Managing the Sonic Environment: Ambient Noise, Creativity and the Regime of Ubiquitous Work


Artur Szarecki




With the advent of industrialization, the acoustic environment of modern societies became replete with a whole gamut of previously unheard sounds: the rumbling of factory machines, the roar of new mechanical means of transportation, the clamor of gramophones and radio, etc. The increasing awareness of the problem of public noise, which was generally perceived as more intrusive and troubling than ever, generated a number of corresponding practices related not only to the perception of sound, but also its distribution, measurement, and regulation (Thompson 2002; Bijsterveld 2008). Taken together, these transformations contributed to the development of sonic culture that was primarily characterized in terms of oversaturation.

The problem of noise was particularly inimical to intellectuals who crusaded against the pervasive cacophony of the city life with exceptional fervor, as it posed a threat to the very core of their social being. In 1925, Hugo Gernsback warned in Science and Invention magazine that even such mundane sounds as background noise coming from the street, the repeated ring of the telephone or the doorbell are enough to undercut the flow of creative thoughts. Fortunately, he came up with an invention that provided a groundbreaking solution to the acoustic side effects of civilizational progress.

The “Isolator” resembled a large diving helmet with two narrow apertures for eyes and an oxygen tube that was supposed to protect the user from dyspnoea. However, Gernsback’s invention was not intended for underwater exploration; rather, the purpose of the “Isolator” was to enhance mental capabilities to their full potential. The helmet provided complete isolation from environmental sounds and effectively limited vision to a tiny horizontal slit that allowed the wearer to focus on precisely one line of text. Freed from all distractions, the user could unconditionally devote himself to creative work: reading, writing or just pure contemplation.

While the commercial appeal of the “Isolator” turned out to be practically nonexistent, Gernsback’s invention, nevertheless, provides an evocative point of departure to think about historical transformations of the relationship between ambient noise and creative labor and the cultural symbols corresponding with these changes. The “Isolator” can be considered as an offshoot of the widespread efficiency crusade and the concomitant obsession with eliminating “waste” from all aspects of life, initiated at the turn of the twentieth century by the rise of scientific management. Gernsback’s effort to eliminate environmental sounds that could interfere with thought processes and potentially lead to attentional waste was, therefore, a rational – at least in principle – attempt to create optimal conditions for creative work.

A strikingly contrasting approach, however, is adopted by the online streaming service Coffitivity (, which transmits recordings from actual coffee shops around the world in order to aid the creative capabilities of contemporary workers. According to the Coffitivity website, moderate levels of ambient noise can, in fact, enhance creativity. This is because creativity can be understood as an act of synthesis, bringing together diverse ideas and concepts and (re)connecting them in novel and unforeseen ways (Sawyer 2006). Thus, excessive focus can be detrimental to creativity, as it prevents associative thinking, instead fixing the flow of ideas according to a single point of view. In contrast, being creative requires a “tiny bit” of distraction, provided, for instance, by environmental sounds like “the chatter and clatter” of the coffee shop.

Consequently, Coffitivity enables its users to access, free of charge, one of three ambient soundtracks for facilitating creative thinking: the barely audible “morning murmur,” providing a gentle introduction into the working day; a lively buzz of “lunchtime rush” for those in need of stronger stimulus; and the “scholarly sounds” of academic cafe with its refined and intellectual atmosphere. Additionally, for an extra charge, the user can enjoy one of three geographically and culturally themed soundtracks: “Paris Paradise,” “Brazilian Bistro,” and “Texas Teahouse.” While the variety of options enables aligning the sonic environment with personal preferences, the intended effect is similar in each case – to stimulate and enhance an individual’s creative capabilities.


The commercial success of Coffitivity suggests that in contemporary neoliberal capitalism, with its ceaseless impetus towards innovation, isolation from environmental sounds is superseded by ambient noise as preferable accompaniment for creative work. In fact, establishing a link between everyday sounds and creativity facilitates an extension of the labor process in space and time. Since Coffitivity provides a virtual, always-on sonic environment that affords the effective performance of creative work in any place and at any time, the neoliberal logic of ubiquitous work can effortlessly penetrate every facet of social life.

Sonic Governance: Neoliberalism and Posthegemony


Far from being just an ideology or economic policy, neoliberalism, in fact, comprises a prevailing mode of governance that posits market rules as the only conceivable way of organizing social order (Brown 2005; Foucault 2007; Dardot and Laval 2013). Accordingly, in contemporary neoliberal capitalism nothing can be “exogenous” to the complementary principles of competition and accumulation, which are increasingly inculcated and enjoined in all spheres of social life, regulating the ways we relate to others and to ourselves. The neoliberal rationality, therefore, is not just a matter of ideas and discourses, but also habitual modes of feeling and conduct that govern our everyday lives without ever coming fully into consciousness.

