All lectures are free open to the public, thanks to the generosity of The Klopsteg fund. Unless otherwise noted, they will be held in University Hall, Hagstrum Room 201, on Mondays 4:30-6:00pm.
Program Director: Paul Ramírez
October 9 - Viktoria Tkaczyk, Musicology and Media Studies - Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
From the eighteenth to early twentieth century, scientific collections were filled with numerous carefully crafted specimens, models, moulages, and phonograph cylinders made of wax. In this lecture, I will explore how these diverse objects formed part of a transdisciplinary strategy to study and conserve the diversity of human, animal, and plant life. The focus will be on the various substances used to produce this wealth of scientific wax objects and their embedding in a globalized system of natural resource exploitation. I will examine the scientific agendas driving this development and trace the local knowledge systems, historical labor conditions, infrastructures, and delivery systems that have enabled the steady and massive supply of vegetable, mineral, and petroleum wax from around the globe—highlighting the environmental damage caused by massive wax production and its impact on local communities, whose endangered cultures have partly been captured in wax.
October 23 - Xiaochang Li, Communication - Stanford University
Starting in the 1970s, researchers at IBM spearheaded efforts to reorient the field of automatic speech recognition from study of human perception, reasoning, and expertise towards a startling new mandate: “There’s no data like more data.” This talk examines the history of automatic speech recognition research and its "statistical turn," which refashioned speech recognition from a project of replicating the embodied faculties of language and communication to one of sorting data. These efforts marked a comprehensive transformation in speech and language modeling and subsequently fueled the widespread adoption of data-intensive machine learning techniques that have since come to define present-day artificial intelligence. The history of automatic speech recognition thus offers a crucial glimpse into how we became "data-driven": how words became data, how data became imperative, and how the challenges of speech and language shaped the very foundations of algorithmic culture.
November 13 - Myles Jackson, History of Science - Institute for Advanced Study
When we turn on a radio today in order to listen to performance of a cellist, with a minimal amount of musical knowledge, we can recognize the instrument. It turns out that such fidelity was not always true of radio. How then did it come about? This lecture answers that question and thereby offers an early history of German radio. Musical instrument broadcasting and the transmission of operatic voices provided scientists and engineers with challenging research problems well beyond the traditional research agendas their disciplines supplied.
The research on timbre fidelity precipitated the invention of the trautonium, an important electronic musical instrument which was invented in Berlin in 1930, by the physicist and engineer Friedrich Trautwein. The trautonium could famously imitate the timbres of numerous acoustical instruments as well as generate novel, modern timbres and sounds for many musical genres. Invented in the Weimar Republic, it thrived in Nazi Germany and the Federal Republic of Germany. A later version of the trautonium, the mixture trautonium invented by Sala after the war, famously caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who commissioned Sala to provide the sounds of birds squawking and flapping their wings in the thriller “The Birds” of 1963. In short, this talk deals with the relationship between science, technology, and music that generated the creation of new concepts of aesthetics, new musical genres, and the discipline of electroacoustics.
February 5 - Benjamin Lindquist, History and Science in Human Culture - Northwestern University
After the Second World War, engineers automated the production of synthetic speech. Computers could now talk. But there was a problem: these rule-based voices sounded, well, mechanical. And it wasn’t clear why. Was simulating human speech too much for midcentury mainframes, or was the problem more profound? Slowly, researchers realized that stripping speech down to its “information-bearing” elements had counterintuitively undermined sonic communication. While historians of computing have long focused on discrete data as the driver of digital history, I forward a counter thesis. Starting in the 1960s, speech scientists challenged the dichotomy of signal versus noise, as they recognized that emotion, spontaneity, and what Roland Barthes has called the “grain of the voice” were inseparable from the semantic content of spoken language. These extra-linguistic—even aesthetic—qualities of speech were not obstacles to the dissemination of information. Instead, elements like human emotion provided a crucial conduit through which auditory “data” travels. In ther words, to effectively deliver data, computers first needed to emulate affect.
To this end, Professor Lindquist's talk recounts the work of computer scientist Noriko Umeda at Tokyo’s ElectroTechnical Laboratory (1960-68) and Bell Telephone Laboratories (1968-78). Focusing on Umeda’s attempts to add spontaneity, specificity, and emotion to artificial speech will narrow the gap between affect theory and the history of computing.
