Aural Expectations of Home: Methodology and Theoretical Framework
This opening vignette begins to explore the concatenation of home, travel, and sonic technology to discuss what I call aural expectations of home (AEH). AEH involves a set of embodied practices, habituated associations, and sociotechnical relations that articulate how dwellers grow to live with and through sound. This framework seeks to draw attention to the social life of sound that constructs a home, as a built environment and a way of being in relation to place: think of, for instance, the habituated aural associations articulated in relation to a home such as creaky stairs, drafty windows, noisy furnaces and fans, traffic noise in a neighborhood, and the sounds of human and animal co-dwellers. Such sounds can become audile symbols of a home – comforting or otherwise – but may also contribute to an acoustemology of place. For instance, creaky hardwood floors or stairs might signify surreptitious movement (of a teenager sneaking around at night perhaps), or consider how the interruption of an otherwise noisy furnace might precede one’s heat cutting off during the winter due to a neglected maintenance issue.
Moreover, there are multifaceted cultural and political economic factors that shape one’s AEH, which is, after all, both personally and socially constructed over time. Due to the autoethnographic design of the study, my own positionality as a listening subject is vital to understanding how my own values and biases affect my AEH. I grew up in a rural area outside of Ottawa, Ontario, the nation capital of Canada. I was raised by my white father and mixed-race Métis mother. My family owned a free-standing house and about an acre of land, meaning that very little “noise” could be overheard from my neighbors except for the intermittent sounds of motorized tools and toys: including chainsaws, lawnmowers, leaf-blowers, dirt bikes, ATVs, and, in the wintertime, snowmobiles. My middle-class background was also important in shaping my AEH and its relation to music, since my family owned an upright piano, around which the family would regularly gather to listen to impromptu performances in the living room. Music was a central activity in our household, be it on the piano, on violin/fiddle, acoustic and electric guitar, upright bass, or listening to recordings. My sister and I went on to play in bands throughout our childhoods and youth – eventually as professionals – and so my family grew accustomed to loud rehearsals and practices being held in the basement. Later, as a young adult, upon moving to Toronto to pursue a popular music career, I initially lived with bandmates in a semi-detached house. Although we held parties, jammed, and rehearsed there, we always aimed to be courteous to our neighbors and to avoid any by-law noise complaints by keeping the music quiet after about 9 or 10pm. Later in life, I lived in different apartment dwellings, including a subsidized housing complex and later in a basement apartment underneath the landlord’s family. Each of these places and experiences reflect different biographical stages that conditioned my AEH, yet undoubtedly my cultural and economic background consistently shaped the kinds of sonic behaviors, social rules, and schedules that I valued. For instance, as a touring musician, I would regularly keep nocturnal hours, sometimes coming home from gigs between 2-5am; however, if I was not yet ready to go to bed, I would usually wind down to the company of media with headphones to respect the sleep of my roommates and neighbors.
As a result of my own obedience and subjugation to such social rules, due to my cultural and political economic upbringing, it is likely that I have nurtured microfascist tendencies articulated through my AEH. Deleuze and Guattari, and developed further by Félix Guattari, present microfascism as a propensity to desire that others conform to your personal or social rules: “it is the fascist inside you, the fascist you yourself sustain and nourish and cherish with molecules both personal and collective” (Deleuze and Guattari 2005: 215). AEH articulates microfascism as one’s internalized judgements about the social life of sound is conditioned by one’s milieu to shape one’s individuated experiences, relationships, and perception of others. For example, in cases where co-dwellers or near-dwellers violate an assumed moral code of conduct, one might appeal to “rules” of behavior in trying to police the shared acoustic environment. Microfascism “manifests in our everyday behaviors, in our anxieties, our love of power and our lust for the structures and relations which suppress and control us” (Mohammed 2020: 202). To my knowledge, microfascism has not been employed to explore a sensory regime of power on the micropolitical level, however this notion arises as I recount how my internalized AEH clashed with others in a student dwelling in Rotterdam. Importantly, this is not to say that sonic-social norms are established, negotiated, and maintained solely with the purpose of dominating other subjects, as they are often established to protect the physical and psychosocial health of denizens. For example, blaring loud music late at night is not only disrespectful or unneighborly (a microfascist judgement), but it is also potentially harmful as it invades the acoustic privacy of others and deprives them of sleep, with negative physical and economic impacts on, for example, young families or shift-workers who are no longer able to get sufficient rest at night and, thus, cannot build a home for themselves in a particular building or neighborhood. However, in such cases, not everyone who is sonically disturbed will feel that their privacy is being infringed upon enough that they can or should make a complaint, since, of course, different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds engender diverse AEHs. However, I put my own positionality here, as a researcher, under discussion in order to expose how this colors what I perceive as “normal” or “reasonable” behavior and noise levels.
