It is impossible not to notice the narrative and visual prominence of computers in some of the most popular television shows of the last decade. Almost every episode of CSI and 24 contains multiple point-of-view shots and over-the-shoulder shots of busily active computer screens. What is perhaps easier to miss is the constant sonic accompaniment that comes with these screens - hissing, fizzing, clicking, buzzing, trilling, bleeping and beeping - which seems to convey the activity of computation that is going on behind them. Here are some examples from CSI Miami

Where do these sounds come from? What is their spatial, temporal and logical relation to the images on the computer screen? These questions need to be asked because the noisy computer interface obliges us to consider digital subjectivity and the extent to which consciousness is, or must be, embodied. I will propose connections between these sounds and the types of narratives that they feature in, and I will position these connections in turn within the current television/media landscape in general, and then suggest that this array of interconnections in contemporary television aesthetics is best described in terms of second-order cybernetics. Throughout, this paper is influenced heavily by the conviction that, as Vivian Sobchack puts it, 


photographic, cinematic, and electronic media have not only historically symbolized but also historically constituted a radical alteration of the forms of our culture’s previous temporal and spatial consciousness and in our bodily sense of existential ‘presence’ to the world, to ourselves, and to others. (Sobchack 2004: 136)


Or, as Friedrich Kittler puts it in a somewhat reduced way, ‘media determine our situation’ (Kittler 1999: xxxix). The analysis presented here aims ultimately, therefore, to make claims about the political characteristics of our media environment. The two television shows under discussion are notable for how the forces of law and order fight the battle against criminality (in CSI) and ‘terrorism’ (in 24) to a large degree by means of computation. They also depict state agencies with extremely wide-ranging and sophisticated powers, unencumbered equally by pre-digital investigative techniques as by apparently antiquated attitudes towards the power of the law. In CSI and 24, it seems that, thanks to computing, the law can do anything. 


Second-order cybernetics arises, as Cary Wolfe puts it, with the realization that ‘Enlightenment rationality is not, as it were, rational enough, because it stops short of applying its own protocols and commitments to itself.’ (Wolfe 2010: xx) If these are properly applied, in the manner of systems theorist Niklas Luhmann (among others), paradoxical self-reference crops up in every observation. If we start with the statement that ‘every observation is made by an observer,’ then it follows that that very statement is itself produced by an observer, and so on, and so on. A consequence of this kind of self-referential recursivity is that the individual and subjectivity become less tenable concepts, as it becomes clear that it is impossible to posit, or occupy, any neutral, external position from which any system can be described in totality. To occupy a position of knowledge must structurally be to occupy a position of ignorance in relation to other levels of knowing. 


These conceptual tools prove useful when considering a media environment that consists of many screens, sources of sounds, and levels of enunciation (e.g. screens within screens), which are precisely what we find in 24 and CSI.(1) Indeed, these are evident in all contemporary television formats, most notably perhaps in television news and sports programming. Later, I will consider the possibility that the relation between the sound and the look of computing in television shows is a manifestation of recursive logic. I will also discuss what is at stake in asserting that a recursive, non-linear logic prevails in these shows, and what motivations there may be for making such a claim. 


Most of the analysis in this paper is concerned with what are known as FUIs (pronounced ‘phooeys’), which stands for fantasy (or fake, or fictional, or faux) user interfaces used in television and cinema (an excellent trove of cinematic FUIs may be found at [hyperlink] The computer screen in these narratives typically contains a FUI rather than a user interface that we may recognise from real-world experience. The FUI provides a scientific, or quasi-scientific, gaze which visualises an otherwise invisible or inaccessible object or environment by exploiting technologies and formats such as infra-red, microscopes, CCTV, decryption, and so on. The FUI presents these objects or environments in simulated form, usually against some kind of calibrated scale and/or in a three-dimensional mock-up. The movement of these screens and the moving streams of alphanumeric and other data on them provide an impression of the work of computation, the crunching of reams of data, taking place before our eyes. A prominent designer during the last ten years of these motion sequences for the cinema is Mark Coleran, some of whose work can be seen here (this short video is presented for visual purposes only, as the soundtrack does not include the FUI sounds under discussion in this paper). The sounds that are selected to accompany these FUI movements are the main object of my enquiry here. 

