capitalizable humanoid behaviour. Their idealisation is tempting: Semiosis is highly capitalizable […]. The microphones and loudspeakers are incessantly executing a machinic deep listening (Oliveros 2005): machines to listen more deeply and with more focus than humanoid aliens ever could. A semiotically focused listening […]. ‘A floating no-space world of personal spectation’ (Wallace 1996: 813). (Schulze 2018: 105)


Such a conflation of human subjectivity and machinic agency, artificial intelligence, produces something akin to what Donna Haraway has previously theorized in terms of the “cyborg” or, for Schulze, the “humanoid alien.” Haraway’s cyborg emerges through communications technologies and everyday life under advanced capitalism and the consequent challenges to prevailing dualisms of “self/other, mind/body, nature/culture, male/female” (Haraway 2011: 126), resulting in new (women’s) embodied subjecthoods that are both organic and technological, both human and machine. As Haraway writes:


It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices. In so far as we know ourselves […] we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras. Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic. (Haraway 2011: 126)


Drawing upon Haraway, Schulze frames the bondedness of human subjectivity and machine intelligence as an apocalyptic outgrowth of rampant capitalism:


Capitalizing cannibalises this planet. Aliens like you and me might in the outstretched expansion of capital only qualify as one of the various sexual organs, or just one of the various generative nuclei needed to procreate capital by annihilating this solar satellite. The planetary desire to […] procreate capital ever further implies the darkest side of the Capitolocene [sic]: its pathology of depression […]. (Schulze 2018: 107)


09:29 250420

listening to the smart speaker each day

my 8-year-old accidentally gets into Nirvana

just like me just like me


later, listening alone to ‘going home’ (Cohen 2012)

I burst into those conservative tears

this cry

preserving some known and unearned power


these tears are real

squeezing pleasure in the barren field

of this house

at 5:18


Reflecting on the presence and functions of smart technologies, of machine listening and learning in the family home, I wonder about the relationship between our bodies and selves, our smart media use and our dwelling place. Sara Ahmed writes of homes as “habit spaces” and of the habitual nature of space and spatial experience: “We could think about the ‘habit’ in the ‘inhabit’” (Ahmed 2006: 129). If the algorithmically driven “echo chamber” of social media can be understood to orientate subjects towards particular social interactions, ideas, and preferences that are already familiar and, in this sense, normative, then the same might be said for the intelligent interfaces of smart speakers, TVs, and phones in the home. These sounding and listening technologies can be understood to direct users towards normative options and choices based on code analyses of speech and motion captured in the home and subsequent calculations (made on behalf of multinational corporations) of “what you might like,” in this sense actively directing attention and desire away from cultural and ideological alternatives, diversions, and transgressions, from exploration and discovery. Amazon Alexa’s mantra – “here’s something you might like” – produces and reproduces both a “here” and a “you” that you already “liked,” further impressing normative cultural influence and habit upon the social space of the home and on the bodies that inhabit it. Habits shaped by smart technologies are formed in and through the bodies that inhabit and shape the home. Smart media, by design, impresses cultural normativity upon the soundscape of the home and upon the cyborg agencies that emerge through it. Reflecting upon the body as a “map of power and identity,” Haraway writes:


A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end […]. [C]yborgs have more to do with regeneration and are suspicious of the reproductive matrix and of most birthing. (Haraway 2011: 126)


In considering my home as a sounding, smart media space, reciprocally shaped by the bodies and intelligent technologies that inhabit it, perhaps it is useful to pursue this notion of a cyborg body, agency, and identity that values regeneration over reproduction, to consciously perform it as part of a critical practice of listening and sounding in the home. Following Ahmed’s “queer phenomenology” of orientation, and Guionnet et al.’s “extreme site-specificity” and “intimate and immanent self-criticality,” everyday listening and sounding practiced as free improvising, as reflexive and intra-subjective socio-spatial regenerating, might orientate cyborg bodies away from normative planes of experience, from reinforcement and reproduction of conservative space, towards a processual, radical regeneration of place through critically conscious perception and action, dwelling and building.

Audio track 5: g-maze