Although I intend to draw the reader’s attention to the complexity of AEH, I inevitably focus on the acoustic contours of privacy articulated in relation to unwanted noisy sounds. This arises from my own interest in such questions, as a surveillance researcher, but it is also useful to explore how power can permeate AEHs, since privacy, after all, can be a classist – not to mention a gendered and racial – construct, especially when discussing domestic privacy. For instance, Rowland Atkinson (2007) has examined the socioeconomic value of quieter neighborhoods, revealing how the privilege of middle to upper class households is manifested by the fact that they can afford to pay for a domicile in “quiet urban oases” (1905). Acoustic privacy might not always be a significant element in one’s AEH, however, since it revealed itself as such in my case during my time in the Netherlands, this provides opportunity to reflect on my privilege. Indeed, I felt quite entitled to the comfort of a quiet room to rest after having travelled halfway across the globe and surmounted the tremendous difficulty of finding suitable and just affordable accommodations in Rotterdam, with its very competitive renters’ market.
In everyday life, AEHs arise from intimate conditions in which sonic relationships that are typically taken for granted develop between dwellers and their home environment. However, the decision to conduct a study of this phenomenon while travelling abroad stems from the realization that an expectation is, by definition, a construct that structures future experience: by transplanting oneself into an unfamiliar physical context (in my case, from my home in Canada to a noisy Rotterdam apartment) one can better attend to the sonic practices that emerge in relation to a domestic environment – before they are experienced as perceptually familiar and unremarkable. Put simply, I contend that one can best perceive one’s AEH within a process of acclimatization, as one’s ears and sonic practices gradually adjust to an unfamiliar domestic context. However, this approach does have the limitation of approaching “home” more as a theoretical construct than as a lived place, since Rotterdam only ever represented a temporary residence as opposed to a place that truly feels like home for me.
The design of the study also seeks to avoid a biased and partial reading of the research object in question, the Echo smart speaker: as a surveillance scholar, I was intensely aware of the informational privacy concerns pertaining to the technology prior to my personal domestication of the device. Had I conducted the study at home in Canada, I likely would have overlooked significant interpersonal, environmental, and embodied dynamics of domestic privacy, effectively limiting my sociotechnical analysis of the technology according to my preestablished AEH as a socially-privileged space of informational privacy. Further, the study examines my initial experiences with using the Echo, exploring the technology before it was grafted onto my AEH, a process which subsequently allowed me to attend to the emergent entanglement of listening and sound reproduction media within a particular acoustic environment. This is done to help address what I regard as a gap in pre-existing research on smart speakers and their voice-activated personal assistants (VAPAs). Academic literature has discussed various privacy and surveillance concerns (Liao, Yuting, Vitak, Kumar, Zimmer and Kritikos 2019; Pridmore, Zimmer, Vitak, Mols, Trottier, Kumar and Liao 2019; Kröger, Lutz and Raschke 2020; Neville 2020a), including the sonic privacy controls of the technical device, such as its microphone-off button, “wake word” design, and interaction activity log. However, critical discussion of smart speakers tends to focus primarily on issues of data bleed, which I use to refer to the extraction of knowledge about or dataveillance (Clarke 1988) of the household, in contrast with multisided issues of acoustic privacy or sonic bleed (Elmer and Neville 2021). In response, the goal of this paper is to address problems of acoustic boundary control and explore how the Echo’s logic of surveillance might interact with the acoustic environment and sonic practices of home. I argue that smart speakers do not articulate an “utter invasion” of domestic privacy but rather affect interpersonal, embodied, and environmental processes of acoustic boundary control; however, this new media development represents an emergent vector of surveillance in the domestic sphere that renders one’s listening practices and preferences as data as Amazon learns about the domestic patterns of sonic life and, thus, can deduce information about AEHs.
