The Sonification of Scientific Data


A review of Lobbying for the Ear: The Public Fascination with and Academic Legitimacy of the Sonification of Scientific Data, by Alexandra Supper.

Sonification is the display of scientific data through non-speech sound. More or less. The ambiguity surrounding this emerging practice is what Alexandra Supper seeks to explain. Taking the Science and Technology Studies (STS) perspective that scientific legitimacy is always a “social and cultural negotiation process” (p. 11), Supper poses her research question to answer why, after so many years of speculation and experiment with sonification, do we see a sudden spike of interest starting in the 1990s?  Second, how, in this discourse of legitimation, do practitioners attempt to establish their claims?  In other words, how are they “lobbying for the ear,” both within and across communities, professional and public?

Sonification — the classic example being the Geiger counter used in the measure of radiation — is a loosely bounded set of technologies and practices used to represent data in a variety of fields (some additional examples listed in the dissertation: molecular physics, election monitoring, and seismological activity). As Supper explains, the interdisciplinary phenomena is buoyed by a demanding public, and this demand is rooted in a fascination with a sublime, interactive (and therefore individual) experience of other, supposedly more complex scientific phenomena. Surrounded by this public support, sonification specialists must nevertheless negotiate the equally complex bounds of a scientific academy which demands a certain parsimony of translation between concepts and professionalization in practices.

The juxtaposition of science to art is a rhetorical and practical obstacle for all proponents of sonification. Where many see sonification as a generative practice for a circumscribed set of insiders, others emphasize the need for a universal standardization of sonification for all users. “Objectivity” (as conceptualized by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison) is thus a pivotal term, as standardizing practices of evaluation are politicized: evaluation sells short the creative explorations of sonification, or it grants the practice legitimacy in the imagination of scientific methodology.

Through her analysis, Supper supports the claims of sensory studies which insist that the senses must be studied in interaction as a complex, and not in bureaucratic isolation. This follows from scholars like Jonathan Crary, who argue that sensual practices are cultural and historical in nature, shaping as much as sharing experience in a particular place and time. In this regard, Supper conceives of sonification as an ethnomethodological “breaching experiment” which illuminates the technological and epistemological limits in the communication of scientific knowledge.

In the introduction, Supper begins with reference to the contributions of science fiction, and related imaginaries, to ideas of sonification. It becomes plain that early adopters (c. 1992), including sonification guru Gregory Kramer, start from the premise that sound is an underutilized, yet equally underdeveloped data source  — a known unknown. From this heuristic of sonification emerges, fast and furious, debate over what is the proper sonic display of scientific data?, what is data?, and indeed, what is science?  For example, sonification is early contrasted to audification, the sounding of data “already” in waveform (p. 14). Without reifying this definition of audification, Supper sketches the variation implied by sonification as a translation of other epistemological dimensions, suggesting the many ways which a new mode of analysis may emerge in the current state of scientific understanding (and at the same time, indicating the delimitations on this variation due to professional enclosure, for example, through a publication on sonification in a high-profile medical journal).

Moving into a literature review outlining the battles over sensorial epistemologies in the social sciences, Supper traces the discussion of sound through media theorists (e.g. Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong), historians (Martin Jay, Jonathan Sterne), and anthropologists (Constance Classen, David Howes, Tim Ingold) to the recognition of cultural variation in perception, and specifically the scientific bias of vision in the West. She focuses intently on the sonic skills inherent in the whole complex of sensation used in scientific work and scientific communication (here drawing on Anne Beaulieu, Bruno Latour, Michael Lynch, Cyrus Mody, and others). For example, she cites literatures on the stethoscope, and its decline in medical use suggests the sensorial (albeit tacit) “de-skilling” of practitioners (p. 23).

Supper’s literature review leads directly into her own methodology. As she argues, the inter-twining of observable sensory interaction and the technologies of perception bring her to blend a multi-sensory, multi-sited ethnography and technography, the reflexive approach to ethnography which remains conscious of the technical artefacts active in observation. Followed by an ethnographic memo on her sample and coding considerations, Supper outlines her three primary sources of data: interviews with practitioners, observations at sonification demonstrations and academic conferences, and primary documents mainly in the form of conference proceedings and academic journals.

Chapter 2 concerns the emergence of sonification in the public imagination. The Chapter begins with a set of subsections describing various sonification activities in five scientific fields — geoscience, astrophysics, high energy physics, neurology, and genetics — as well as the work of several composers who act as correspondents between specialists and the public (prominent are John Luther Adams, Marcus Schmickler, and Alvin Lucier). This evocative, mad-dash sampling of evidence is assembled variously from practitioner accounts, scholarly analyses, and Supper’s own interviews and observations. Through this admittedly partial survey, it is made quickly evident that sonification is attracted to phenomena “that are too far away, too close-by, too big, too small, too high, or too low to be experience in an unmediated way” (p. 72). Further, each discipline offers its own perspective on what Supper emphasizes as key debates within sonification, namely the aesthetic curation versus direct presentation of sonified data, and the natural versus socially constructed sense of musicality and other “deep structures” in sonified processes. In exploring these debates, Supper focuses on the meaning of “science popularization” as it is used to justify much sonification activity. Varying with the aims for popularization, e.g. to rally public support or to establish new epistemologies, sonification can serve either as an inferior (albeit aesthetically-pleasing) reproduction or a sui generis representation of scientific data.