In order to tap into those palpable but non-cognitive registers of experience, neoliberal capitalism relies on a variety of “technologies that are making it possible to grasp and to manipulate the imperceptible dynamics of affect” (Clough 2008: 1-2). One type of such technologies that gradually gains prominence in contemporary capitalism has to do with the design of sonic environments. Sound can be particularly effective in capitalism’s drive towards harnessing the relational capacities of bodies to affect and be affected, because it is, in many ways, congruous with affect (Schrimshaw 2013). As an ongoing flow of intensities through and across matter, sound is experienced at the surface as well as within bodies, engaging us sensorially, below the threshold of conscious perception. Even if inaudible, it permeates everything, triggering physiological and psychological responses in the body which, in turn, produce modes of conduct that resonate within the social.

However, the entanglement of sound and affect underlying many neoliberal technologies of governance poses a serious challenge to cultural theory, thus far primarily interested with language, meaning and representation as principal means of framing political struggle. This approach usually entails a marginalization of auditory aspects of culture which – if considered at all – are usually reduced to the correlates of the symbolic sphere. In contemporary capitalism, however, sounds are employed not only as carriers of meaning but also, or perhaps primarily, as sensory intensities that permeate and affect bodies, engendering discernible and often measurable changes both within and in-between them. Consequently, making sense of neoliberal governance requires us to take into account the corporeal effects that are dependent neither on exercising coercion nor on establishing consent, but rather on immanent processes that are activated and reproduced beneath consciousness. This is the basic premise of posthegemony theory, which aims to rethink politics in terms of affect, habit, and multitude.

According to Jon Beasley-Murray (2010), power operates directly and immediately on bodies, inflecting their affective intensities, habitual movements, and multitudinous interactions. The vocabularies of affect, habit, and multitude are, therefore, invoked to give substance to the shared corporeality of human experience, in contrast to the prior focus on signifying practices. In this sense, posthegemony requires neither representation nor direction from above; it is a thoroughly material and directly relational mode of power that emerges out of immanent re-composition of bodies via a series of modulations in and through affect.

By reconceiving political processes in terms of impersonal correlations of bodies and intensities, posthegemony theory, therefore, can provide us with an alternative framework for analyzing and comprehending the new mode of sonic governance that arises at the intersection of “digital business models, employee culture, and sound production and performance” (Papenburg and Schulze 2016: 7). In this context, the Coffitivity website and app can be regarded as part of a set of activities organized around sensation and affect that are designed to foster a sensory and cultural attunement with the requirements of neoliberal capitalism. In the following, I will attempt to employ posthegemonic theory to provide a socio-political analysis of Coffitivity, conceived as a sonic apparatus designed to modulate the affective environment in such a way as to habituate people into the regime of ubiquitous work.

Coffitivity and the Making of Creative Subjects


The concept of Coffitivity was developed by a group of “entrepreneurs, freelancers, and creatives” from Richmond, Virginia. While working on an unrelated business project, one of the team members, Justin Kauszler, noticed that the meetings held in a coffee shop always resulted in an outpouring of creative ideas, yet when they worked in the company headquarters, they were never able to attain a comparable level of ingenuity. The sense of discrepancy between being surrounded by a lively buzz of a street cafe and the stark silence of a closed office constituted a powerful experience. However, since his boss was reluctant to allow the employees to come and go as they pleased, Kauszler teamed up with ACe Callwood to design a technology that would recreate the acoustic environment of a coffee shop within an office or, in fact, any other space. Consequently, they borrowed audio equipment and started recording the sounds of their favorite coffee place to enable a subsequent digital playback from a home computer or a mobile device, anytime and anywhere. Ultimately, the Coffitivity website was launched in March 2013. It soon found favor with millions of users seeking to boost their creative capabilities.

Coffitivity explicitly invokes the findings of an independent psychological research on background noise and cognition, validating its own efficacy through the authority of expert knowledge. The website features a separate section introducing the final conclusion of the research, which claims that a moderate level of ambient noise provides a stimulus to enhanced creativity. According to their statement, this is why so many moments of insight happen when people are not preoccupied with the actual problem but go about doing something else, usually performing mundane activities like brushing teeth, washing dishes, or mowing the lawn. Likewise, the ambient noise of Coffitivity is supposed to initiate the “flow of creative juices” by providing a temporary distraction from the task at hand and, thereby, enabling the spontaneous emergence of innovative ideas.