The discussion here takes place in the context of what is known in screen studies as TVIII, i.e. the current era of digital screen media. This era is marked by a flattening out of the traditional points of difference between cinema and television, such as audiovisual quality, production values, viewing/listening conditions, star actors, and so on (See Johnson 2007; Hills 2007). High-concept global brands such as those under discussion here are central to the concept of TVIII (Nelson 2007, 7ff.), which also entails the breaking down of the differences between cinema and television, as well as screens on all kinds of other devices (laptops, phones, etc.) being absorbed into television technology. In this context, new problematics, such as information, cybernetics, interactivity and user interfaces, occupy the critical attention of television studies.

(1) Please note that all three versions of the CSI franchise are under consideration here.

The Hiss of Data


         Cormac Deane

Video Object 2

Video Object 1


Let us examine in detail a typical instance of the sound that emanates from the FUI in an example drawn from season 6 of 24. In the episode 12pm-1pm, Morris O’Brian’s computer attempts to unscramble a ‘corrupted’ image of a face. The lengthy unscrambling procedure entails processing data in subsections of the image. The process is described in the dialogue, and visually by a frenetically fast sequence of subframes appearing as overlays on the image, each of which zooms into a sector of the screen, carries out a calculation and instantly zooms away again. 

Each of these subframes lasts perhaps only a quarter of a second. Corresponding to the rhythm of these rapidly appearing and disappearing frames is a low-volume, high-pitch series of staccato bleeps. The software that Morris sets in motion is then left to churn through the data. When it fails to make any progress after about 15 minutes (which equals 15 minutes of screen time in 24), Morris applies some ‘unlicensed software from a hacker site’ to help it along. Five minutes later, it produces a result (which, in a recursive twist, is an image of Morris’s own face) to the accompaniment of a more urgent, pulsing, lower-tone beep that sounds in time with the text beneath the image, which now flashes alternately red and white. The calculation is over and the computer is demanding the attention of its operator. Now that the image has been recovered, the order is issued to relay it to other law enforcement agencies. As this example makes clear, the challenge is to observe the world in such a way that certain phenomena are correctly identified as important, i.e. informational, and then, as they say in CSI, ‘processed’ appropriately. In other words, the challenge is to filter out what might be called the non-information. Indeed, the narratives of CSI and 24 can be described as projects in data-mining valuable information from undifferentiated data drawn from CCTV footage, satellites, credit card records, fingerprint databases, etc.

A computer unscrambles a corrupted image in 24, season 6, 12-1pm.

The corrupted image is almost restored in 24, season 6, 12-1pm.


The common threat in all of these is from an excess of data, from what Scott Lash calls the ‘information overload’ (Lash 2002: 49) that comes with living in an information society. This problem of excess was observed well before the advent of TVIII; writing in 1989 about the medium’s ‘semiotic excess’, John Fiske claimed that ‘television’s main semiotic energy is … not in producing meanings, but in policing and controlling the excess of meaning it cannot help producing’ (Fiske 1989: 69-70; see also Fiske 1987: 91-93), while earlier still, John Hartley observed that ‘television texts do not supply us with a warrant for considering them either as unitary or structurally bounded into an inside and an outside. If television has a distinctive feature, it is that it is a “dirty” category’ (Hartley 1984: 120). Nevertheless, in more recent years, the sheer number of shows and the proliferation of modes of watching them (regardless of schedules, geography, and so on), as well as innovations such as digital television, pay-per-view and of course the internet, have indeed produced an even more variegated media landscape. For some, this brings to television criticism what Jason Jacobs describes as a ‘pervasive sense of a crisis of authority in the face of a dangerously proliferating medium’ (Jacobs 2011: 503), while for John Caughie, television is threatening to become ‘an object of study which has simply been overwhelmed by too many texts – too many texts for the discipline of television studies to discipline; too many texts and too many carriers of texts’ (Caughie 2010: 411). 


The same challenge arises both inside these narratives and in the media which bring these narratives to us. Not only has television always been confusingly diffuse, but now it transmits narratives featuring further screens which themselves are inundated by waves of visual and acoustic data. It seems that there are too many outputs in the current media environment, too many screens and speakers producing information that is in turn being absorbed as inputs into the system. However, such feedback loops are narratively common, and functional, in the dramas under discussion. For instance, in the example from 24 cited above, the computer receives the input of a corrupted file, which it transforms and presents as an output, which in turn becomes an input into other law enforcement devices and into the narrative itself.


