Listening and The Shaping of Work Performance

Listening and The Shaping of Work Performance in the Twentieth Century


Open office concept at IBM product engineering. Taken from: Mennie, D. (1977). Where the EE works: is your cubbyhole, workbench or office less than what you‘d like it to be? Here are some suggestions. IEEE Spectrum 714(7): 40-46.

This project takes the workplace (broadly conceived) as its point of entry into the history of acoustics and listening. Over the twentieth century, scientists, engineers, and factory managers variously drew on sound and music to direct, adapt, and enhance workers’ productivity. I focus on attempts to optimize performance in work and learning through the acoustic conditioning of subjects’ attention, aiming to examine how interest in the ability of listeners to filter, sort, and process auditory information expanded during the twentieth century: from being a theoretical interest in experimental psychology, it became a practical concern for fields such as architectural and electrical acoustics, psychoacoustics, applied psychology pedagogy, industrial hygiene, ergonomics and management. In considering this convergence of fields—particularly across the United States and East Germany—the project traces the historical arrangements by which experimental setups, media technologies, design standards, and organizational philosophies patterned workers’ engagement with their environments. Combining history of science and sound studies with labor history, it investigates how work, space, and physical habits of producing and consuming aural information were reconfigured to invite efficiency, comfort, or privacy amid changing managerial ideologies in the office; to trigger concentration and learning in classrooms and auditoria; or to ensure operators’ vigilance through auditory displays in control rooms and cockpits. By examining the application of acoustics in the study and governance of human behavior, the project reconstructs the cultural practices that materialized the twentieth-century soundscape as both a field of knowledge and a sensory regime.