“Das hätte nicht passieren dürfen” – Re-narrating Border Vocalities and Machine Listening Calibration

Published in “Spheres – Journal for Digital Cultures”, issue #5 on “Spectres of AI”.

Listen and read the full audio paper here: http://spheres-journal.org/das-hatte-nicht-passieren-durfen-re-narrating-border-vocalities-and-machine-listening-calibration/

As a sound artist and researcher, I have been interested in the materiality of voice databases, their semantic and political value, the decision-making process for the collection of speakers, the sounds they produce, the cultural meaning of these sounds, and their continued existence as archives. The creation of speech corpora – that is, the assembling of an exhaustive archive of possibilities for human speech – is an arduous task. Yet this seeming unfeasibility does not prevent speech corpora from being deployed in systems that rely on and judge over incomplete assessments of the ambiguity and contingency of prosody, pronunciation, inflection, and timbre. These systems of voice biometry seek to normalize vocal traits, as well as to establish an alleged quantifiable ‘truth’ to how a voice might convey language – a physical but also cultural and social phenomenon. Biometric technologies, Heather Murray argues, are “constituted by the practices involved in [their] use”; its performativity “is bound to and produces cultural understandings of gender, authority, and criminality”1. State-sponsored campaigns transfer biometric assessment from machines to citizens, encouraging peer-surveillance in train stations, airports, and public offices as well as police-enforced racial profiling and violence. Processes like these evince how sound is instrumentalized to act as a disciplinary mechanism, and how biometry is fundamentally a performative gesture: it seeks to pinpoint that which it has set itself to reveal.