February 19 - Shireen Hamza, History and Science in Human Culture - Northwestern University
How did Muslim scholars (ulema) outside of cities help support the health of their communities? The history of public health in the Islamic world has focused on cities, drawing on plague treatises, market inspection manuals, and legal disputes over substances like tobacco – often written by ulema. However, the ulema’s medical texts are often sidelined as “prophetic medicine,” erroneously opposed to Galenic medical texts written by physicians. In this talk, Professor Hamza will focus on the medical writings of ulema in Yemen in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, bringing new historical actors into the history of public health and attending to regional variation (from the Tihama to the Hadramawt). These ulema attempted to intervene in communal health by adapting medicine to their local contexts and urging teachers, peers, and students to compose more medical texts. Intergenerational relationships between male scholars became one site of public health in this region.
February 26 - Gerardo Con Diaz, Science and Technology - University of California-Davis
This talk uses copyright law to investigate the emergence of generative artificial intelligence systems as distinct technical and legal entities. Imagine that you use an image-generating system such as DALL-E to create a picture. You enter a prompt, and the system automatically draws on art created by legions of artists to output a new illustration. You might be satisfied with the image, or you could enter additional prompts to tweak it to your liking. Who gets to own this new image, and why was the system able to draw on these artists’ work in the first place? What does it mean to create an image, and for an image to be new, if the tools involved blend the works of millions of other artists? Based on my upcoming book, on the social studies of digital copyright, this talk shows how the stability of generative AI in US copyright law hinges on the interplay of two relatively recent legal fields: one on non-human animals’ rights to hold legal standing, and another that sustains search engines’ ability to display creative works without permission. Tracing these connections reveals how AI is becoming a distinct legal entity thanks to such disparate issues as a monkey’s inability to own a copyright, Google’s longstanding legal strategies, and artists’ and scientists’ negotiations over the limits of ownership in digital art.
April 8 - Mara Mills, Media, Culture, and Communication - New York University
"Fading: Radio, Illness, and Ralph Hartley's 'Information'"
April 15 - Michael Rossi, History - University of Chicago
"Bad Language: Rogue Linguistics and Experimental Policing in Postwar America"
L.G. Kersta was a “rogue linguist” in the eyes of his peers. In the 1960s he transformed spectrograms — a standard tool of nineteenth century phonology and speech pathology - into a crime-fighting device for the twentieth century. Where a “fingerprint” serves to identify people through the distinctive marks they leave on surfaces that they touch, a “voiceprint” was (said Kersta) a way of identifying people through recordings of their voices, translated into distinctive visual patterns through use of a spectroscope. With a “voiceprint,” law enforcement could identify lawbreakers through recordings of their voices — a perfect identification technology when paired with new mass media and surveillance. This talk examines a central episode in the development, explication, and — ultimately — downfall of voiceprints as law enforcement technologies: the trial of Edward Lee King over his participation in the Watts uprising of 1966. The case provides, on the one hand, a cautionary tale about the roles of new technologies, old ideologies, and fantasies of knowability in science and law enforcement. On the other hand, it brings the history of linguistics — often seen as an arcane and ethereal science — into closer dialogue with histories of science, perception, and everyday lived experience.
April 22 - Jennifer A. Petersen, Communication - University of Southern California, Annenberg
"From Voice to Information: A Media History of Speech in the Law"
When we protect freedom of speech, just what forms of expression are included? Do we mean the expression of people engaged in advocacy, art, or entertainment? Or do we include the circulation of artifacts such as money, receipts, and lists? Questions such as these ask for a definition of speech as a legal category. This talk will draw on media theory and legal history to explore the history of this category and its linkage to changes in the media of communication. What was once a category bounded by the human voice, the talk will argue, has become a more abstract, disembodied one centered not on voice but rather on information. To understand how this happened, we need to examine how media technologies and the knowledges associated with them have shaped what we mean by “speech”.
May 6 - Harun Küçük, History and Sociology of Science - University of Pennsylvania
"Arnold Thackray's 'Science: Has Its Present Past a Future?' Revisited"
May 20 - Moya Bailey, Communication - Northwestern University
Black women’s bodies have been instrumental in the development of medical and scientific breakthroughs, which have aided countless humans across the world. However, the degree to which these medical and scientific gains have actually helped the health and well-being of Black women remains unclear. This talk is an introduction to Professor Bailey's documentary that addresses the ways that misogynoir has influenced medicine at the expense of Black women's health.