Culture Crossover: Silicon Ear

Image: Wikimedia/EFF

Welcome to our new series at Techworld: Culture Crossover. Each week we will pick up examples of projects, exhibitions, events and artefacts that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture.

We’ll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting techy art that tantalises both the senses and the intellect - our showcase today being a prime example.

To read other instalments of Culture Crossover click here.

This week: Silicon Ear

Abstraction can sum up many of our interactions with technology. Consumer electronics conceal the outsourced component-mining and low-wage labour sent to the global south. In the name of convenience we overlook the gruelling, low-waged, precarious work in abominable conditions that underpin our Amazon order - the real relations at play shrouded from view.

When we're on our devices, a perfunctory, automatic scroll through Facebook hides the casino-style gaming mechanisms that exploit base human psychology, hitting up the reward centres in our brains, achieved through code.

The underpinning infrastructure behind modern technology has an intense physicality - warehouses that contain rows on rows of hardware, where storage, switches and cabling work around the clock to crunch data and prepare it for transmission around the globe.

Late last year, Sam Kidel of Bristol's Young Echo collective released his follow-up record to 2016's Disruptive Muzak, taking Google's vast data centres as inspiration.

Whereas the Boomkat album of the year for 2016, Disruptive Muzak, would merge the aggressive banality of the call centre with samples from real phone conversations (along with a deep sympathy to the workers that staff them), his follow-up Silicon Ear would instead focus its attention on the data centre.

Side A, titled Live @ Google Data Center, was first exhibited at the EBM(T) gallery in Tokyo, which Ableton describes as a "kind of virtual gallery" run by Nile Koetting and Nozomu Matsumoto.

The second half of the record, Voice Recognition DoS Attack, meanwhile, bears the unusual quality of being able to successfully bamboozle the kinds of Alexa or Google Home devices that those data centres are so integral to supporting.

Speaking with music technology company Ableton, Kidel explains that the idea of a fake, online space led to his thinking about the way reverb could apply to simulated space, just as it does with the material, physical world.

"I had the idea in the abstract that I wanted to do a fake live performance in a space that I couldn't get access to, just as a playful gesture," he told Ableton. Google soon released images of its Council Bluff data centre in Iowa, leading Kidel to set about virtually trespassing using the RaySpace acoustic room simulator.

To map out his sense of the acoustics of the space, Kidel combined public images of the data centre with architectural plans to "model the sonic qualities of the space" in a process that he called mimetic hacking.

The acoustics on Live @ Google Data Center, then, "simulate the sound of Kidel's algorithmically-generated notes, rhythms and melodies reverberating through the space, as though a bold illegal party was being held in the maximum security location."

The result is a strange, alien journey through the Council Bluffs facility, accompanied by atonal and distinctly inhuman sounds - evoking the background logic that defines our machines but that may not make sense on first glance. Echoey, shimmering pads give way to eruptions of metallic vibrations, and the sounds of what could be a tuning fork run along alloy.

Late-stage capitalist, sometimes-Reaganomic images were subverted (or co-opted) by the vaporwave scene that came into fruition in the late noughties - sometimes making memes of crudely realised 3D Pepsi cans, for instance. And ambient and electronic composers have long flirted with corporate none-spaces, offices, and shopping centres, whether benign, benevolent or neither. Koyaanisqatsi, for instance, made the passage of people through malls positively apocalyptic.

And ambient was in many instances totally fused with corporate brands, as wonderfully detailed in this Guardian piece titled Lullabies for air conditioners - drawing a line between Eno's Music for Airports and the artists featured on the new Light in the Attic compilation, Kankyō Ongaku, of Japanese ambient artists.

Kidel's compositions take a different approach. By laying such inventive groundwork for his projects he playfully drops the listener front and centre of these typically invisible locations, arming them with anti-surveillance systems you can access on Spotify.

As explained in rich detail for Ableton, track two of Silicon Ear scrambles and confuses the input into Google or Amazon's data-brains, taking influence from the free DDoS tool that shot to fame in the time of LulzSec, the Low Orbit Ion Cannon.

The piece was put together partly as a response to the deeply entrenched global surveillance network we live in: having allowed Google and Amazon devices into our homes to listen to us - what would it take to disorder these transmissions? Kidel has devised such a mechanism, creating a generative audio patch to perplex voice recognition tech by triggering phonemes - the smallest units of language.

This story, "Culture Crossover: Silicon Ear" was originally published by

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