BY Geeta Dayal in Opinion | 12 FEB 14
Featured in
Issue 161

On Eavesdropping, Muzak and the Sound of Bitcoin

What would the NSA’s massive repositories of data sound like if a composer of electronic and computer music had access to them?

BY Geeta Dayal in Opinion | 12 FEB 14

Rivane Neuenschwander The Conversation, 2010. Courtesy: the artist; Tanya Bonakdar, New York; Stephen Freidman, London; and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo.

‘As you know, this is just metadata,’ said us senator Dianne Feinstein to a group of reporters this past summer, in an attempt to deflect the growing tide of public anger about the bulk aggregation of telephone records at the National Security Agency (NSA). ‘There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication.’

One wonders if Feinstein was aware of the classic Marshall McLuhan cliché that the medium is the message, that the content of any medium is another medium. The dismissive phrase ‘this is just metadata’ became a horrifying echo as the year progressed. Each week, it seemed that documents leaked by Edward Snowden led to new and penetrating revelations. The NSA was indeed collecting the audio of certain phone calls, and the entire email accounts of certain people. But the knowledge that the NSA was amassing metadata on such a massive scale was the most terrifying part of the puzzle – taken together, it added up to a surveillance state. Then, in January this year, The New York Times reported that the NSA has implanted software in more than 100,000 computers, which allows them to monitor activity via radio waves.

‘Eavesdropping, censorship, recording and surveillance are weapons of power,’ Jacques Attali reminded us in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, first published in 1977. You can think of the NSA’s giant vault of metadata as the world’s biggest, most terrible iTunes library. Metadata is something we’re all familiar with now, in that prosaic, tedious activity of sorting mp3s and plugging in id3 tags. As the NSA has shown us, you can often forgo the ‘tunes’; the metadata itself is littered with clues. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a us advocacy group, offered some useful hypothetical examples to understand the gravity of the NSA's bulk collection of metadata. ‘They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret. They know you spoke with an hiv testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.’

I sometimes wonder, darkly, what the NSA’s massive repositories of data could sound like if a composer of electronic and computer music – like, say, the late Iannis Xenakis – had access to them. For the past few months I’ve been listening to Bitcoin transactions across the world, and endlessly fluctuating Bitcoin exchange rates, sonified in real time through the sites BitListen and Sonobit. BitListen is a continuous chorus of glassy, pinging chimes, sporting a look similar to Brian Eno’s ‘Bloom’ iPhone app. Sonobit is an extended meditative drone, with an undercurrent of crackling static.

As I listened to Bitcoin transactions one night, Spotify popped up at the bottom of my screen. ‘You listened to Black Flag recently,’ the Spotify home screen informs me. ‘Want to try The Germs?’ Well, that’s not far off, but I already know The Germs. Right next to that suggestion is another helpful suggestion from Spotify. ‘“Everybody Dance Now” was huge when you were a teenager. Play now?’ it offers. Hang on a minute – how does Spotify know when I was a teenager? One plausible explanation: it’s linked to Facebook, which knows my age, and loads of other juicy data. If I click to listen, Spotify then broadcasts to my entire network on Facebook – all 1,241 ‘friends’, at last count – what I am listening to.

‘Musical distribution techniques are today contributing to the establishment of a system of eavesdropping and social surveillance,’ Attali wrote. He went on to discuss Muzak: ‘the American corporation that sells standardized music, presents itself as the “security system of the 1970s” be­cause it permits use of musical distribution channels for the circulation of orders.’ The 1970s were a particularly dystopian time for the Muzak corporation. ‘Slogans such as “The New Muzak – A System of Security for the 1970s” and “Muzak is a Total Communication System” did little to allay the paranoia of George Orwell obsessives below management’s upper tier,’ wrote Joseph Lanza in his breezy book Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak (2004).

In the cult movie Decoder, released in 1984, F.M. Einheit, the film’s protagonist (and member of industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten), plays an ‘anti-Muzak’ to combat the suffocating strains of Muzak that are keeping the population of a dystopian state docile. In 1962, John Cage planned to create a composition he termed ‘Muzak-Plus’ for the lobby of the Pan Am building in New York (now the MetLife building), to accompany Richard Lippold’s newly commissioned sculpture Flight (1963). ‘Cage decided to “make use of the things that were right there” in the lobby,’ The New York Times reported that year. ‘This was to include the supply of Muzak, for which Pan Am had a contract; the necessary speakers in the walls, and a setup of television screens with photo-electric cells for keeping an eye on the passersby.’ With the assistance of Cage’s friend and collaborator – the Bell Labs director of acoustic research, Max Mathews – the movements of people filing in and out of the lobby would trigger the cells in the surveillance cameras, which would then activate the Muzak, which would recompose itself according to the movements of the people.

Sadly, the piece was never realized. But Decoder and Cage presented two distinct approaches. There was Einheit’s William Burroughs-inspired anti-Muzak, deliberately confrontational by design and Cage’s constructive plan for ‘Muzak-Plus’ – recycling the Muzak, using it to generate a new and constantly changing piece of music, triggered by individuals.

I thought of Cage’s optimistic concept for ‘Muzak-Plus’ as I thought of the recent push in the us to install recording devices in public buses, and how they could potentially be harnessed to make music. I thought about it while thinking of the NSA and the growing surveillance state in the us, and how even the largest, most dreadful things could be reimagined by the noise of people.

Geeta Dayal is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.