Additionally, the website links directly to the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, that analytically and empirically demonstrates these findings. According to the paper by Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu, and Amar Cheema (2012), the common assumption that noise impairs creativity is not necessarily true, because a moderate level of noise slightly increases the difficulty of information processing, which facilitates abstract thinking and, in turn, leads to enhanced creativity. However, when the level of noise exceeds a certain threshold, it reduces the extent of information processing and, indeed, diminishes the creative capabilities of individuals. In other words, the relationship between the intensity of ambient noise in the environment and creative thinking can be pictured as an inverted-U curve. It means that noise can both facilitate and limit creativity, depending on the intensity of the sonic vibrations. A moderate level of noise, which induces only a minor response in the body, generating a state of quasi-distraction, can be advantageous for creative thinking. However, after exceeding certain level of intensity, the noise starts to interfere with cognitive processes.

The reinforcing relationship between moderate noise and creative capabilities, according to the paper, arises from the natural predisposition of the human brain to automatically depict that which is amorphous or indiscernible – in other words, difficult to process – in more abstract terms. For example, if something is hard to describe, it will be defined using more ambiguous and non-specific vocabulary. The cognitive processes activated in this type of situation resemble a free flow of thoughts as the brain flips through a series of associations which, subsequently, enable creative synthesis to occur.

This effect was verified by conducting a sequence of empirical experiments in which participants performed creative tasks while exposed to a pre-recorded soundtrack of environmental noises. While the authors intended to utilize ambient sounds that are common in daily life, as opposed to the artificially created white or pink noise used in preceding research, the soundtrack they employed comprised a highly processed mix of “multi-talker noise in a cafeteria, roadside traffic, and distant construction noise” (Mehta, Zhu and Cheema 2012: 786). Admittedly, each of the sounds was separately recorded in an actual venue, but afterwards they were digitally superimposed on each other to create a kind of sonic simulacrum of “dining at a roadside restaurant” (Mehta et al. 2012: 787). Furthermore, the soundtrack was broadcasted into a classroom space, thus blending with another layer of ambient noise. The whole acoustic experience, thus, derived from a superimposition of multiple sonic environments.

For the purpose of the experiment, however, it was the level of noise that constituted the key variable. The participants were divided into small groups of no more than four people and randomly assigned to work under a preordained level of ambient noise: low (50 dB), moderate (70 db), or high (85 dB).[1] They were initially asked to complete a Remote Associates Test, which involves finding a word that is somehow related to three other given words. The experiment showed that people working under moderate ambient noise generated more correct answers than those in other groups. However, when subjected to high levels of noise, people spent significantly less time working on the task, which suggested a reduced capacity for information processing.

To verify the initial results, the experiment was repeated, only this time the participants were asked to come up with creative ideas for a new product. The researchers measured both the quality of the ideas, which corresponded to the degree of creativity, as well as the time required to generate them, which corresponded to the extent of information processing. The results confirmed, to a large extent, the findings of the previous experiment. The level of noise had a minor impact on the amount of ideas generated, but when subjected to high levels of noise, people again dedicated less time to completing the task. Additionally, it turned out that the ideas considered to be the most creative, rated by a panel of judges recruited from within the participants, were generated by people working under moderate levels of ambient noise, and those people used the most abstract vocabulary to describe their ideas.

A further experiment was designed to disprove that better performance on creative tasks could be attributed to increased arousal. By measuring the heartbeat and blood pressure of the participants, the researchers demonstrated that with the passage of time the organism becomes physiologically, but not cognitively, accustomed to noise. In other words, while arousal normalizes, processing difficulty persists throughout, driving the ingenuity effect. Finally, using a multiple-mediation analysis, the whole sequence of causal relationships leading from working under moderate ambient noise to enhanced creativity was validated.

However, the study by Mehta and colleagues is, to a large extent, dependent on a presupposition that processing difficulty induces high-level construal so that individuals engage in abstract thinking. This presupposition was adopted from a research by Adam L. Alter and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (2008), who argued that people tend to describe cities in more abstract terms and assess them to be further away when presented with their names in a hard-to-read font. The research, then, implicitly adopts a visual model of perception as a universal ontological frame, which might be problematic when applied to sound.

