The Meaning of a Format

By Jonathan Sterne

Duke University Press, Hardcover, 9780822352839, 341pp.

Publication Date: July 2012

"MP3: The Meaning of a Format" recounts the hundred-year history of the world's most common format for recorded audio. Understanding the historical meaning of the MP3 format entails rethinking the place of digital technologies in the larger universe of twentieth-century communication history, from hearing research conducted by the telephone industry in the 1910s, through the mid-century development of perceptual coding (the technology underlying the MP3), to the format's promiscuous social life since the mid 1990s.

MP3s are products of compression, a process that removes sounds unlikely to be heard from recordings. Although media history is often characterized as a progression toward greater definition, fidelity, and truthfulness, "MP3: The Meaning of a Format" illuminates the crucial role of compression in the development of modern media and sound culture. Taking the history of compression as his point of departure, Jonathan Sterne investigates the relationships among sound, silence, sense, and noise; the commodity status of recorded sound and the economic role of piracy; and the importance of standards in the governance of our emerging media culture. He demonstrates that formats, standards, and infrastructures--and the need for content to fit inside them--are every bit as central to communication as the boxes we call "media."

About the Author
Jonathan Sterne teaches in the Department of Communication and the Program for Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes about media, technology, and the politics of culture, and is codirector of the online magazine Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life.