Reviewed by Nicola Miller
“For every change in a ‘world’ there is a corresponding change in the experiencer—the embodied human perceiver”
From simple tools used by our ancient ancestors to the vast array of ‘tools’ or instruments familiar to us in the 21st century, technology transforms the way we live. Compared with earlier historical periods, today’s rapid pace of technological development means it’s impossible to keep abreast of new discoveries and advances and, more importantly, the implications new technologies may have for the way we live, for our animal neighbours, and for the Earth that sustains us. In fact, the speed of change and the excitement that accompanies new inventions means they are often launched before implications arising from their use have been fully considered. Within this context Acoustic Technics is a very timely publication. The author, Don Ihde, is a distinguished American philosopher of science and technology and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Although retired in 2012, Ihde continues to write and is in great demand as an international speaker.
Acoustic Technics is one of a new series of publications concerning the philosophy of technology and, in particular, the school of thought called postphenomenology. It is described as a contemporary follow up to Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound (1976), Ihde’s “first original systematic foray into doing (classical) phenomenology and … reflection upon how we experience our world.” In this new book Ihde revisits his view that “all our perceptions are whole body perceptions” before turning his focus towards high-tech acoustic imaging technologies.
While Acoustic Technics will be at home on shelves of readers already familiar with his work, it is a book that deserves recognition by a wider readership because the issues he raises concern us all. Although accessible to readers without a philosophical background, some readers may be unfamiliar with the meanings of philosophical terms such as ‘classical phenomenology’ and postphenomenology so a little diversion, drawn from Acoustic Technics, may be helpful:
Classical phenomenology concerns how we experience our environment through our senses (e.g. hearing, vision, touch, taste and smell). In classical phenomenology, the limits of perceptual experience are determined by the perceptual range of the senses. Postphenomenology, on the other hand, examines the way in which we can extend our experience and knowledge of our “lifeworld” with the help of technology: it is aided or mediated experience. “It is to this human—instrument—world interrelationships that postphenomenology can and does attend.”
Ihde draws on more than 40 years of careful thought and reflection about sight and sound in human experience and practice, and extensive and wide-ranging reading across both arts and sciences. This experience is evident in the breath-taking number of historical figures and topics that are covered within its 148 pages, from prehistoric rock art and Galileo the musician, to modern espionage, big data, and “radical” new ways of detecting cancer cells. One might think that such coverage would lack depth but Ihde’s ability to step back from detail, distil information gained from a lifetime’s experience, and provide a framework within which it is possible to locate and critically examine past, present and (possibly) future technologies, negates any such thought. As one might expect in any conversation, personal anecdotes and occasional detours are employed to illustrate a point or pave the way for the next one. Ihde’s hope is that this book will “be read as an opening to conversation.”
To support those who use Acoustic Technics as a springboard for more detailed enquiry, he suggests other authors and leading texts in footnotes and references. At this point, it is worth highlighting a positive effect of the very technologies under discussion: easy access to the internet brings parts of the text to life in a way that would have been unthinkable less than a generation ago: for example, in Chapter 6, Synthesizing Sound’s we learn that the first synthesizer, or electronic musical instrument, “appears to be Leon Theremin’s ‘theremin,’ invented in 1920.” Within a couple of clicks it is possible to watch Theremin play his own invention!
In Acoustic Technics, the Preface plays an important role in alerting the new reader to the first-person, narrative style of writing and to the book’s overall structure. It is divided into two parts. The first four chapters in Part I are in “survey mode” and their broad perspective lays the foundations for the case studies in Part II which focus on specific themes and technologies such as medical acoustics and hearing devices, and “audiovisual” multimedia; from mobile phones to the advanced hybrid opto-acoustic devices used in art, music, medicine and science. Even within Part II, each chapter maintains its broad-to-narrow focus.
Chapter 1 opens in 1900 with the first of a number of Ihde’s favourite “aha” moments in technoscience history; William Herschel’s accidental discovery of “heat-light” or infrared radiation; that is, emissions beyond the visible spectrum. Finding “light beyond light” was a major phenomenological discovery” because until then the limits of human perceivable experience had been determined by the perceptual limits of the senses. From here, Ihde traces the discovery of other emissions that make up the continuum that we now call the electromagnetic spectrum, from “the longest radio (wave) to the shortest gamma waves.” He asks, and later addresses the question, “how can phenomenology, better postphenomenology, deal with newly discovered phenomena of light (soon also sound) beyond even our whole body capacities?” Against this background, Ihde discusses the development first of optical and then of acoustic instruments used to image or detect, measure, and project light and sound emissions beyond the limits of human bodily experience. In the 20th century these linear development trajectories began to converge, triggering the explosion of the hybrid audio-visual/opto-acoustic technologies in use today.
Acoustic Technics is a slim volume and, perhaps, a little expensive, but it has changed the way I think about technology and it highlights the part we can all play in looking beyond the early hype of new inventions. According to Ihde, the technologies we invent “‘reinvent’ us as well” but, he asks, at what cost to “the embodied human perceiver”?
Nicola Miller is an Honorary Research Fellow based at the University of Aberdeen’s Biomedical Imaging Centre. She has a longstanding interest in the science underlying sound perception and its production, and the nature of the link between the ear and the voice. Her work has been published in the Journal of Voice and, in March 2016, Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain.