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Media Distortions

Understanding the Power Behind Spam, Noise, and Other Deviant Media


Elinor Carmi

Media Distortions is about the power behind the production of deviant media categories. It shows the politics behind categories we take for granted such as spam and noise, and what it means to our broader understanding of, and engagement with media. The book synthesizes media theory, sound studies, science and technology studies (STS), feminist technoscience, and software studies into a new composition to explore media power. Media Distortions argues that using sound as a conceptual framework is more useful due to its ability to cross boundaries and strategically move between multiple spaces—which is essential for multi-layered mediated spaces.

Drawing on repositories of legal, technical and archival sources, the book amplifies three stories about the construction and negotiation of the ‘deviant’ in media. The book starts in the early 20th century with Bell Telephone’s production of noise, tuning into the training of their telephone operators and their involvement with the Noise Abatement Commission in New York City. The next story jumps several decades to the early 2000s focusing on web metric standardization in the European Union and shows how the digital advertising industry constructed web-cookies as legitimate communication while making spam illegal. The final story focuses on the recent decade and the way Facebook filters out antisocial behaviors to engineer a sociality that produces more value. These stories show how deviant categories re-draw boundaries between human and non-human, public and private spaces, and importantly, social and antisocial.

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Media Distortions

Media Distortions provides an original, insightful and engaging counter-account of spam and noise as deviant media which have been paradoxically constituted as such to bring about a series of crucial transformations in our technologies and cultures of communication. Drawing on specific historical case studies and extending right into our present, by reverse engineering of the history of spam, Elinor Carmi brings a fresh perspective to bear on a media phenomenon which has received little critical attention.”

—Tiziana Terranova, University of Naples,

author of Network Culture: Politics For the Information Age (2004)

“Elinor Carmi offers a lucid and detailed examination of the taken-for-granted ‘deviant’ categories and processes of spam and noise. Significantly, through the focus on seven strategies of practitioners, the book convincingly demonstrates how common sense perceptions of these two categories are produced by power relations that make up both online and offline spaces of the everyday.”

—Evelyn Ruppert, Goldsmiths, University of London,

author of Being Digital Citizens (2015)

“‘Distort and deviate’ is the best summary for the mode of power Elinor Carmi’s exciting book analyses. The book’s rhythmic approach to noise and spam demonstrates how those seemingly unwanted aspects are at the centre of how contemporary territories and subjectivities are being formed and trained, measured and counted. Media Distortions is essential reading to understand contemporary network culture through a new pair ears, and many many new ideas.”

—Jussi Parikka, Winchester School of Art, author of Digital Contagions:

A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (Peter Lang, 2016)

“In Media Distortions, Elinor Carmi offers an innovative approach to digital media. By drawing on sound studies, Media Distortions puts forward a novel conceptual framework of ‘processed listening,’ which enables us to rethink noises, digital disturbances, spam, and deviant media in our lives. For Carmi, the sound of noise is not a nuisance, but an invitation to reveal hidden power relations that deeply shape who we are and how we think.”

—Robert W. Gehl, University of Utah, author of Weaving the Dark Web:

Legitimacy on Freenet, Tor, and I2P (2018)