To make sense of these various perspectives, Supper considers the nature of metaphors, and how these serve to both enlighten and obscure the nature of sonification. In particular, the common metaphor of “eavesdropping” on things like symphonies of protein synthesis and the vitality of volcanoes suggests the ways that sonification takes on an often secretive, mystical, and even religious cast. To this end, Supper offers her concept of the “auditory sublime” to indicate the socially upheld promise inherent in sonification: rejecting the suggestion that listeners experience some essential affinity with sonified data, Supper argues that it is the product of mediation — the intensity of a specifically auditory experience, and the effective erasure of technologies of sonification — which so thoroughly captures the popular imagination.

Taking us into the heart of the sonification community, Chapter 3 is presented-in-part elsewhere as Supper’s contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (see “The Search for the ‘Killer Application:’ Drawing the Boundaries around the Sonification of Scientific Data” iIn Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 249-271). The Chapter deals in the “emancipatory rhetoric” of practitioners as they perform what Thomas Gieryn has characterized as the “boundary work” of science: in two directions, practitioners set internal boundaries between themselves and other specialists, while seeking the adoption of sonification among these and others on the “outside.”  Supper begins this section with an in-depth interview with Gregory Kramer, widely regarded as the originator of contemporary sonification. In particular, she considers Kramer’s institution of the International Conferences on Auditory Display (ICAD) where many of the ideas and networks of sonification were first codified. Discussing the mysticism surrounding, and subsequent deification of Kramer, via the ICAD meetings and inscriptions in publications, Supper details the artefacts, practices, and interactions which substantiated this sonification community.

In particular (and previewing the greater boundary-dispute surrounding the art/science divide), the role of musical “jam sessions” are highlighted to reveal the rituals of practitioners, as they shore-up affinities which define the imagined community, in Benedict Anderson’s terms (p. 91). Yet so do these rituals act as political markers, through which disputes within the community are debated. Here, Supper delves into interview data to situate the dominant, oppositional perspectives of several in the field. This includes extensive engagement with Thomas Hermann, a practitioner who provided the “most conscious and explicit effort to re-define sonification to date” (p. 96). Between objectivity and interpretation, for example in debates between acoustics and sound design, Hermann claims jurisdiction (in Andrew Abbott’s use) over sonification not by proclaiming the right way to perform sonification, but by first suggesting that all ways must conform to the logic of a scientific method. One way of embedding this perspective is through the precedents of publication; yet where others worry about defining what sonification can be too soon, alternative opinions suggest striking upon the “killer application” as the mode of legitimation through actual use (p. 101). Through this “flexible” work by practitioners on all sides of the debate, the sonification community are constantly “slipping through the fence” which bounds science and art both internally and externally (p. 106).

So what does it take to enter this debate? Chapter 4 engages extensively with Daston and Galison’s work on objectivity as a set of epistemological practices. In the case of sonification, this includes developing “trained ears” that allow the emerging expert a subjective view to the objective “truth” of information in sonic display (p. 120). Taking Beaulieu’s point that science rejects intuition, Supper shows the conversions and appeals which practitioners use in negotiating established science as both thought styles (for example, in the reduction to abstract metrics) and rituals of argument (for example, in conference presentations): visual data is often used to corroborate claims of sonification, and audio demonstrations of sonification are in turn reduced in importance, “comparable to a joke being told in the middle of a talk” (p. 126). Supper refers to this as the “sonoclastic” attitude which allows practitioners to slip between the fence dividing science from popularization. Further, the fervor with which one presents their perspective is heavily dependent on their professional status, leading younger practitioners to take up rhetorical strategies which play down their goals as less radical. Supper evidences this situation using the measures of evaluation, by which standards are developed to stabilize sonification for mobilization. Evaluation may create the possibility of peer review, but also, the transmission of sonification tools to a new community of users. Yet so does evaluation spring a race to closure on the definition of sonification practices. To those in favor of creativity, with less concern for stability, standards are a cul-de-sac of “premature evaluation” (p. 135).

Having identified the fault lines, Supper returns to some recurring themes which seem to unify sonification at least momentarily. This includes reordering visualizations in order to support, rather than undermine, sonification; underlying this move is the sovereignty of sonified data, that is, the archiving of data independent of playback. That data may retain an “aperspectival objectivity” becomes a founding notion that subjectivity may be trained to adequately judge objectivity within sonic displays (p. 139). Supper uses this notion to discuss the impasses of interdisciplinary work, where the acceptance of objectivity realities does little to mitigate dispute over the subjective access to that reality. Supper thus applies the concept of “correlation coefficient” to describe the dilemma, where evaluative practices contain within themselves the correctness of their use, adjusted to a certain learning curve to which specialization is dependent.

