In 1972, British art critic John Berger responded to the proliferation of television by making his own show. The series, called Ways of Seeing, encouraged viewers to think critically about the images flowing through their sets, connecting theories from thinkers like Walter Benjamin to midcentury media consumption. He adapted the show into a book with the same name that year. Damon Krukowski, the former drummer of the rock band Galaxie 500, who also makes music as Damon & Naomi with his partner, Naomi Yang, set out to emulate Berger’s model when writing his new book, Ways of Hearing. Noting how podcasts, streaming music, and other audio saturated contemporary life, he hoped to shine some light on the ways the digitization of sound has reconfigured the way people listen.
Ways of Hearing began life as a podcast series on Radiotopia, but Krukowski, following Berger, always meant to publish it as a book as well. “It’s my intuition that you get all these different things from a page than you do from your ears, and I wanted to do both,” he said over the phone from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A slim volume with eye-catching illustrations, Ways of Hearing invites readers to consider how the shift from analog to digital distribution has changed our relationships to music and to one another. It’s an accessible critique of capitalism disguised as a meditation on playback technology, a dip into critical theory for those who covet vinyl crackles and tape hiss but can’t quite put their finger on why.
Damon Krukowski: In music, you’re constantly working with your ears, and you’re constantly working with your body. I always took that for granted, as someone who came of age in an analog time. While I enjoy and admire different approaches to digital media, for me, it remains a primarily disembodied experience. So I was trying to puzzle over that, the way this very very physical media that I sort of live in is now partly not a physical medium.
“Does it matter?” was the first basic question, because in many ways, it doesn’t. People still make music and listen to music. It’s just a format. But then there’s something else. Something really fundamentally changed, to me, that I wanted to put my finger on. I ended up writing my first nonfiction book, The New Analog, as a sincere attempt to give some language to this shift from analog to digital without making a value judgment. The book was sold by my publisher to Audible, an audiobook service. Audible, which is owned by Amazon, wouldn’t let me do anything with the sound of the book. I could do so much more than I could on the page, given that medium. Because they’re a bottom-line, profit-driven corporation, Audible said no. Anything you do to increase the investment of time to create that audiobook is just a negative for them. I read my own book, and I thought that was a pointless experience, but it gave me the bug to think, “What could I do?” That’s when I got the idea for the podcast.
SG: The book is more or less an illustrated transcript of the podcast. How do these two incarnations of the project work in concert?
DK: The book came about because, as I made the podcast, I had very firmly in mind the model of this television series made by John Berger, Ways of Seeing. It’s just fantastic. He’s using ideas from Walter Benjamin and other critical thinkers from the early 20th century, and he’s popularizing them, but he’s doing it in a way that really uses the new medium at the time. This was postwar England, and televisions were newly going into every home. There’s this wild-haired Marxist intellectual in your living room, and he’s talking about the difference between a postcard and a painting in a museum. And not in a standard way—he’s questioning. He’s making you think: Maybe there isn’t a difference.
So I had this very specific model in mind for the podcast. Where we are right now in our media culture is a very aural moment. Everyone’s got earbuds in. Everyone’s wearing headphones on the street. There’s this real mania for listening, and yet I don’t feel like there’s a lot of critical discussion. We’re in this high moment of consumption from availability but not a lot of critical thinking. So I thought, “OK, let’s use the medium the way Berger did. I want to use the podcast for thinking about aurality.” So the book was coded into the project from the beginning because Berger made a book from his TV show with the same title that became a teaching text and still is used, especially in Britain, for intro art history. It’s the kind of book that a lot of art students pick up. I picked it up as a college student. You don’t feel you need any prerequisite. You don’t need any background. You can just dive into it.
SG: Were you writing for people who grew up with digital sound having already been naturalized or people who had lived through the shift from analog to digital without noticing it?
DK: Broadcast—radio and podcasting—is such a beautiful democratic thing. It literally goes out in the air, and you don’t know where it goes. That’s a wonderful openness that I wanted to embrace and not feel like I was trying to tailor it for anybody. Radiotopia coached me toward that. They would go through my scripts and call attention to language I used that maybe not everybody knows. I never struck any of these words out, but I did make sure they were intelligible from context. It was a project meant to be democratizing and popular, like Berger. Podcasting is in this moment where people are going to podcasts who you’d never expect to. It’s fantastic. The numbers are staggering.
As for the book, it’s small. It’s illustrated. It’s paperback. It’s cheap. You don’t feel like it’s not for you. It’s a fundamental gesture when you share information: Are you going to really share it, or are you trying to shape where it’s going? In this case, I wanted to be as generous as I possibly could. It made the project more personal and more emotional than I was prepared for.
SG: Chapter two has a great quote from Jeremiah Moss, where he points out that the glassy walls of new construction buildings resemble smartphone screens. Does digitization collude with the widespread gentrification of physical space?
DK: The physical landscape has changed so drastically in my adult lifetime. It’s affected cultural life, political life, and everything else around me. Naomi and I grew up in New York City, and we moved to Boston for school, and then we didn’t leave because the rent was cheap. That was the only thing that kept us there. Cambridge had rent control at the time. Rent was determined by the city. A town inspector would come to our apartment once a year. When the landlord didn’t do their job, rent went down. And it never could go up by more than a certain, very modest percent. Cambridge was incredibly mixed as a result, because the rents were not set by the market. Our super was our postman, and he lived in the building. Everyone who worked in the neighborhood lived in the neighborhood because it was affordable. That was voted out overnight in the early ’90s. Every year, the landlord association would try to get rid of this system. Of course, Cambridge voted to keep it 90 to 10, because everyone benefited from it except the landlords.
Then they got the idea to put it on a statewide ballot. They got a statewide resolution saying there could be no rent control in Massachusetts. Cambridge changed overnight, all based on real estate and market values. Suddenly, everyone who worked in Cambridge left town. It totally changed the community, because now you’re not sharing the community. You’ve just split it into two: landholders and workers. Now we’re surrounded by millionaires, and they’re terrible neighbors. The fabric of the town changed, and it changed at the same moment as analog and digital media. This version of capital that has taken over is the same version that dominates digital media. My life as a musician is dealing with these massive corporations: Spotify, Apple. Nobody I can call, nobody I have an individual contract with, nobody that I can negotiate with for myself. I just have to be another consumer at CVS instead of a local drugstore. It’s the same idea. Whole Foods bought our hippie health food store, and now Whole Foods is Amazon. That exactly mirrors going from the local record stores and local radio to what we’re dealing with now, which is trying to figure out the algorithms on Spotify, trying to figure out how to get paid by Apple Music. It’s a very similar problem.
SG: The powers that be are working to create the perfect, docile consumer, in part through a digital interface. What tools can people use to sneak their way out of that conditioning?
DK: I think it’s going to be through criticism. That might be a pat, Marxist answer, but I really do believe that. The system is unsustainable and untenable. It seems on the verge of collapse at every moment, but somehow it manages to patch itself together and keep going. It is critical action, critical thinking that we all need. To put it in old-fashioned terms, I find that a lot of our online life is very alienating. It can be very depressing in the way it isolates us from one another, in the way it changes our relationships from person-to-person to person-to-corporation. That is ultimately very unsatisfying. Unless you just adapt to it and go with it. That’s always the temptation, and it works for many, many people, to a degree. But I feel it’s that old-fashioned struggle.
People deserve better. They deserve more, and they often hanker for it but just don’t know where to turn or how to start constructing it. I do think that’s the gift of criticism, just to alert people when you can reach them that there’s more. There might be another way to do this. There might be another way to think about how we organize ourselves and how we make decisions about things—property and real estate, how you deal with your money and your life, where it goes, your attention, your time. There may be other versions. That’s contradictory to a lot of the goals of these companies that are running our digital lives. They don’t want you dealing with alternatives. They want to keep you on their platform. That’s the danger of this whole moment we’re in, economically and technologically: no alternative, no alternative. And squeezing out alternatives—buying them out, putting them out of business.
SG: I see glimpses of alternatives, new platforms where people communicate in ways that aren’t profitable yet. I’ve discovered music nonalgorithmically through the video-sharing app TikTok. A lot of it is young people being silly for the camera. It’s spontaneous, and it’s noisy, not people making polished products. They’re just communicating. You get these moments, and then they get eaten up by the machine.
DK: The innovation and the real communication is there. The positive potential never goes away. I feel very positive about youthful uses of technology. They’re continually chaotic and inventive and noncorporate. All these corporations are bewildered by how their platforms are used by young people, and that’s fantastic.