According to Steven Connor (1997), in the “visualist imagination” the world is constructed as a grid of regular lines stretching out from a single point of view. In other words, it presupposes a separation of perceiving self from its environment. Thus, it conceives reality as composed of discernible entities connected by extrinsic relations of linear causality. In this sense, the study by Mehta and colleagues (2012) reflects the basic tenets of the visualist imagination. It considers sound as an external “environmental variable” that affects individual subjects through interference or disturbance from without. However, while the level of noise was determined using objective measures relating to fluctuations in the pressure of vibrations as the sound wave propagates through air – and opposed to loudness as a psychological correlate of the material circumstances – processing difficulties, in turn, were registered based on subjective assessments by the participants, who were asked in a survey to evaluate their level of distraction and difficulty of concentration as well as the comfortableness of the experimental room. This line of thinking, therefore, posits an unbridgeable divide between two ontologically different realities of “noumenal emission and phenomenal apprehension” (Cox 2011: 155), effectively reifying sound to a discernible, external object in the world made intelligible by the perceptual capabilities of an active, knowledgeable self. Consequently, it fails to capture the dynamic fluidity and immediacy of sonic encounters.

However, starting with the vibrational properties of sound, we might arrive at a different account, based on the permeation and mutability of bodies in space. As a vibration, sound is transmitted through and across matter, effectively dissolving boundaries between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, body and mind, etc. (Cox 2011: 157). Consequently, we need to question the sufficiency of subjective apprehension in providing an ontology of sound and insist on the primacy of affect in accounting for its activities. This entails an alternative analytical framework in terms of unfolding sonic events that arise through complex material interactions. Thus, instead of examining how Coffitivity mediates between already constituted discrete objects and subjects, we might consider how it immanently modulates the field of emergence by investigating the circulation of virtual forces and intensities it affords.

Capturing the Coffee Shop Experience


In the last couple of years the coffee shop has come to be regarded as a pivotal space of post-crisis economy, particularly in the media, information, and communication sectors. For professionals who deal with new technologies and cultural creative work, the coffee shop – with its free Wi-Fi and bohemian atmosphere – has become a primary working space of choice (McWilliams 2015). In fact, casually sipping coffee while doing something on a laptop has become a clichéd depiction of creative work, epitomizing the peculiar combination of ease and intentness so fundamental to neoliberal capitalism. Furthermore, the stimulating properties of coffee undoubtedly facilitate developing work routines synced with the rhythms of present-day round-the-clock business culture. Yet the powerful symbolic of entrepreneurial creativity that surrounds the coffee shop has a much longer and more complicated history.

The first coffeehouses came to Europe in the latter half of the seventeenth century, immediately gaining appreciation of the cosmopolitan elites, enchanted by the exotic charm of the new establishments. However, spending time in a coffeehouse was about much more than enjoying a foreign beverage and romantic atmosphere; rather, it became a site of cultural exchange par excellence, facilitating the circulation of ideas among the patrons and in society at large. It was a place to meet people from all walks of life, to freely discuss any relevant topic, and to develop an interest in everything that was unusual, rare, peculiar or extraordinary (Cowan 2005). This is why coffeehouses corresponded with a metropolitan lifestyle so well, proliferating expeditiously across major European cities, as they provided a missing link between the incipient consumer revolution and the emergence of the modern public sphere (Habermas 1989).

The early coffeehouses, then, formed a space of encounters where people heard the latest news and gossip, connected socially, debated politics, and transacted business. Despite varying social backgrounds, all participants were treated as equal, freely communicating with each other and openly sharing their knowledge, interests, and experience. As Richard Sennett notes:

The talk was governed by a cardinal rule: in order for information to be as full as possible, distinctions of rank were temporarily suspended; anyone sitting in the coffeehouse had a right to talk to anyone else, to enter into any conversation, whether he knew the other people or not, whether he was bidden to speak or not. It was bad form even to touch on the social origins of other persons when talking to them in the coffeehouse, because the free flow of talk might then be impeded. (Sennett 1977: 81)

Upon setting out for the coffeehouse, there was no way of knowing in advance with whom one was about to interact. Each arriving patron was simply seated at the nearest unoccupied spot. Booking was off-limits and so was rejecting anyone’s company. In the coffeehouse each patron was considered to be on a par with everyone else.

However, the prevailing image of the coffeehouse, with its atmosphere of egalitarianism and erudition, was, at least to some extent, exaggerated; women, for instance, were unanimously excluded from participation in the nascent public sphere of these establishments. Nevertheless, the directness, openness and casualness of interactions rendered coffeehouses an exemplary creative space, where ideas circulated, encountered each other, and proliferated. According to Markman Ellis (2004), for people living in the late seventeenth century “entering a coffeehouse was like walking into the Internet.” Primarily in the sense of providing unprecedented access to all kinds of information, but also because of the more direct and participatory way of acquiring knowledge through social interaction. And, to a certain extent, that cultural dynamic was afforded by sound and its circulation.

