Listening Post

By Met'eb and Kat

The essay focuses specifically on Listening Post, which is a multimedia installation that is both a sonification and a visualization of messages posted to thousands of online forums.

Statistician Mark Hansen and sound artist Ben Rubin were issued a challenge from Bell Laboratories to answer the question “What would 100,000 people chatting on the internet sound and look like?”

  • -- Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin: Listening Post, Real-Time Data Responsive Environment 2001


"Listening Post is at once a post (site) for “listening to the web,” “It is postmodern, post-linear, post-print … " (24).

The project’s significance is that it "informs and delights—if you like we can say it has literary value—because it allows us to encounter a social totality in all of its complexity, because it offers up the fantasy of our temporarily situating ourselves as individuals in relation to a dynamic and mutable large-scale community" (24).

"The form of the installation is distinctive: 231 vacuum fluorescent display (VFD)

screens mounted on circuit boards and hung from a curved scaffold" (25).

"While it is beyond our capabilities to grasp the millions of simultaneous transactions taking place on the Internet, it is of compelling human interest to make sense of such environments in the large, to grasp the rhythms of our combined activities, of our comings and goings. Our inability to orient ourselves or otherwise fully perceive a larger environment is not a phenomenon unique to the virtual world. As communication and transportation technologies accelerate our movements and interactions, the spaces we live in are receding from our ability to directly sense them." (26)

"The content streams for Listening Post are live, filtered but also random and unpredictable, and therein lies the epistemological difference."(26)

"The advent of online communication has created a vast landscape of new spaces for public discourse: chat rooms, bulletin boards, and scores of other public on-line forums. While these spaces are public and social in their essence, the experience of “being in” such a space is silent and solitary. A participant in a chat room has limited sensory access to the collective “buzz” of that room or of others nearby—the murmur of human contact that we hear naturally in a park, a plaza, or a coffee shop is absent from the online experience. The goal of our project is to collect this buzz and render it at a human scale." (27).

What I find interesting and important about “Listening Post” is that the line between public and private is distorted here. As Raley says, “They [the posts] are private to a particular community” (27). While she is discussing chatrooms (both in general and the ones in the piece she is writing about), the same thing is occurring with our own Twitter feed. We have algorithms set to ensure that all of our tweets are picked up: we use the hashtag #iupelit, Dr. Sherwood created a list for @IUPElit to find, and there is a Twitter channel on our main page to show all of the tweets we have written. Yet this catches even tweets that are not meant for class, which means that our “private” non-class thoughts are broadcast to the class; contrast that with the fact that people that follow us normally are reading our private class discussions. This provides an ongoing example of the distortion between public and private spheres.

Another point worth consideration is her question: “What is the significance of a text--visual, verbal, or acoustic--that makes one wonder what the signboards are, that will not allow access, that renders itself illegible? Such texts . . . require the reader, listener, or viewer to create her own hermeneutic architecture and . . . make explicit the act of interpretation that goes into the analysis of any text” (28). I see this as a condensation of what we have been struggling with this entire term: meaning. We are used to fighting our way through dense, word-heavy texts with elusive meanings in order to understand what a particular author is saying, whether this author is Shakespeare, Zora Neale Hurston, or someone who wrote an article for an academic journal. We eventually carve out our own meaning of those texts; electronic literature challenges us to do the same in other media.

While Raley quotes lines out of context from “Listening Post,” all I can do is think about how our own Twitter feeds appear to those without context of our class. Do our posts confuse, frustrate, or perhaps even inspire others?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Is a sense of “community” necessary for digital literature to thrive, as suggested by Hansen and Ruben’s commentary? Why or why not?

2. How do you think that Raley would see Twitter and the various communities it both creates and tears apart?

3. Personal privacy is being increasingly violated with the advance of modern tools that can collect personal information about millions of users of social media. How do you categorize Listening Post ethics in our modern technological world?