Autoethnography is a viable approach in developing an acoustemology (Feld 2015) of home as a socially privileged space of privacy because the method is immanently in tune with the intimacy of personal experience: the applied qualitative method stems from the discipline of anthropology and combines a self-narrative form with interpretive and analytical passages (Chang 2008). The following case study of the Echo and VAPA (Alexa) was developed from ethnographic journal entries and field recordings collected during a 90-day stay in Rotterdam between February and April 2019. During this time, I interacted with the device on a habitual basis in addition to formally testing the various features of the interface – speaking to Alexa and listening to its outputs every morning and evening as well as throughout the day when at home on the weekends.
Audio recordings or “aural postcards” (Droumeva 2016: 76-77) are incorporated throughout to help bring “readers into the scene” (Ellis 2004) while fostering a creative and analytic relationship with the materiality and sociality of sound (Feld and Brenneis 2004: 462). I sought to use the Echo as my field recording device to observe how the seven omnidirectional microphones of the device might capture and reproduce sound: shockingly, there is no audio recording feature available through the device. I explored a variety of “Alexa skills” (i.e. third-party apps), yet none of these featured a basic audio recording function; as a result, the aural picture rendered by the Echo is effectively blackboxed with the exception of the “Alexa Voice History” log, which only features snippets of voice-input data. Due to this lack, field recordings were made using an LG G6 smartphone device with a pair of omnidirectional Acoustic Overload Point (AOP) microphones, a type of microelectromechanical systems microphone (“MEMS Microphone”) manufactured by Vesper and used frequently in consumer electronics, including Echo products. In 2016 Vesper was added to the Alexa Fund, a venture capital initiative to stimulate innovations in voice technology (Karczewski 2016). This is not a coincidence but, rather, MEMS microphones are becoming essential to the growing market for VAPAs and other speech recognition applications because they can record a clear compressed signal in an unpredictable or noisy acoustic environment. Thus, in my estimation, the field recordings provided by the LG G6 provide a decent approximation of the sound sensing affordances of the Echo. As a result, the recordings articulate acoustic observations of the attendant technology that complement the self-narrative account.
The method is not designed to establish any generalizable findings, but rather to offer some qualitative insights regarding private domestic experiences alongside the Echo from the position of an adult, male, able-bodied dweller. This subject position is important, not only to distinguish the discriminating affordances of the surveillance device – as a technology of power bound up in processes of “social sorting” (Lyon 2003) – but also to reveal that AEHs are shaped by a variety of factors, including bodily differences, personal predilections, household dynamics, social values, and cultural norms. These factors may be significant in the development of a relationship with emergent technology, the domestication of which may shape how one grows to live with and through sound by affecting how dwellers move, gesture, speak, and listen in the home environment. Consider some examples of sonically responsive technologies that have been domesticated to interact with one’s AEH: the intercom which facilitates intra-household communication, the baby monitor which is delegated the surveillance role of parental care or guardianship, and the sound-activated electrical switch, The Clapper, which provides interactive electrical affordances to human percussive sounds. In the case of smart speakers, users learn to anticipate and viscerally sense the wake word detection and speech recognition affordances of the technology, developing domestic routines alongside various sonic functions: playing music, setting timers and alarms, asking questions, vocally controlling Internet of Things (IoT) devices, etc. These habits of new media usage (Chun 2016) may seem mundane, however their quotidian nature may also be utterly transformative and empowering for some, including elderly people (Reis et al. 2018) and people with disabilities, such as sight-impairment (Abdolrahmani, Kuber and Branham 2018) or limited mobility (Morris and Thompson 2020). The transformative potential of smart speaker devices underscores that some users might experience the technology merely as a novel “plaything,” while for others it articulates a meaningful and empowering transformation of the acoustic control affordances of home.
The issue of acoustic boundary control is central to my autoethnography of the Echo and is developed through a discussion of acoustic privacy as a multisided phenomenon that is integral to one’s AEH. In the context of this paper, I use privacy to refer to socially and personally meaningful processes of “boundary control” (Rapoport 1977; Altman 1981; Altman and Werner 1985; Pedersen 1997; Steeves 2009). Privacy interests articulated by AEH do not take shape in a bounded or impermeable space but, rather, are co-constructed through the leakiness of the acoustic environment: in other words, one’s ears and sonic habits adapt in response to what can be overheard and to threats of eavesdropping at home. After all, sounds from outside one’s dwelling unit can penetrate home, just as sounds of domestic life can be intercepted by others (Locke 2010; Vincent 2016). Put simply, AEH involves issues of sonic bleed from within and without.