These deluges of information are tackled using the weapon of computation. The technical challenge that these characters and their technical sidekicks face may be expressed in terms of signal-to-noise ratio. That is, any flow of data contains a part that is important (the signal) as well as a part that is unwanted (noise), and a good ratio keeps the signal high and the noise low. I use the concept of noise here both figuratively (as in information theory) and literally (as in auditory content). In sound recording for film and television, a significant source of noise is the machinery that is used to make the recording in the first place. Early attempts to achieve synchronized sound recording brought innovations to muffle camera and other machine noise, as well as refinements in microphones (see Altman 1985, Belton 1985, Doane 1985, Salt 1985). Indeed, the history of film sound is one of increasing control over the soundscape to the point where machine noise may be reintroduced to achieve particular effects, particularly in science fiction - William Whittington’s analysis of science-fiction sound of the past 40 years or so sketches out some features of this process (Whittington 2007). 


Television has been characterized as a sound-dominated, rather than image-dominated, medium. There are several possible reasons for this: because television sets traditionally have poorer image output than cinema, because television’s liveness depends on ongoing direct address to the viewer, because television has to compete for attention in domestic viewing situations (Casey et al. 2008, 112-13; Ellis 1992, 127-139 and 160-171; and Lury 2005, 57-59). In all of these, television aims to achieve a higher signal-to-noise ratio by filling the sound channel with as much content as possible, arguably to the point where television sound itself becomes a shorthand for noisy interference, particularly in cinema, as in the murder scene of Coppola’s The Conversation

So in the television shows that we are considering here, an array of sounds performs the difficult task of conveying the soundless activity of computation. The highly-engineered quality of FUI sounds are in keeping with television’s noisy tendencies, therefore, but within certain boundaries.


FUI sounds are in fact rather akin to the library of electronic sounds that are found in screen science fiction (see Whittington 2007: 65, 77, 156-7, 232 and Johnston 2012). This draws our attention to the quasi-futuristic characteristics of computing in CSI and 24, where the technology is not strictly science-fictional, yet it is certainly regarded as very advanced, or at least superior to consumer quality. The sounds are thereby normalized in the diegetic world, where the characters do not seem to pay them any special attention, and they are made extraordinary for us watching in the ‘present’. This is the double register of FUI sound design: not only do we hear FUI sounds, but we are watching and listening to on-screen characters as they listen to the same sounds. This slight foregrounding of the fantastical machinery is, once again, a science-fiction trope. It is slight, we should not forget, at the sonic level only; visually, the FUI is usually very striking. 


In classic Hollywood film and television drama, if we see an image of, say, fingers tapping a keyboard, they must be accompanied by a certain sound effect. By contrast, if we hear the same sound in ‘off’ (i.e. the source is not in the frame), it is acceptable for us never to see the tapping fingers if we are shown the upper part of the computer operator’s body, or even the appearance of new text on a computer monitor (think of Carrie writing her column in Sex and the City).


The implication of these norms in Foley sound is perhaps not what we might expect: the medium’s ability to convey fullness, presence, a sense of life on screen is more dependent on sound than it is on image. That is, the image requires a corresponding supplement of sound, while sounds can be free of visual reference points (see Chion 1994: 71-80). Sound pervades screen narrative more completely than the image does, and it is never absent, even if it exists only as room tone (see Doane 1980: 39). As we have seen, in CSI and 24, the sound of the computer is slightly to the fore. It is not merely a Foley effect that conveys the sense of a piece of automated machinery, such as a car or a keyboard. Rather, the FUI sound has a hint of subjectivity about it. There is a sense (often a threat in science fiction proper) of the computer exercising subjectivity, as its sounds emanate without direct human interference. This may help to explain why each of these shows, particularly 24, has a somewhat dystopian air, despite itself.


