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New book by sound studies professor takes a look at ecological impact

A new book from School of Communication associate professor Jacob Smith explores the environmental effects of media culture not often acknowledged.

Eco-Sonic Media, recently published by the University of California Press, brings an ecological critique to the history of sound media technologies in order to amplify the environmental undertones in sound studies and turn up the audio in discussions of “greening the media.”

Jacob Smith teaches in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film, specializing in sound studies. He is the author of Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media, Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures, and The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity, and Stunt Performance.

The hidden costs of the contemporary mediascape, Smith says, include the fuel required to keep huge server farms in operation, landfills full of high tech junk, and the extraction of rare minerals for devices reliant on them.

“Like many people, I am concerned about the ecological crisis, and I wanted to make my area of interest accountable to it,” he said. “I found that an ecological perspective made me ask new kinds of questions about the history of sound media technology, helped me to discover and appreciate performance styles and genres I would have previously overlooked, and introduced me to new modes of analysis. “

In Eco-Sonic Media, Smith delves into the history of pre-electronic media like hand-cranked gramophones, comparatively eco-friendly media artifacts such as the shellac discs that preceded the use of petroleum-based vinyl, early forms of portable technology like divining rods, and even the use of songbirds as domestic music machines.

The book is a jumping-off point for Smith, who has more ecological sound-centric studies in mind.

“There’s more work to be done exploring the points of contact between eco-criticism and sound studies, and I’m currently developing a new undergraduate course that will get students thinking about what ‘green media’ might sound like,” he said.