What astounded many coffeehouse goers at the time was the hustle and bustle prevailing in most establishments. The collective murmur of conversations, the sipping of tea, the clatter of kettles, cups and spoons, the scraping of chairs, etc., comprised a distinct audiosphere that simultaneously evoked a sense of conviviality and confusion. For example, one of the early patrons was so overwhelmed with the turmoil that he described the atmosphere of the place as “mere Chaos” (Ellis 2004). The sonic environment of the coffeehouse, therefore, can be said to fully bring out the associative dynamic of sound.

While most sounds are associated with their original source, they are also experienced as autonomous, constantly moving and forming alternating connections, groupings, and conjunctions (LaBelle 2010). Sounds come to us, at the same time, from everywhere and nowhere. In the space of the coffeehouse, they continuously circulate, encounter each other, interweave, clash, and overlap, periodically going in and out of focus. The resulting din fills the space with vigorous energy that comprises a sonorous fabric signaling the ongoing flow of communication and exchange. The coffeehouse noise, then, was an expression of vitality and communality that marked it as a space of “creative sociability” (Thrift 2007: 45).

The acoustic experience of being in the coffeehouse is governed by the ceaseless hum of the multitude, a persisting interplay of voices by means of which the self is exposed to the sonic presence of others. Admittedly, this sonorous embeddedness might pose a threat to one’s sense of belonging and social identity. As Sennett (1977: 83) notes, when a speaker was perceived as too tiresome, he “was ‘settled’ by sheer noisemaking on the part of the others.” The coffeehouse clamor, however, cannot be reduced to an environmental nuisance that interferes with social harmony. In fact, pervasive noise is precisely what enables collective attunement, a sine qua non for the emergence of community. It facilitates sociality by initiating and sustaining a sensory connection that constitutes the space of encounters. While not free from an occasional drowning out or mishearing that might result in a temporary disintegration of the social fabric, the sonic environment constitutes a field of affective relationships in which the sound is not simply the flow of acoustic matter, but – as Brandon LaBelle (2010: 82) puts it – also “voice, dialogue, sharing and confrontation.”

We can, therefore, think of the contemporary coffee shop’s sonic ambience as a configuration of sensory stimuli that facilitates an interactional social dynamic. Additionally, it is encoded with meanings referring to a spontaneous exchange of ideas taking place in a casual, open, and intellectually stimulating atmosphere. The cultural symbolic of the coffee shop, then, is historically intertwined with the concept of creativity, dating back to the emergence of the first coffeehouses in Europe. However, while the invocation of cultural connotations linking the coffee shop experience to creativity contributes to explaining the popular appeal of Coffitivity, it is important to note that the streaming service provides a quite disparate aural experience. Instead of facilitating interaction dependent on embodied co-presence, the sonic environment generated by the website or the mobile app is, essentially, haunted by acousmatic specters.

The sense of hearing provides us with a variety of perceptual information about our environment. It enables us to determine what kind of objects are nearby, what is happening to them, how long these activities last, and where they occur. As a result we gain a “360° awareness of a three-dimensional spatial field” that surrounds us (O’Callaghan 2007: 9). In a coffee shop, for instance, the music blends with the ambient noises, enabling us to “switch” between different degrees of attention, as when we tune into our favorite song playing through the speakers or catch a fragment of conversation from the nearby table. Thus, every now and then, the sound brings us back to the material reality that we have mentally detached ourselves from by, for example, engaging in creative thought-wandering.

In contrast, the modality of listening afforded by Coffitivity disconnects us from the acoustic properties of the space that we currently inhabit. In fact, the felt presence of the coffee shop noise pulls us away from the “here and now,” providing a sensation of simultaneously being “somewhere else.” This perceptual discrepancy is fixed by providing the user with full control over the sonic environment. While the lack of background music might be the most astonishing feature of Coffitivity, sharply separating our experience from that of any real cafe, the app can be synced with a personal MP3 player. We can thus select music according to our individual preferences and set the parameters of playback. Additionally, the background sounds of the coffee shop are blurred into an indiscrete stream of unintelligible noises from which it is impossible to discern any meaningful words or phrases. Instead of encountering differing zones of intensity and shifting gradations of acoustical flow, what we engage in is a completely preprogrammed and predictable soundtrack.

Thus, despite its claims to the contrary, Coffitivity is not about the replication of an actual coffee shop experience; rather, it is about its substitution with a sonic simulacrum that offers an intensified experience, free from any irregularities or disruptions. In other words, Coffitivity affords a sensory participation in the sonic environment of the coffee shop in a way that excludes interferences caused by other people and, as a consequence, entails disconnection from the social dynamic of creativity. The solitary user constantly balances on the edge of presence and absence, situating his or her attention in a shifting and unstable field that encompasses home, office, coffee shop, and other spaces that designate the contours of the virtual territory of creative work.

