Listening as Non-Extractive Technology

FIBER
6 min readNov 4, 2022

Rachel J. Wilson

Audience members during the Public Program — A Future of Internets.
Audience during the Opening Night of the Lab Programme. Photo: Maarten Nauw

From March 10 to 13, FIBER organized a four day meeting place for artists, designers, creative coders, technologists, researchers, energy experts and policy makers who are committed to, or interested in, working towards a fossil-free and fair internet. The aim of the Natural Intelligence Lab was to fuse existing practices, skills and knowledge, and to form new alliances. In order to start addressing these questions, the lab explored four interdependent and sometimes overlapping research areas: Energy Literacy, Everyday Technologies, Collective Infrastructures and Fossil-Free Imaginaries. Rachel’s piece connects to Collective Infrastructures by looking at how to find new modes of collaboration and build bridges between existing practices. Radical changes need a collective spirit.

Through exploring the lab’s overarching theme of ‘natural intelligence’, I have been drawn to interrogating what we conceive as technology and how a wider perspective might contribute to a shift in online cultures. Considering listening as a non-extractive technology allows space to question existing digital infrastructures and the ways we interact with(in) these spaces. In times of urgent crises such as we are living in today, listening is not presented here as a solution to low-tech advances, but as a speculative lens through which we might give space to alternative capacities of thinking and doing.

Presentation of the varia booklet during the Lab.
Presentation of Varia Collective during the Lab. Photo: Zoë Horsten

In her discussion on the workings of Varia, Cristina Cochoir stated that word of mouth was the most significant tool of communication for sharing the collective’s research initiatives outside of corporate infrastructures. Cristina went on to suggest that infrastructures play a part in the way our voices mutate, so we must be conscious of how both heard and unheard voices shape our definitions of natural intelligence and online infrastructures themselves. If “every configuration of hearing and sounding implies people, power, and placement”(1), perhaps here whispered secrets become an encrypted file-sharing.

Round table discussions during the Lab.
Participants during the Lab. Photo: Zoë Horsten

Forms of knowledge exchange can be found in oral histories, such as the often appropriated practice of Indigenous Australian Songlines. Through sharing stories as data and as cartographies of place, the sonic retains its position as an original form of sensorial knowledge exchange — an aural data- transfer not reliant on the digital infrastructures of modernity. This relates to ideas around ‘low-fi’ archiving which were addressed in roundtable discussions on ‘digital discomfort’ during the lab. Katía Truijen posed that oral histories, such as the Songlines, present archiving as a reactivation of community practice facilitated through listening and storytelling. In listening to marginalised communities that have been practising an ecological ethics far beyond the more recent (re)turn towards multi-sensorial knowing in the West, we can strive towards more inclusive spaces.

“Listening guides my body. Sound is the fiber of my being and of all sentient beings without exception… My ear is an acoustic universe sending and receiving.”(2)

Material from the workshop led by Louis Alderson-Bythell and Greg Orrom Swan during the Lab.
Material of the workshop led by Louis Alderson-Bythell and Greg Orrom Swan during the lab. Photo: Zoë Horsten

The ‘Temporal Tendrils of The Metabiont’ workshop led by Louis Alderson-Bythell and Greg Orrom Swan, inspired by the Holobiont concept, explored alternative visions of multi-species ecologies “oscillating between digital and physical spaces” as “mysterious amalgamations”. Tasked with considering what meta- humanism can teach us about our own reality, I questioned: what does embodied knowledge mean in a digital space? Understanding listening as a technology may ground our corporealities in increasingly online worlds. Pauline Oliveros’ practice of ‘Deep Listening’ details a heightened depth of sensorial knowledge. Through a series of ‘sonic mediations’ exercised in the form of text scores and workshops, Deep Listening encourages a deep knowing of the interconnections of self and environment.

Audience member during the Public Program — A Future of Internets.
Opening Night of the Lab Programme. Photo: Maarten Nauw

Sitting in the embodied presence of sound therefore affords the design of systems an alternative way of thinking beyond the logical constraints of that which must be seen and solved.

Donna Haraway famously wrote that we must learn to “stay with the trouble”(3). Can listening then embody a form of ‘staying with’? This relates back to our ‘digital discomfort’ roundtable; for instance, with current concerns around digital hoarding and its contribution to data warming, we discussed a need to relinquish control and instead address the urgency of ‘losing’ knowledge. Embracing uncertainty and the discomfort that accompanies it was discussed alongside the unreliability of memory. Instead of bookmarking and hoarding knowledge, what might happen if we were instead to slow down and take time to sit with less but explore this with more depth? Might services be designed around the art of letting go? This is something that Cassie Robinson is exploring through the ‘Stewarding Loss’ initiative aimed at supporting the closure of dying organisations.

Participants listening during the Lab.
Workshop during the Lab. Photo: Zoë Horsten

Similar to statements made by the Varia Collective, this is of course not to advocate for a purist approach to technological contemplations in the same vein as a sonic naturalism might propose. Listening through and with both analogue and digital technologies enables us to ask further questions of existing and alternative potential online infrastructures and the ecological ethics embedded within such systems. By giving space to that which is outside of ourselves in mutual conversation, listening can serve as a tool to challenge extractivist practices. Listening without intent to respond is a listening to receive, a listening to give reciprocally.

The word ‘radical’ stems from the Latin ‘radix’, meaning ‘root’. If to be radical suggests a ‘returning to’, might we consider listening as a non-extractive technology that enables a ‘returning to’ and ‘becoming with’4 a future of regenerative human and more-than-human technologies? Might we consider listening and conversations as alternative cultures of natural intelligence? In a world that is increasingly accustomed to always being connected through online means, perhaps listening provides a non-extractive connectedness.

More About Rachel

Rachel J. Wilson’s theoretical interests fall predominantly at the intersections of design, sound, futures and sustainability. With both an academic and professional background in music, listening is a central part of Rachel’s positionality and approach to seeking change through systemic and cultural enquiry. Rachel has recently completed the MA Sustainable Design programme at the University of Brighton, exploring the tensions between slowness and urgency of planetary crises in her thesis.

References

(1) Jonathan Sterne, “Hearing,” in Keywords in Sound, eds David Novak, Sakakeeny, Matt (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2015), 78.

(2) Pauline Oliveros, “The Earth Worm Also Sings: A Composer’s Practice of Deep Listening,” Leonardo Music Journal 3 (1993): 35, accessed May 20, 2021, https://doi.org/10.2307/1513267.

(3) Donna J. Haraway, “Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene,” (North Carolina, United States: Duke University Press, 2016), 20.

(4) Donna J. Haraway, “When Species Meet,” (Minnesota, United States: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

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Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2024