FUI-sounds in contemporary TV drama help us understand how the emergent properties of digital media, a category which itself includes TVIII, are imagined, and imagine themselves. An emergent property is one that arises spontaneously from a set of relatively simple starting points and develops complex characteristics – for example, a colony of ants may comprise individuals performing simple tasks, but the colony as a whole has highly complex characteristics. In these dramas, computation appears to have emergent characteristics to the extent that FUIs display features that are normally associated with living entities. Emitting noise is one of these features. Once again, I use ‘noise’ in its informational and auditory meanings. The noise that we are concerned with is not random, but is composed of trills and intricately repetitive pulses that evoke an insect-like, or even nano-level, intensity of activity. FUI noise is not strictly speaking noise, as it is informational, even if ‘only’ at an abstract or connotative level. 


One way to approach the connection between the on-screen activity of a FUI and the sounds that accompany it is to attempt to identify their chronological relation to one another. In many instances, the activity of computation is conveyed by using isomorphic sync-points, which are moments (very common in animation, music videos and advertisements) when an on-screen action correlates precisely with a sound effect (Curtis 1992: 201). This was the case in the example from 24, where the on-screen written message flashes at precisely the same rate as the bleeps that go with it. So if the FUI and its sounds are precisely isochronal, is it possible to determine which is the prior element, and which has been matched to it? Given that chronology does not help us decide between the FUI and its sound, we need to consider what kind of logical connection can be identified between these two simultaneous phenomena.


By way of answering this, we should look at Vivian Sobchack’s analysis of short animated cinema advertisements which showcase the capacities of Dolby sound systems. In these advertisements, for example Train, the soundtrack is extremely prominent:

Sobchack notes that ‘the desire to mark sound as visible rather than the visible as sounding provides the main impetus for and function of the Dolby trailers. In all but the most recent of them, sound originates, dominates, and shapes the image, rather than the image dominating and grounding (or anchoring) the sound’ (Sobchack 2005: 4). This is a reversal of the normal situation, where the image is prior and the soundtrack provides a sense of fullness, a situation that Christian Metz calls ‘primitive substantialism’ (Metz 1985: 156; see also Metz 1977). This ‘stabilising function of sound’, as Steven Connor calls it (Connor 2000), is part of an ideological system which uses sound in a highly controlled and controlling fashion in order to accentuate the suturing effect of the classical cinematic experience. 


In this light, it seems that we are dealing with the ‘addition’ of sound to an otherwise silent moving image (the FUI). This makes sense in the classic Hollywood environment, which is a ‘closed’, coherent text. But the FUI that is embedded inside a television show is a much less coherently closed screen. The activity of computation in the FUI takes place neither visually nor sonically, but it manifests itself intermittently and inconsistently on one or both of these levels. At times, the FUI sound effect seems to be a rendering of the image, as in an Oramics machine:

But we are also tempted to view the image as a rendering of the sound of computation, rather like an oscilloscope, such as in music visualizers incorporated into mp3-playback software or in the artwork Noise Yoga. In this confusion of inputs and outputs, it is difficult to identify one or the other as prior. 

This uncanny combination is reminiscent of Chladni patterns, where the vibration of a string coincides with the self-formation of grains on an attached plate into snowflake-like symmetries.

In Aura Satz’s description of the phenomenon, ‘the utterance and its written manifestation are one, the note and its notation are uniquely formed at the same time’ (Satz 2012: 33-34). By posing the issue in terms of chronology, we find that the visual and acoustical manifestations of data in these fictional computers occur at the same time, and that it does not make sense to speak of one as cause and the other as effect. They are what might be called co-constitutive. It is also important to note that the conventional distinction between material and information collapses in the example of Chladni plates; rather, they are both simultaneously embodied in the moment of existing. The corollary in the relation of the FUI to its sound is that the data being computed does not exist either visually on the screen or acoustically – it emerges from the simultaneous interplay of both. In a situation such as this, attempting to identify a source of enunciation that would trace back to some kind of subject becomes a lost cause.


It is worth remembering at this point that these FUIs are fictional, and that real-world user interfaces typically make very little or no sound at all - efforts to introduce sounds, such as Apple’s SonicFinder project of the 1980s, have not succeeded (Gaver 1989 and Moggridge 2007: 575-578). I must acknowledge, therefore, that the suggestion that I am making here that the FUI and its sounds are self-organising, emergent and so on, may not convince, because quite clearly these sounds have been added in the editing suite in a conscious effort at achieving a computational feel to go with the pictures, and/or to aid narrative coherence. Indeed, in a lecture on the design of FUIs for film, the motion graphics supervisor Mark Coleran makes it very clear in a public lecture that he is in charge of the images alone, and he refers (half-)jokingly to a compact disc of sound effects that does the rounds among Hollywood editors. 

