The Legacy of Sound: Technological Projections
This past week smart-speaker manufacturer Sonos announced that they would be discontinuing support for some of their older devices starting in May.1 Sonos claims that due to technical limitations, they will not be able to continue building their sound ecosystem with these devices in the mix. A number of Sonos users are understandably upset that they will be pushed into a legacy mode, potentially unable to use their older equipment with newer models. The larger story, looking beyond Sonos, is what we can expect from smart-ecosystems in the future.
Sonos’s decision hit a nerve with the public because it is fundamentally about the legacy of sound. For many decades, we grew accustomed to standardized sound equipment that seemed to be “future-proof.” The same thread of this story can be seen in the countless articles written about the loss of the headphone jack in the smartphone. The creation of tightly-interlinked devices has incentivized (or forced) engineers to toss out legacy sound designs. In the push for water-resistant and thinner phones, the audio jack was a casualty. Likewise, Sonos’s dependence on internal computers to sync devices into a harmonious system has expedited their older product’s march towards incompatibility.
In light of this, we need to work collectively build a new “anticipatory discourse” for our smart devices.2 By this I mean that we should build up a narrative about what we anticipate our interconnected computing infrastructure to look like. Historians of technology have long discussed how the way we imagine our technological futures influences how we go about building our contemporary technological landscape. This point directly contradicts the idea that technological change is deterministic. Rather, change in science and technology is mediated by social forces. Many academics have written about the role of technological imagination, but I am particularly fond of the language used by social scientists Lisa Messeri and Janet Vertesi. In their article they coin the idea of technological “projectory.” Their use of projectory is a way of discussing how communities imagine a future, particularly around complex problems. The idea builds off the notion of anticipatory discourse in order to talk about how our technological imaginaries influence our material culture.
In order to make their point one of the examples they use is NASA’s proposed “Mars Sample Return” mission.3 This mission would bring samples from Mars back to Earth for research. The project has been in the works for decades, but repeatedly is delayed or encounters a policy roadblock. Despite this, the idea of the mission has always in the collective consciousness of those working on space projects. Because of this belief in an inevitable future, there is a continual drive towards an anticipated outcome. In turn, this belief carries forward the construction of new objects for an eventual mission to Mars and helps maintain a social expectation of what we ought to be working towards.
Building a new anticipatory discourse for smart devices, but particularly sound equipment, requires us to imagine the type of future that we want to build. I would hope for the sake of the environment and user ease, that we would anticipate a world where devices have a longer shelf life, can be made modular, and upgradeable. In the case of Sonos, we should consider building smart speakers that can have their internal components swapped out. Currently, the logic of building thinner and gluing components together doesn’t bode well for our future and is a symptom of our short-sightedness. More than the devices themselves, we need to figure out how to build ecosystems are more permissive to older devices. This is a complicated question to be sure, as it raises issues of enduring support and potentially slowing development. However, we should continue to question the impact that tightly connected systems will have in the long run and figure out solutions that reduce the speed at which we are creating devices that are incompatible with the systems of tomorrow.
Let’s start building a collective anticipation of our future by identifying what we consider to be the core components that we would like to see in smart environments. Moreover, let’s remind ourselves that to categorize a technology as a legacy is primarily a social decision. Although we cannot predict the future, we can build an intentionally imagined future that gives purpose and focus to our decisions today.