Sound and the Vitalization of the Multitude


The modern history of a formal liaison between the design of sound environment and the monitoring of work performance begins directly in the years following WWII with the emergence of a new field of expertise labeled as the human relations movement. Spanning various scientific disciplines – such as medicine, psychology, and management – the movement strived to determine the impact of environmental variables on factory productivity. This approach provided an initial impetus to conduct a series of experiments that confirmed the advantageous effect of carefully selected musical repertoire on the performance of the workforce. It turned out that music can attenuate stress and fatigue, enhancing the level of visual and cognitive attention of workers, thus stimulating them to undertake increased physical effort (Jones 2005). The concurrent dissemination of telephone and radio technologies sustained the momentum of the process, enabling the transmission of musical broadcasts into factories and offices on a mass scale.

In Great Britain, the BBC played a crucial part in the deployment of recordings in the workplaces, initiating its daily Music While You Work program in 1940. The music broadcasted was prearranged in such a way as to effectively influence the prevailing mood of the workplace, affectively attuning the psychophysical states of the workers’ bodies with their performance of tasks during the course of the day (Korczynski and Jones 2006; Korczynski, Pickering and Robertson 2013). At approximately the same time, the Muzak Corporation emerged in the United States as the forerunner and most outspoken advocate of sonorous engineering. Producing its own brand of music recordings that adjusted mood and intensity according to the principle of “stimulus progression,” Muzak attempted to attune the biorhythms of the workforce with the shifting intensity of the labor process (Jones and Schumacher 1992; Lanza 1994).

However, subsequent research demonstrated that the advantageous impact of music declines when met with an increasing complexity of work. In other words, tasks that require focus and cogitation can better be performed in silence, with no preordained musical soundtrack. Furthermore, even with less demanding work it is nearly impossible to find a repertoire that would favorably impact everyone, due to individual traits, habits, preferences, and expectations (Williamson 2014). Therefore, by the end of the twentieth century, the deployment of music in the workplace gradually lost its initial appeal.

However, background music found a new home in the spaces of consumption where it remains virtually omnipresent and strictly integrated with the architecture and interior design. Imperceptibly seeping through the extensive intercom and speaker systems, it produces and maintains the affective tonality of the space, supporting the feelings of relaxation, comfort, and mobility which shopping entails (Sterne 1997; LaBelle 2010). This new strategy of sonorous engineering, labeled “quantum modulation” by Muzak, attempts to produce and maintain an unchanging atmosphere of a place so as to evoke a particular affective response. Its mode of operation, therefore, is not dependent on directly targeting individual bodies or actions; rather, it consists in exercising distributed control via a “milieu of continuous sonic intensity” in order to induce bodies to inhabit the same affective environment (Goodman 2008: 31; Goodman 2010: 144).

In this context, Coffitivity might be considered as another fold in the non-linear history of experimenting with the physiological and psychological dynamics of audition in order to reinvigorate the multitude and intensify the capitalist logic of accumulation. The way the website and application operate is purposely and meticulously aligned with the modality of work under neoliberal capitalism. During the reign of industrial capitalism, when the labor process consisted primarily of repeated physical movements and actions, background music was supposed to countervail the monotony and fatigue, providing workers with an invigorating dose of sonic stimulation. In turn, when the essence of the labor process shifted to mental activities, music became a means to facilitate information processing by substituting unwanted environmental sounds with a preordained soundtrack invoking favorable associations. However, music’s ability to improve the execution of tasks that require increased attention, focus, and memory was increasingly being questioned. Accordingly, in contemporary neoliberal capitalism, when the labor process is no longer fixed on the performance of a specific task but rather consists of ceaseless innovation, music is replaced with preselected environmental sounds, designed to induce a moderate level of cognitive distraction in order to activate associative and abstract thinking.

According to Peter Fleming (2014), neoliberal capitalism is increasingly dependent on an autonomous, self-organizing social life that typically lies outside its reach. Consequently, its main prerogative is to tap into these external resources, embodied in the workers themselves, by inducing them into self-exploitation. Essentially, this is achieved by elevating work to a way of life and putting it at the heart of our daily concerns. A job becomes not simply something we do, but something we are and, therefore, an intrinsic part of our social existence. Accordingly, a job is no longer about specific tasks that can be delineated in time and space; rather, it is transformed into a constant and inexorable pressure to innovate and produce results. Under neoliberal capitalism, therefore, we tend to be permanently at work, whether it is necessary or not. And creative work has been particularly susceptible to neoliberal governance because, on the one hand, it is perceived as intimately tied to our personal attributes and abilities and, on the other, it involves activities that can be performed anytime and anywhere. In other words, creative work can be carried out at home, in the office, or in the coffee shop, as well as most non-places, like train stations or airports, and during travel. Consequently, it possesses the potential to become ubiquitous.

