Threshold Sounds


While living abroad, the threshold spaces and sounds of my acoustic environment developed affective depth and personal significance as I associated them with time spent in the Netherlands. Whether audible from an interior location or while departing and returning home, the familiar sounds around my dwelling unit became audile symbols of the home environment. In late March, I began recording the threshold spaces surrounding my temporary home in Rotterdam: Audio recording 5 provides a sample of this from the perspective of arriving home in the afternoon after a day of work at the university. The sounds of birds and passing vehicles in the local neighborhood can be clearly heard in the first 20 seconds of the recording but are muted upon entering the building. The first sonic event is a loud metal gate of the bike locker clanking shut. From there onwards I pass through a series of other threshold spaces: the entranceway vestibule, a series of doorways, hallways, and a staircase. The sounds of rustling keys, closing doors, and footsteps form a rhythmic interplay within the environment as I perform my daily rite of passage as a tenant. The recording concludes with me firmly closing the door of my private room, the final sonic punctuation of my return home. 


Similar to the workings of an aural postcard, the recording articulates the sonicity of “threshold chronotopes” (Bakhtin 1981) by expressing the connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships. Threshold spaces or liminal spaces are both limited and temporary, “a spatial boundary and the transitional stage of any process in time” (Morris 2017: 5). Threshold chronotopes are useful to think through problems of acoustic privacy. For instance, the process-infrastructure relation of boundary control not only includes the porous nature of the walls and ceiling of my private room but also concerns my noisy upstairs neighbor’s refusal to synchronize with the normal hours of wakeful sonic life. Moreover, my habituated use of the Echo revealed the potency of sound in liminal spaces as “an entity of the edge” (Dolar 2011: 125) that can leak from the dwelling unit or hush the external soundscape within a private enclosure. In this way, we might think of smart speaker interaction and consumption as threshold sounds that leak from inside/outside the home (Neville and Borkowski, forthcoming).


However, sonic personalization is also entangled with temporal relationships: during my time abroad, I relied on the Echo as an alarm clock. I initially used the default settings of the device but later updated this with an alarm selected from a list of celebrity voices from the Alexa app. Being a fan of Alec Baldwin, I chose his voice as my preset alarm sound, which I keenly recall as an aural memory. Speaking in a melodious tone of voice, Alec Baldwin recites a bizarre morning phrase: “Wake up sunshine. Let me tell you something, I’ve been up since the crack-of-DAWN. If the early bird gets the worm, you know what Alec Baldwin gets? The early bird.” Audio recording 6 provides a sample of the alarm, which begins to repeat before being shut off by my groggy morning voice. 


The act of snoozing and disarming an alarm clock is powerfully impacted by voice command functionality: the first few mornings that I was awoken by the alarm, I instinctively threw my arm out from under the blankets to reach for the device just before realizing that the alarm could be shut off by voice command. Not yet awake, my body acted before my mind was lucid. It didn’t take long for my body to internalize the new habit: my day would begin without grasping for an alarm clock or looking for the time. Shortly after my second week abroad, my daily routine in rising from bed was significantly altered with my first wakeful moments marked by a voice-command: “Alexa, snooze” or “Alexa, stop.” Living alone in Rotterdam, I would otherwise have likely spent the first hours of my day without speaking a word to anyone before arriving at the university. Now, without fail, my first spoken word in the morning was invariably the wake word of the device: “Alexa” became a doubly animated word, awakening both the user and the device.


I had several early mornings during my stay when I found myself struggling to enunciate and find my words, as I needed to repeat myself for the device to detect and accurately capture my meaning. Evidently, on the threshold of wakefulness, one’s voice remains asleep for some time. While my voice commands to Alexa marked the beginning of each day, Alexa’s voice was often the final sound that I lucidly heard before falling asleep. Arming the alarm before bedtime, Alexa would respond, “Alarm set for 8am”. In this way both the wake word for the device and the sound of Alexa’s voice were integrated as bookends of everyday life, shaping the threshold of wakeful sonic life.


This section elaborated on the spatial and temporal relationships formed at home alongside the Echo. This included consideration of various acoustic boundaries, namely, outside/inside, domestic/public, and awake/asleep. Taking this one step further, I posit that smart speakers effectively construct the concept of home as a threshold space where users intimately experience sound as data and data as sound: users gradually come to experience this as familiar, as the sounds of Alexa and the cloud computing of its AI become audile symbols of home. As a threshold space, surveillance in the home becomes increasingly normalized and entangled with the user’s own AEH while providing Amazon with insight into the rhythms of everyday life within the user’s environment. 


I have analyzed the device’s alarm function in detail, however, smart speakers are also used extensively to set timers and schedule reminders or calendar appointments. For Amazon, the surveillance opportunities of this go far beyond the ideational content of sonic interaction (e.g., “Alexa, set timer for 10 minutes”). Rather, the accumulation of data regarding user and household rhythms might render a deeply intimate picture of domestic life that includes how much sleep one gets, how often one snoozes the alarm in the morning, one’s agenda contents for the day, and how much time one allocates to various tasks, responsibilities, or pleasurable pastimes. 

Audio recording 5: Threshold spaces

Audio recording 6: Morning alarm