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Jonathan Sterne

Professor and James McGill Chair in Culture and Technology

Fields of interest: sound studies; media theory and historiography; science and technology studies; new media; disability studies; music; cultural studies.

Website: http://sterneworks.org (visit for up-to-date publications, CV, courses, etc.)

What I'm doing these days:
My students and I are working on a SSHRC-funded project entitled The New Sound and Look of Media: Artificial Intelligence and the Politics of Culture. My goal in this grant is to examine and critique how AI is being used to shape the so-called “content” (I hate that word) of media, especially the look and feel of audiovisual texts. While there has been a lot of work on automating decisions, there is less critical analysis of how AI-related technologies are playing out in signal processing. I am particularly interested in working with populations affected by the actions of large media corporations, who have built or are building alternatives, and who are affected by changes in the media industries that fly under the AI flag. I am also very interested in working for the more rigorous regulation of artificial intelligence and media industries more broadly. Some of this work is contemporary and ethnographic or techno-analytical; some is historical. Here’s the “pilot study” for the project.

I also always have something going on disability and technology. Summer 2020, I am submitting the final revisions for my book Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment. It offers the beginnings of an impairment theory (to go with disability theory); a discussion of not speaking, hearing, and feeling well across chapters on voice, hearing and fatigue; and lots of talk about bodies and technologies. It is also my weirdest book to date.

I always have something going on sound and/or music. I am coauthoring a book with Mara Mills that combines my sound and disability interests, entitled Tuning Time: Histories of Sound and Speed. It is a history of time-stretching and pitch-shifting, from blind readers in the 1930s to Auto-Tune and Ableton Live in the 2000s. Maybe we’ll have a draft by the end of 2021? An early excerpt from Chapter 1 on blind reading just appeared in the PMLA here. Other stuff happening: right now I am a co-applicant on a major interdisciplinary grant to rethink the urban soundscape across the humanities, social sciences and sciences, which we hope will dethrone the decibel as the measure of the good life in cities; and I am writing a series of essays on musical instruments and signal processing technologies (some of which overlaps with the AI project above).

Are you taking new graduate students? What about visiting students or postdocs? In what areas?

Yes! I am happy to supervise student and postdoc projects in any and all of my research areas and interests. In Communication Studies, I take on about 1-2 new MA and/or PhD students per year (give or take). I also regularly co-supervise theses in Music Research, and have taken on students in other programs in cases where our interests are well aligned. My advisees’ interests are diverse, but the one thing they all have in common is a belief in and enthusiasm for academic, intellectual work—reading books, talking about ideas, and doing research to discover and talk about weird and difficult to explain phenomena. I am militantly agnostic on research methods: use what works. Most of my students are politicized in one way or another but it is not a requirement for working with me.

I have hosted visiting PhD students from all over Europe and the Americas, BUT they generally bring their own funding, usually from their home countries. I regularly host postdocs as well, though again they usually bring their own funding. Past postdocs have been funded through SSHRC, FRQSC, the Mellon Foundation, sources in Brazil and Europe, and Media@McGill.

In 2020-1, I am co-teaching a graduate seminar with Emily Dolan at Brown, entitled Instruments and Instrumentalities. Given that classes are online at McGill in the fall anyway, this is a strictly lemons to lemonade situation. For 2021-2, I will offer a graduate seminar on the cultural politics of artificial intelligence, entitled AI: WTF?

3rd person bio:

Jonathan Sterne’s work is concerned with the cultural dimensions of communication technologies, especially their form and role in large-scale societies. One of his major ongoing projects has involved developing the history and theory of sound in the modern west. Beyond the work on sound and music, he has published dozens of articles and book chapters that cover a wide range of topics in media history, new media, cultural theory and disability studies. He has also written on the politics of academic labor and maintains an interest in the future of the university. His current projects consider instruments and signal processing; the intersections of disability, technology and perception; and the politics of artificial intelligence.

As a researcher, he employs historiographic, philosophical and interpretive methods, long-form interviews, and ethnographic participant observation. In addition to his books and articles, Sterne has published online since 1994, experimenting with multimodal and open access approaches, which are now gathered under the “digital humanities” umbrella.

Sterne has held fellowships from the Mellon and Woodrow Wilson Foundations, the Smithsonian Institution; and at The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard and New York Universities, and a visiting researcher in the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England. His work has also been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Fonds québécois de recherché sur la société et la culture, the Beaverbrook Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, and the Australian Research Council. He has delivered over a hundred invited lectures and keynotes around the world. In 2016 he won the McGill Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching at the full professor level.

Author:
Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment (forthcoming from Duke University Press, 2021)
MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012)
The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke University Press, 2003)

Editor or co-editor:
The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2016
The Politics of Academic Labor in Communication Studies (Annenberg Press, 2013)
The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012)
The Bad Subjects Anthology (New York University Press, 1998)

Other affiliations:
Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media and Technology
Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies
Department of Music Research
Department of Social Studies of Medicine
Media History Research Centre (Concordia University)

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