Although one can acclimatize to various sonic realities, however inhospitable they might seem to an outsider, dwellers can also personally customize and actively control the acoustic environment in an endeavor to feel “more at home,” so to speak. For instance, dwellers might attempt to control the intrusion of external noise by buttressing the dwelling unit with soundproofing design (Thompson 2002) or seek to control what can be overheard by unwanted ears through obfuscation methods (Brunton and Nissenbaum 2015), including whispering and playing music. These protective techniques of boundary control articulate how privacy interests interact with one’s AEH.
Throughout this paper, in referring to home, I am cognizant of a distinction made in phenomenological and developmental interpretative models that characterize a dwelling unit as where we live in contrast with a home, which is constituted by how we live (Dovey 1985; Korosec-Serfaty 1985; Mallett 2004). However, a dwelling unit should by no means be understood as a “neutral environment” (Després 1991: 101), as the perception of it is necessarily entangled with one’s AEH. In other words, an acoustemological framework (Feld 2015) must recognize that the way in which a dweller lives with and through sound is entangled with the physical structure and location of residence. This is apparent when we consider that homes are inherently embedded within a soundscape (Schafer 1993; Bijsterveld 2013) and that dwelling practices unfold in relation to a “sonic object setting” (Klett 2014) affected by various physical and sociotechnical factors, including location, architectural design and construction, urban planning, and noise abatement laws (Bijsterveld 2008). However, what is less often theorized is how the “how” of home and the “where” of the dwelling unit work together to frame an acoustic environment: Barry Truax’s (1984) concept of “soundscape competence” together with Mack Hagood’s (2019) “orphic media” might help in this clarification.
“Soundscape competence” (Truax 1984) can be defined as the tacit knowledge that subjects bring to practices of listening in everyday life. This includes perceptual familiarity with the material characteristics of sound, such as the general acoustics of space and social familiarity with individual sounds and events within a wider sonic environment (Truax 1984). Milena Droumeva’s use of the term soundscape competence is particularly relevant to an acoustemology of the home, as she interprets it as an “agnostic characterization of aural attention” (Droumeva 2016: 74). For Droumeva, soundscape competence can function as a “protective mechanism” of boundary control as exemplified by the urban strategy of tuning out traffic noise. This state of personal and social attunement thus denotes an unmediated form of acoustic privacy that relieves the subject from the constant or intermittent strain of overhearing.
As one grows accustomed to the sounds in and around the dwelling unit, this sonic reality becomes entangled with experiences of home. However, the dweller or household also has a degree of personal agency in controlling the boundaries of their acoustic privacy, articulated through some form of orphic mediation (Hagood 2019) whereby individuals control or customize their sonic environments. Noise-cancelling headphones, soundproofing, and white noise machines are examples of this, as they “filter, alter, and hush the sounds of the world” (Hagood 2019: 3) so their users can function, unaffected, within a space of freedom. Thus, in cases where one’s soundscape competence is underdeveloped or simply overwhelmed by some noisy intrusion, orphic media can help restore a sense of privacy. Moreover, Hagood’s discussion of the “sleep mate” device (2019: 103-108) explains how the acoustic privacy affordances of orphic media not only articulates freedom from hearing (i.e. involuntary overhearing) but also unwanted listening (i.e. eavesdropping) by masking the sounds and discourse within a private enclosure. Thus, orphic media function as part of a multisided boundary control process, offering one example of how technology interfaces with the acoustic environment.
In summary, soundscape competence and orphic media can help in theorizing domestic forms of auditory attunement by offering differing emphases on the dwelling unit or practices of being at home. More concretely, soundscape competence has to do with how the individual or household can acclimatize to the acoustics of a dwelling unit, whereas the implementation of orphic mediation is linked to human agency in sonically controlling and shaping the environment. Despite the tension between these two “learned sensory techniques” (Sterne 2003), they necessarily intersect as part of one’s AEH.