Monday, December 17, 2012

A Human-Centered Sound Commons?

    In my previous blog entry I suggested that it is helpful to think of the acoustic environment as a sound commons. The usual example of a commons is land that members of an agricultural community use for grazing livestock. New England towns traditionally set aside a plot of land that was called the “town common”; these still exist in some towns, such as Amherst, Massachusetts, very close to my alma mater, Amherst College. Of course, the citizens of Amherst don’t graze their sheep and cattle on the town common anymore; it’s a park, and it’s used for public events. English peasants farmed on commons land until villages were transformed by enclosures (private property), a gradual process that took place mainly in the 1700s. In highland parts of Europe, and also in North America, livestock were let more or less loose to graze and feed on mountain land in season, sometimes with shepherds, sometimes without. Deep water ocean (for fishing) is another example of a commons. In a commons, then, members of a group share a particular resource, and the people who use it assert that they have rights, or entitlements, to do so.
     I raised the idea of a sound commons in the context of an acoustic disturbance, the sounds of helicopters flying, which confuse and upset caribou and cause the herd to change its migration pattern, which in turn impacts Innu people of northern Canada, whose lives traditionally are bound up with hunting caribou. A question immediately arises: is the acoustic environment a commons? And if so, which group am I talking about here in regard to a sound commons: the Innu or the caribou, or both? I think we can assume that the Innu have moral, if not legal, rights in this case, their right as a people to hunt caribou, which is compromised by the helicopter noises that take place in a sound commons shared by all human beings. Of course, the corporations who fly the helicopters and build the roads that make the noise assert opposing rights, to find and extract minerals from the land: that the benefit to humanity realized from mining the minerals outweighs the harm done to the Innu. But does it make sense to say that caribou have any rights in the matter? On what grounds could animals (including non-humans) have rights to a particular kind of acoustic environment or sound-world?
    The concept of commons has been around for a long time in Europe, going back at least to Roman law, which recognized as res communes those things that were incapable of being possessed by individuals and thus were commonly available to all. The usual examples Roman law gave for res communes were water and the atmosphere (the air mantle). The history of the commons has been one of enclosure, or propertization of the commons, whether public property or private. The enclosure of agricultural land in England (and Europe) is the usual example, but in modern history water and air resources have come to be regarded as public property, to be regulated by governing bodies; and some individuals even have claimed water and air rights as private property.
    The Internet has gotten people talking about commons once again: an information commons, with free Internet access (a digital information commons), is a right that is asserted by information managers (librarians) and readers, while there is pushback from authors and publishers. In the same way, digital file sharing (recordings, movies) has resulted in claims (particularly from youth culture) of a media commons, with pushback from artists and the recording industry. In an important book, Common As Air, Lewis Hyde has placed the debate in a larger context, arguing on behalf of a cultural commons of art and ideas, shared by all members of a society. Important ethical questions arise, such as how to mediate between free access to ideas, on one hand, and to protect the rights to their own ideas that individuals, particularly creative artists, assert, called intellectual property rights, on the other.
     One legal solution is the so-called "fair use" doctrine, in which small portions but not entire works are freely accessible. Anyone who has read portions of a copyrighted book on Google Books knows how this compromise works. Hyde supports the original American copyright law, which offers copyright protection for a once-renewable period of 26 years, after which time the property passes into the public domain where it may be used freely by all. These are very lively issues in legal circles today, particularly as global corporations (as “persons”) with enormous financial resources assert rights to movies, recordings, books, and so forth. But although there are many interesting questions involved, such as whether music, for example, ought even to be regarded as property—Thoreau would have thought it preposterous to do so—here, this debate serves mainly as background, at least for the time being.
    The concept of a sound commons is not original with me. Although the idea may be older than the late twentieth century, at that time environmentalists concerned with noise pollution asserted that people have the right to silence, to be free from assaults with noise; and at least two based this assertion on the principle of a sound commons. In 1993 Ursula Franklin gave a lecture at the first international conference on acoustic ecology, in which she said: “I want to come back to the definition of silence and introduce the notion of the commons because the soundscape essentially doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. . . . The notion of the commons is deeply embedded in our social mind as something that all share. . . . Because of the ephemeral nature of sound, silence was not considered part of the commons in the past. Today the technology to preserve and multiply sound and separate it from its source [i.e., what Murray Schafer termed schizophonia] has resulted in our sudden awareness that silence, too, is common good.” (1)
    In a similar vein, in 2000 the acoustic ecologist Henrik Karlsson wrote that “. . . a healthy, unspoiled acoustic environment [must] become something of a common right—a public domain—to which all citizens should have free access, no matter where they live. The acoustic environment will then become something which nobody can sabotage for others or privatise for personal gain. The focus of attention will then be on the individual citizen and his [sic] needs, not on product development or other economic interests, whether individual or transnational. An anthropocentric model of this kind, I am convinced, is the only feasible way of regarding, restoring and preserving the acoustic environment.” (2)
    Both Frankin and Karlsson conceive of a sound commons as “anthropocentric” (human-centered) and would have no argument with Innu asserting rights over their acoustic environment. They do not theorize the sound commons, as I am starting to do here; they simply propose it to be true on the grounds that the acoustic environment belongs to and is shared by all (humans). And although the acoustic ecology movement calls attention to the harm Navy sonar does to whales and dolphins, their main issue is noise pollution and its impact on human beings. The sounds of the natural world are “unspoiled” and must be respected, but their activism is aimed chiefly at the impact of noise pollution on people. In the case of the helicopters, the caribou, and the Innu, the acoustic ecology group would primarily be concerned, as the Living on Earth reporter was, with the Innu, not the caribou. It would be a more radical step to propose that there exists a sound commons for all creatures, but that is what I am suggesting here. In a future blog entry I will argue that the concept of commons leads us to conclude that all creatures, not just humans, have the right to communicate in their acoustic spaces (or niches). An anthropocentric sound commons is too narrow in scope.


(1) Ursula Franklin, "Silence and the Notion of the Commons," Soundscape, Vol. 1, no. 2 (2000), p. 16. Originally a lecture given in Banff, Canada, on Aug. 11, 1993, at the first international conference on acoustic ecology, "The Tuning of the World."
(2) Henrik Karlsson, "The Acoustic Environment as a Public Domain," Soundscape, Vol. 1, no. 2 (2000), p.13.

1 comment:

  1. Thoreau was right. We should abolish the preposterous metaphor of Intellectual Property. Ideas are better in the commons, period.

    And this is overall a wonderful essay. Noise pollution is a serious issue. I've been wishing for the abolition of gas-powered lawn mowers within city neighborhoods. The entire concept of a lawn is absurd and should be replaced with gardens, but at the very least you could use a push mower or even an electric mower on your tiny patch of golf course between your house and the street.

    Anyway, thanks for your writing, looking forward to the follow-up. Cheers