A Sonic Vector of Surveillance


From the above, it is evident that AEHs interact with sound reproduction technologies as sonic media is consumed by a household or overheard by or from one’s neighbors. Investigating this interaction reveals the multisided boundary control process articulated at home in relation to sonic devices. Thus, problems of acoustic privacy in the domestic sphere develop alongside the Echo’s extractive logic of dataveillance, raising questions about an emergent sonic vector of surveillance directed towards the monitoring and potential shaping of a household’s AEH. For instance, sonic habits at home and the lived tension between techniques of orphic mediation and soundscape competence might give Amazon and third parties valuable information about the household as user behaviors are rendered as data. In other words, what might be gleaned about the user who listens to white noise or relaxing music to fall asleep at night? How do media practices and variations in domestic habits provide information about the acoustic environment? For example, at a certain stage I felt quite neurotic in my private room in Rotterdam in stark contrast to the sense of comfort and ease that I took for granted in my permanent home in Canada. Amazon is automatically aware of location changes through the location settings of the Alexa app and traced me as I travelled halfway across the globe; Amazon might also seek to uncover how changes in one’s environment can affect the way one adapts to live with and through sound at home. Moreover, variations in people’s AEHs are certainly intelligible to Amazon and third parties (e.g., music streaming services), as sonic interaction data is assembled into user profiles and made productive through processes of “collaborative filtering” (Brandt 2011). Yet, to what extent might corporate bodies “overhear” bouts of sonic conflict between neighbors? In the case of the Echo, use of the device requires the user to sign in with their Amazon account, which, by default, surrenders personal information such as one’s home address simply because a shipping location is a precondition for online shopping. As a result, in apartment buildings, condos, and other non-detached structures, Amazon may be able to detect when two or more proximal devices are operating in a disharmonious fashion: for example, a neighbor blaring music late at night while others are putting their kids to sleep with an audiobook read by Alexa. These potential conflicts create surveillance opportunities for Amazon to discover insights about users’ acoustic conditions at home, which can be indicative of cramped and sometimes inhospitable environments. Although it is unlikely that Amazon is currently developing user profiles through data insights about AEHs, this process of social sorting might represent a valuable potential opportunity.


So far, my account suggests that privacy-seeking behaviors or privacy-compromising situations can potentially be “overheard” by the technology as processes of acoustic boundary control are rendered as data. Put simply, smart speakers can translate experiences of acoustic privacy into data – providing unprecedented insight into users’ AEHs. However, despite certainly helping to normalize surveillance and expanding the reach of Amazon and third parties into the home, the technology is not necessarily experienced as an utter invasion of privacy by the household because of its capacity to provide dwellers with a novel form of control over the acoustic environment. 


This counterintuitive insight regarding the acoustic privacy implications of smart speakers addresses the technology’s media specificity and is inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan within the field of media ecology. McLuhan (1964: 7) is well known for his maxim the “medium is the message” and for his interpretation of technologies as extensions of human bodies, faculties, and sensory capacities; yet he also viewed media as environments. Lance Strate notes that these two conceptions (i.e. media as bodily extensions vs. media as environments) differ only in the emphasis they place on the human or the environment: “In extending ourselves, our technologies come between ourselves and our environment, and thereby become our new environment” (2008: 135). Following this, the relationship between smart speakers and AEH can be heuristically approached in terms of both the human body and home environment, yet – echoing the discussion above regarding orphic media and soundscape competence – practices of dwelling are inseparable from the environment or dwelling unit. Put simply, any robust analysis must consider both sides of the media ecology framework without forgetting that the body and environment are inextricably entangled through media technologies.


In the context of my temporary dwelling in Rotterdam, I have thoroughly discussed the environmental relationship between smart speakers and my AEH. The next two sections explore how the technology articulates the entanglement of the body and environment in order to thoroughly integrate this key insight from media ecology scholars within my analysis.