None of this should distract us from the basic question, which nevertheless persists: what is the relation between the FUI and its sound, and are we dealing with a manifestation of some kind of recursive logic? Even though these sounds and pictures are designed and combined in very deliberate ways, this is not to say that their meaningfulness is thereby inherently comprehensible. The compulsion to attach sounds to FUIs is all the more interesting for their non-realistic, even anti-realistic, qualities. What is revealed here is a cultural imaginary that feels the need to add sound to an otherwise silent screen, and one in which viewers/listeners accept these sounds willingly and without cognitive difficulty. We could regard this phenomenon as a hysterical symptom that attempts to compensate for the fact that the computer is an active entity (what we used to/usually call the actor) that looks and sounds inactive, inanimate. Like all symptoms, it both masks and draws attention to the thing that causes it, so it produces an array of sounds and movements that ought not to exist.


In everyday experience, the silent movie of the computer screen and its user interface does not need to be supplemented by a soundtrack, but in contemporary TV drama the same cannot be said when the computer operator is him/herself a character on screen. In the era of the talkie, which is still our current era, we need sound to emanate from all actions; if a thing is silent, we cannot but perceive it as lacking. Whatever our attitude to the audibility or visibility of a media text, as Stanley Cavell notes, it is strictly tied to whatever mode of perception is current:


A silent movie has never been made. We called some silent after others acquired speech … as if the actors and their world had been inaudible. But they were no more inaudible than the characters in radio were invisible. The Lone Ranger was no more invisible than his horse or gun, unless you wish to say that what exists as sound is invisible. But no person or object we could be shown could be the ones we called into existence by those sounds, though you might be interested to know how the sounds were made. No word we could hear could be the word spoken by that figure of silence. (Cavell 1979: 149)


When Cavell observes (writing in 1979) the act of imagination that is called forth in watching silent movies or listening to radio stories, the profilmic/pro-radiophonic object is positable as actually existing, or having existed. Of course, this is no longer the case (in 2012) now that CGI and graphical user interfaces are commonplace screen-experiences, especially in the television dramas under discussion here. In what Mark Wolf calls this ‘shift from the perceptual to the conceptual,’ (Wolf 1999: 286) invisible entities are translated into visible analogues. The result is ‘a greater willingness to trade close indexical linkage for new knowledge that would otherwise be unattainable within the stricter requirements of indexical linkage that were once needed to validate knowledge empirically’ (Wolf 1999: 274). In other words, computer simulations have quickly become more acceptable aids to understanding reality than more traditional means, in part because they seem to offer access to things as they really are. 


The so-called ‘CSI-shot’ (see Lury 2007, Panse 2007 and Weissmann and Boyle 2007) is a frequently-used signature device in the show where the camera takes a fantastically impossible journey, such as that of a bullet through bone and flesh, or out of a bathroom shower via the plughole. Of particular interest here is the journey through the internal cables, circuit boards and processors of digital devices (see the link provided in the first paragraph of this paper). In season 2, episode 8 (‘Big Brother’) of CSI, a character’s point of view transforms into a CSI-shot that travels into another building, through the cables of various digital devices, and back to the room where she is (Weissmann and Boyle 2007: 100). The shot displays all the salient characteristics of computer simulations as Mark Wolf describes them: ‘they can be rendered and replayed from any angle, and reconstructed events can be seen from any point of view desired, including from the insides of objects’ (Wolf 1999: 287). The shot simulates for us the imaginative, deductive reasoning taking place in the mind of the character, and the swooshing sound effects convey the sense that this journey is as much a roller-coaster ride as anything else. This display of mastery and wizardry is in keeping with the concept of TVIII, where spectacle and high production values are no longer the exclusive purview of cinema. 


