This project takes the workplace (broadly conceived) as its point of entry into the history of acoustics and listening. Over the twentieth century, scientists, engineers, and factory managers variously drew on sound and music to direct, adapt, and enhance workers’ productivity. I focus on attempts to optimize performance in work and learning through the acoustic conditioning of subjects’ attention, aiming to examine how interest in the ability of listeners to filter, sort, and process auditory information expanded during the twentieth century: from being a theoretical interest in experimental psychology, it became a practical concern for fields such as architectural and electrical acoustics, psychoacoustics, applied psychology pedagogy, industrial hygiene, ergonomics and management.
In considering this convergence of fields—particularly across the United States and East Germany—the project traces the historical arrangements by which experimental setups, media technologies, design standards, and organizational philosophies patterned workers’ engagement with their environments. Combining history of science and sound studies with labor history, it investigates how work, space, and physical habits of producing and consuming aural information were reconfigured to invite efficiency, comfort, or privacy amid changing managerial ideologies in the office; to trigger concentration and learning in classrooms and auditoria; or to ensure operators’ vigilance through auditory displays in control rooms and cockpits. By examining the application of acoustics in the study and governance of human behavior, the project reconstructs the cultural practices that materialized the twentieth-century soundscape as both a field of knowledge and a sensory regime.
This project is related to the workshop ‘Productive Sounds in Everyday Spaces: Sounds at Work in Science, Art, and Industry, 1945 to Present’ taking place at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin on April 27-28 2018.