in conversation with Robert Rosenberger
Robert Rosenberger is a distinguished scholar in the field of philosophy of technology. He has made significant contributions to the study of technology's impact on human perception, experience, and culture. His work often explores the intersections of philosophy, phenomenology, and technology, shedding light on how our interactions with technological artifacts shape our understanding of the world.
In the following conversation, we discussed notions of technological mediation concerning the study of sound.
LM: Hello, Robert. It's a pleasure to meet you. As a postphenomenologist, I'd like to delve into your perspective on sound. How do you go about defining sound?
RR: Thanks for the welcome. Defining sound, despite its apparent simplicity, requires some contemplation. To me, sound is the embodiment of meaning we derive from auditory sensations. It represents the significance that arises from these sensory experiences, which we often bring preconceived notions and expectations to. Additionally, soundwaves are concrete entities that have a profound impact on us. They aren't passive; they play an active role in shaping our experiences. It's important to note that sound isn't entirely subject to our whims, even though individuals experience it uniquely. In a sense, I view sound as akin to the non-neutrality of air. This perspective has been informed by my exploration of Don Ihde's work. Don Ihde, a close friend and mentor, is a prominent figure in postphenomenology, a contemporary philosophical school concerned with the philosophy of technology and user experience. This school blends ideas from phenomenology, post-modern philosophy, and American pragmatism. Ihde's earlier work, preceding his focus on technology and American pragmatism, delves into the phenomenology of sound. In his book "Listening and Voice," particularly in the second edition from 2007, Ihde eloquently states on page three: "The silence of the invisible comes to life in sound. For the human listener, there is a multiplicity of senses in which there is a word in the wind." I find this sentiment quite compelling.
LM: Given your insights, how can the study of sound contribute to our understanding of ecology?
RR: That's a thought-provoking question. I must admit that when considering ecology, my initial perspective leans more towards the human experience of the local environment rather than the broader environmentalist sense of ecology. So, the angle I take is more about how sound influences an individual's perception of their surroundings.
Drawing inspiration from Don Ihde's work, he emphasizes that the experience of sound and listening goes beyond merely receiving information or sensory input. Sound, in this context, can be a gateway to understanding aspects like texture. Imagine, for instance, someone scraping their fingernails across various surfaces—a piece of wood, gravel on the street, or sandpaper. Through auditory experience, we can gain insights into the tactile qualities of those materials in the external world. It's a way of perceiving one's local environment, almost like an ecological engagement.
In this sense, sound becomes a crucial component of how we interact with our environment. It shapes our perception of various elements, not just visually and tactically but also through auditory dimensions.
This perspective has led me to contemplate sound beyond its role in individual experiences. It also extends to how others interact with me or how I relate to them through sound. Take the simple act of someone ringing a doorbell to announce their presence. It's a straightforward example of communication through sound.
In my research, I explore how people navigate their environments through design, particularly in public spaces. I'm interested in how technologies and design choices control these spaces. For instance, consider the design of a bench: it may be modified to prevent people from sleeping on it, often by adding armrests. But sound also plays a role in shaping and controlling spaces. Soundscapes are integral to how we encounter and perceive spaces.
For instance, think about elevators. They tend to be uneventful, so elevator music was introduced. It's not overly engaging or disruptive, designed not to interrupt conversations but to create a particular atmosphere. So, we can think of sounds as elements that define our relationship with the local environment.
Moreover, there are instances of hostile soundscapes, where annoying sounds or harsh noises are intentionally played to discourage people from spending time in certain areas. This is done through loud sound systems, making it uncomfortable or even impossible for someone to stay there. It's another aspect of the intricate relationship between people, sound, and their environment.