In this context, the sound effects of the dynamic CSI-shot are not added for verisimilitude, rather the opposite. In the FUI, we see more science fiction than science, so the screens in these narratives show us what cannot be done by computers in reality, but only in fiction. That is, the FUI offers what it cannot provide. It enables us to see that the very activity that embedded screens purportedly enable — seeing the imperceptible — is precisely what the medium is unable to do. That is, TV shows with extreme degrees of embedded screens attempt to distract the viewer from the thing they cannot do by seeming to achieve it. The noise of the FUI distracts us from the mundane reality that forensic and other scientific processes on computers take time, that they often produce no valid results, and that results are not usually rendered in immediately readable visualizations. The noise is both noisy and informational, therefore, so it distracts us from the implausibility of the computer’s work with implausible signals. The signal-to-noise ratio is both high and low at the same time. 


In her perceptive essay on the sound and music of CSI, Karen Lury also identifies a correlation between the soundtrack of the show and a consciousness that the regime of rationalist science and instrumentalist reason that drives its characters and plots is somehow lacking. Lury’s conclusion is that this is evidence of ‘an increasingly common “spiritualist” discourse in contemporary television’ (Lury 2007: 115). The problem with the identification of a ‘ghostly presence’ (Lury 2007: 120) is that it works within terms of a dichotomy of materiality versus immateriality, of science versus religion. The emergence and complexity that are evident at all levels of CSI constitute an invitation to subject this type of A/non-A analysis itself to analysis. That is to say, the digital subjectivity that computers seem to develop as they interact with humans and as they conduct their own calculations is not a subjectivity that we can identify as human, nor is it entirely machinic. It is something that is not constant but enacted and fleeting, is not transcendental but temporarily embodied and temporarily sounded, and is not fixed in time and space but aleatory and indeterminate. 

Figure 4: CSI Season 12, Episode 2. Fingerprint analysis produces a speedy and unambiguous result, and the computer chirps when it has finished its calculation.

Figure 3: Illustration by Ernst Chladni of patterns of grains of sand on metal plates vibrating at different frequencies (Chladni 1787: Plate 1). Full text available online here: Persistent Identifier (DOI):

Video Object 3

Video Object 4

Video Object 5

Video Object 6

Video Object 7


This paper has considered some of the reasons why computer screens make (the) noise (that they do) in television fictions. One conclusion that can be drawn is that the addition of sound to the image of a FUI indicates a set of attitudes towards technology and contemporary media that is broadly in line with complexity and systems theory. Computing is understood as hugely capable and yet when it is portrayed on screen, it seems to require a sonic element that helps to distract us from its real deficiencies. In this television of distractions, the sound of the FUI is what we do not consciously hear when we hear it – we are too distracted by the demonstration of technology’s prowess to be concerned with their fictive, anti-realistic properties. 


When Niklas Luhmann proposes that ‘reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it’ (cited in Rasch and Wolfe 2000: 259), his aim is to demonstrate that in systems theory the vantage point from which a system can be known is structurally, inherently blind/deaf to the environment that contains it. The noisy FUI illustrates this in an illuminating way; even as we identify noise as noise, it is reinserted as information into the system from which it emerged. Michel Serres observes that ‘whoever belongs to the system perceives noises less and represses them more, the more he is a functioning part of the system’ (Serres 1982: 68). As we have seen, the sound of the FUI is a datum of information that merely wears the guise of noise. If we regard this as real noise, we are indeed fully functioning parts of the system. 


The question that we need to ask is: In the television of distractions, what are the distractions distracting us from? Future research on CSI and 24 needs to go back to the decisive moments when the distinction between information and non-information is made, in other words, to moments whose political, ideological import is lost in a blizzard of non-noise. Only then can difficult questions be posed, such as: Ought the police/CTU have access to this data? Are politico-legal events enframed within a logic of computation? What qualifies as data within this form of computation, and does its collection and storage change the data itself? Is racial profiling at work here? Are the rules of evidence being applied correctly? What data is not being considered? Should the forces of law and order always be subject to the law? Are the humans fully in control of these seemingly subjective computers?


The allure, competence and sheer spectacle of fictional computing deflect us from such questions, and we are instead invited to partake in a fantasy of distributed, non-ideological, post-political subjectivity. If our aim is not to be deflected in this manner, we need to identify the location/source of true noise in these shows. As it turns out, the hiss of data is in fact informational rather than noisy when viewed inside the system of each of the shows. Two alternatives therefore present themselves: first, to treat the hiss of data in the manner that has been done in this paper, with the result that the structure of making distinctions between information and noise is thrown into relief; or second, to regard each show in toto as noise within a media and political system that invites us to consume them as information. 


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