In light of the above, Coffitivity should be considered as part of a larger apparatus of power that binds us to work. As a digital technology that organizes the flow of affect between the ambient noise of the coffee shop and the psychosomatic requirements of creative work, Coffitivity maintains and transmits the affective tonality of neoliberal capitalism with its pervasive preoccupation with work. This is accomplished by providing a virtual, always-on sonic stream that can produce various embodied forms of captivation with the intention of inducing us into creative work. As such, Coffitivity operates in a mode of preemptive power, immanently modulating potential encounters in order to control the process of emergence itself (Massumi 2015b).

The principal objective of Coffitivity is to produce a particular relationship between the user and his or her environment by inserting an additional layer of ambient noise. Thus, the whole process works by contagion rather than by persuasion. It involves involuntary, autonomic bodily responses to sound that occur beneath our conscious attention, a mode of listening that requires no awareness or comprehension but ensues automatically via affective attunements of the sensory system. As Anahid Kassabian (2013; 2016) argues, the habit of listening without conscious attention developed with the increasing omnipresence of music in our daily lives, beginning with radio and Muzak in the early twentieth century and gaining momentum with the advent of digital technologies. Coffitivity attempts to align our listening and working habits, bringing them into sync. In that way, it directs its users to an ever more efficient fulfillment of their own routines and patterns of behavior, while effectively extending capabilities to engage in creative work in time and space. Creative work is supposed to become ubiquitous, continuing perpetually in the background of our social lives, just like the barely audible environmental sounds that accompany us, wherever we are and whatever we do. So, if we really need a soundtrack to accompany our lives, as we increasingly seem to do nowadays, the ambient noise of a coffee shop seems the most appropriate for a life of endless work.

All this suggests that Coffitivity offers something more than just enhancing individual creativity by means of preselected ambient sounds. Coffitivity provides a 24/7 mobile interface, accessible from almost anywhere, that allows sonic intensities to circulate between technological devices, bodies, and spaces, assembling them into networks of distributed processing power, constituting a field of emergence for creative work. Coffitivity can thus be regarded as an apparatus of transduction that converts sonic energies into distributed attention, a prerequisite of ubiquitous creative work, by forming a feedback loop between sounds, bodies, and the surrounding small-scale environment and coalescing them into a psychodynamic assemblage.

This convergence cannot be guaranteed, as it depends on the capacities of bodies – which are directly relational and undergoing continuous variation as a result of multiple encounters that they enter into – to affect and be affected. However, as Nigel Thrift (2007: 31) argues, in contemporary neoliberal capitalism “value increasingly arises not from what is but from what is not yet but can potentially become” and, therefore, harnessing it requires targeting the process of emergence itself. Accordingly, Coffitivity does not operate primarily on the level of individual or group identities, but on the level of multitude, which comprises a dynamic network of affective relations that temporarily coagulate into habits and then dissolve again, distilling value from the multiple and often unpredictable interactions involved. So, while it cannot produce the exact same result with each and every body, Coffitivity, nevertheless, extends the scope of possible engagements with creative work, thus increasing the probability that regularities will re-emerge and feed the process of capital accumulation.



In one of his lectures, Michel Foucault (2008: 271) characterizes the contemporary regime of power, concurrent with the emergence of neoliberal reason, as a mode of governance “which will act on the environment and systematically modify its variables.” Thus, neoliberal capitalism is not just concerned with normative control over people and populations, but rather operates through designing a network of relationships between human and nonhuman actors alike (Grusin 2010). In this sense, Coffitivity can be regarded as an attempt to develop a virtual, always-on sonic environment to facilitate and extend the reach of creative work. This entails a double articulation: on the one hand, Coffitivity establishes discursive links between cultural imaginaries of creative work, scientific expertise, and the coffee shop experience, while, on the other, it organizes affective flows between the multitude of bodies through the distribution of sonic intensities.

With the abundance of coinciding websites and apps, Coffitivity is at the forefront of a global trend to capture and harness the ubiquitous sonic and musical potential that has emerged with the increasing pervasiveness of digital technologies in our lives. This trend poses a challenge to prevailing cultural theories that understand power as a hegemonic struggle over meaning. Conceiving sonic culture only in terms of its semiotic or aesthetic qualities effectively subsumes the felt intensities of sonic encounters under the signifying realm of discourse, while other non-hegemonic modes of political struggle are concealed or made irrelevant. In particular, the biological capacities of the body to attune or resonate with sound are pushed into “political unconscious” (Jameson 1983).