To further develop this point, Chapter 5 takes a practice view to the specialization of listening in a workshop in sonification. That is, while relying primarily on practitioner interview data, Supper includes a good deal of ethnographic and auto-ethnographic observation to supplement this discursive material with practical details. Developing on the work of Tom Porcello on auditory professionalization, Supper extends Porcello’s discursive emphasis to the “modes of listening” emphasized in sonification (p. 156). These bodily habits, Supper argues, are tightly coupled to the nascent status of sonification as a “gadget community” (and thereby clarifying Cyrus Mody’s concept of an “instrumental community” as one which unifies foremost around a technology rather than task) (p. 157). As a “professional audition which is still in the making” (p. 191), the mode of listening encouraged in the workshop meant first “learning to think like” the sonification software (p. 160), to ignore the semantic meaning of the data being manipulated, and variably applying or muting musical knowledge in the indexing of sonified data. From this situated perspective, Supper further elaborates on the pragmatic factors of professionalization, such as the investments in learning software which lead many to stick with what they know, and then, how these practical constraints refract a gendered subtext (as one respondent suggests, “we mostly roll our own [software]”) (p. 168).

Tracing the practices which constitute this community, Supper shows how sonification is imagined to be “better” when it is “less musical” (p. 172) — again, demonstrating the anxiety about slipping from science into the realm of art. In achieving a novel sound which is aesthetically pleasing but not overtly musical, Supper highlights the metaphors, technical shorthand, and vocables (voicing of the displayed sounds) which practitioners employ in their work. At the same time as this specialization occurs, Supper shows evidence of how some perspectives were excluded, left in the dark as to what they were meant to glean from the training. Put differently, Supper shows how interdisciplinarity is not disciplinary ecumenism, or perhaps not “disciplinary” at all.

Expanding on the practice of listening to sonification, Supper challenges the recent four-point typology presented by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld. Where Pinch and Bijsterveld’s fourth type, “synthetic listening,” is associated exclusively to sonification, Supper challenges that sonification in fact involves the other three modes of listening as well, and further, that the “synthetic” category is poorly defined in the typology: rather than tell us what is intended to be heard in sonification, the theory of synthetic listening suggests the logic by which sonification is produced. To this end, Supper includes additional qualities of “interactive listening” and “immersive listening” to describe the exploratory, and to a lesser degree, sub-conscious purposes of sonic display. These modes of listening become pertinent to the sharing of sonification, whereby practitioners promote their techniques to others, mainly the “domain scientists” who work with the data but not the methods of particular sonic displays. As one measure of professionalization, Supper closes with an image of “data karaoke,” through which practitioners demonstrate the robust identification of their sonified data by vocalizing the display (p. 190).

The embodiment of knowledge through the body-work of something like data karaoke provides a return to Supper’s general discussion of science and society in the conclusion. Sonification demonstrates the “essential tensions” within the cultures of science — between tradition and innovation, exploration and exploitation, and so forth (p. 196). The tension with sonification, Supper explains, is between scientific legitimacy on one hand, and public interest on the other. The mediator between the two is digital technologies, which largely comprise the audio technologies of sonification. Without over-attributing the role of digital technologies to the boom of interest in sonification in the last 20 years, Supper acknowledges the convergence of material resources for the exploration, production, demonstration, and documentation of sonification research.

But so is the interest in sonification the product of a new “urgency” in the relations between science and its public engagements (p. 207). As a breaching experiment, sonification challenges sensory epistemologies through its remixing and reordering of auditory and visual — but also tactile — approaches to displaying data.  This breach does not occur behind lock and key, but is felt throughout the continuum of scientific performance. To this end, Supper draws on Andrew Barry’s work in museum studies, and in particular, the “interactive” experience which characterizes not just listening practices of sonification, but a wider trend in public engagements with science. Interaction is argued to demonstrate a consumerist mode of knowledge, as it appeals to the emotional, individualized experiences of a “sensory self” (p. 208). While reserving an opinion on the political implications of the mode of scientific engagement that she traces to sonification, Supper clearly defines the ongoing balancing act which the sonification community must negotiate between public and scientific realms; that is, a furtive slipping through the fence of popularity and legitimacy, in concept and in practice.

With this dissertation, Supper has synthesized the interdisciplinary interests of sensory studies (and in particular, the focus on “sonic skills” within sound studies), museum studies, and the technography of STS — to name but the most obvious literatures — into a reflexive study of interdisciplinarity itself. Upon publication, this work will surely appeal to those interested in sensory ethnography, professionalized embodiment, and the art/science divide.

Joseph Klett
Department of Sociology
Yale University

Primary Sources

Participant observation, content analysis of scholarly publications, and interviews with sonification practitioners.

Dissertation Information

Maastricht University. 2012. 253 pp. Primary Advisor: Karin Bijsterveld.

Image: Sound wave. Image by Luis Lima89989. Wikimedia Commons.

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