Coffitivity, however, induces and exploits partially attentive listening that relies on non-conscious, corporeal forms of engagement with sound. As such it is not about investing sound with meanings, but direct affective modulation. Of course, it could be argued that the control over the sound environment afforded by Coffitivity performs an explicitly ideological function, as it clearly signifies becoming “a more successful, free, and creative entrepreneur” (Papenburg and Schulze 2016: 4). In other words, the underlying concept of creativity as a personal cognitive faculty that should be cultivated and managed in order to maintain competitive advantage directly encourages the type of individualistic, acquisitive, and entrepreneurial behavior prescribed by market-oriented rationality. Additionally, by associating it with the coffee shop culture, Coffitivity upholds the “cool” image of creative work, invoking notions of independence and self-fulfillment while neglecting the risks and costs associated with it (McGuigan 2016).

However, contrary to prevailing ideologies of creativity that impose limitations around who, what and where is considered “creative,” Coffitivity adopts a more open-ended approach that also taps into the quotidian, vernacular creative practices that make up everyday life (Edensor, Leslie, Millington and Rantisi 2010). In fact, its networked mode of operation directly relates to the field of “distributed creativity” (Glăvenau 2014). Thus, while explicitly imagining creativity as personal faculty, Coffitivity implicitly locates creative activity not within individuals but in-between people, objects, and places. In this way the possibility of performing creative work is extended in time and space, spanning all forms of cultural activity. In other words, Coffitivity organizes the affective flows distributed within the social in order to sustain and augment the field of emergence of creative work, thereby granting neoliberal capitalism access to autonomous and previously untapped reserves of interactional and cooperative capabilities inherent in social life.

As Franco Berardi (2007) argues, neoliberal capitalism increasingly has to deal with the consequences of “poisoning the soul” of its workforce, primarily made manifest through widespread dissemination of apathy, cynicism, burnout, depression, etc. Due to this, there emerges an urgent need to preserve public participation and engagement in generating surplus value under ever more precarious and, simultaneously, intense conditions of labor. In a way, then, Coffitivity acts to vitalize the population, attuning bodies to the ubiquitous regime of work through the deployment of sound in direct modulation of an affective environment. It does so by integrating a multiplicity of heterogeneous elements, both discursive and non-discursive, including expert knowledges on cognition and productivity, the cultural symbolic of creativity, sound recordings and digital technologies, which together afford individuals with ways of knowing and acting on their own lives. In this sense, Coffitivity constitutes a sonic apparatus composed of a set of material and symbolic elements that are brought together and deployed to strategically intervene in the affective life of a population (Anderson 2014). Furthermore, the virtual interface of Coffitivity enables its use in a multiplicity of different settings, aligning with the pervasiveness of work in contemporary society and, in particular, the specificity of creative and immaterial labor, capable of adapting to almost every spatial, temporal and interactional context.

Analyzing Coffitivity as a sonic apparatus allows us to comprehend more clearly how its modus operandi aligns with several features of neoliberal capitalism, for example: making individuals take responsibility for structural processes and enjoining them to self-improve, not only in relation to their economic prospects but also personal well-being; putting emphasis on vitality as a way to assure continual change, transformation, and innovation; designing commodities to induce affective engagement by amplifying sensory impact and generating resonance with the embodied predispositions of users; inserting various media into the everyday to provide a ubiquitous background – always present, always on – structuring the field of possible interactions from which value can emerge; and so on (Thrift 2005; 2007). Consequently, neoliberal governance becomes increasingly concerned with materiality and involved in the production of potential. In other words, in neoliberal capitalism, power operates primarily through intensive processes in order to directly modulate the potentiality embodied in pre-individual flows of affect within the social (Clough, Goldberg, Schiff, Weeks and Willse 2007; Clough 2008).

According to this logic, power relations afforded by Coffitivity are contingent upon producing transcendence from immanence: the ideological construction of entrepreneurial subjects depends on an affective mobilization of the multitude and habituation into the regime of ubiquitous work. The primary imperative of Coffitivity is, therefore, to vitalize the increasingly dysfunctional structure of (un)employment that emerged with the shift to advanced neoliberalism. And, considering the remarkable success of the venture, a posthegemonic analysis of Coffitivity might also provide some preliminary insights into the potential of sound to immanently modulate the field of differential affective forces operating in the intensive register, thus contributing to the development of new techniques of power in alignment with the relational dynamic of social life under neoliberal capitalism.


This paper was supported by the National Science Centre, Poland (grant no. 2014/13/D/HS2/00898). An earlier version was published in Teksty Drugie, no. 5/2015.




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