actually listening

December 22, 2021

In one of my all-time favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2004), the team discovers that Willow has unwittingly released a demon into the internet. The action starts off with an innocently nineties debate between Ms. Calendar, the computer science teacher and Giles, the librarian. Giles objects, predictably to the newfangled computers in the library and is unhappily allowing the students to scan a pile of old books. That, we find out later, is how the demon was released. Soon enough, the demon in question is hard at work messing up banking systems, altering student medical charts, and seducing several computer nerds into being his lackeys as he pursues Willow. In a moment of revelation, the librarian Giles looks up from a mysteriously blank fifteenth-century book which had once contained the demon: “the scanner read the book.” [1]

Giles seeks out Ms. Calendar who initiated the scanning project and dramatically tells her, “There’s a demon in the internet.” She responds coolly, unfazed, “I know.” As Giles struggles to catch up with the late twentieth-century where technopagan Ms. Calendar practices magic online, she taunts him, “You think realm of the mystical is limited to ancient texts and relics? The bad old science made the magic go away?”

It's a delightful challenge to Max Weber’s disenchantment thesis, which argues that modernity has created an unmystical, unmagical, rational world. Ms. Calendar explains to Giles that she’s been reading the portents about demons: “power surges, online shutdowns,” and the bones she’s been casting.[2] Ms. Calendar seamless blends the high tech (of the 1990s) with down to earth and embodied divination with bones practice. The magical and divine is fully within and a part of the new computer technology as much as anything else. This episode represents a delightful confrontation between the aesthetic of knowledge drawn from a looming library of dusty books and the image of rational, detached, computing. The world is still enchanted. And there are demons in the internet.

But my point here is more about how the demon got into the internet. “The scanner read the book.”

This doesn’t seem to be at all like the way that a program can read a PDF using OCR, nor is it very much like the way a set of commands in Python can read through thousands of lines of text and emerge with common phrases in a list. Some midcentury artificial intelligence models assumed “that computers and minds were the same kind of thing.[3] Today, perhaps, we think differently. But in this episode of Buffy, the scanner read this book the way a human might. In this case, a computer and a mind are the same kind of thing. So, now I’m pondering what it means if a machine engages with material as a human might (at least in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, anyway).

In October I digitized some tapes. I’d come across the cassettes of oral histories at two organizations with local history collections and I was curious about what they contained. Tape logs from the 1970s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s showed tantalizing hints of the recollections within—a comment about dowsing for buried iron, another about the graves removed from the valleys now flooded for New York City’s reservoirs, a reference to losing a farm to the City.[4] The only problem was that these oral histories were stored on cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes. There was no easy way for me to listen to them at these archives, and certainly no simple way to record them and reference later.

This is how I got to the Rube Goldberg old-to-new audio setup I used to digitize these tapes. I bought a little cassette player—the sort of thing schoo-aged me had longed for but somehow never figured out how to get. Now I could listen to the cassettes. Next, I went to the media lab at my university library for help with how to record and digitize them. I checked out an AUX cable and a high-quality digital recorder. The kind people there were delighted by the prospect of the project and let me to take the equipment for three weeks so I could travel with it.

One by one, I put the oral history cassettes into the tape player, then connected the digital recorder to the tape player with the AUX cable. The cable was attached to the headphone jack on the tape player and to the microphone jack on the recorder. Hit record on the recorder, hit play on the tape player. Through the AUX cable, the recorder could “listen” to the oral histories and record them.

And this is the part I want to talk about right now; the listening digital recorder. Before I heard these stories, my little recorder listened to them. And I wonder, how did that feel, to hear these voices and stories that had sat quietly in boxes for decades? Listening, in this sense, feels so human to me. And this brings me to another example of a machine doing a sensory activity like a human, one of my favorites.

What if my digital recorder was listening in the same way that the scanner read the book? Where did those voices go, inside that little device? Does the recorder have the agency to listen? It certainly had the agency to turn off in the middle of interviews, to protect its own battery. But listening, I think, has something to do with affect, which I don’t think the recorder itself has. When it listened to the recordings, I don’t think it cared about them the way that the demon read from the book animated the internet. Still, now that I’ve transferred the files, wiped its memory, and returned the recorder to the library, does it remember the stories?

With gratitude and apologies to:

[1] Posey, Stephen L., dir. “I, Robot…You, Jane.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 1, episode 7. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1997.

[2] Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. Boston,: Beacon Press, 1963.

[3] Dick, Stephanie. “Of Models and Machines: Implementing Bounded Rationality.” Isis 106, no. 3 (September 1, 2015): 623–34.

[4] Dowsing is a practice of finding, discerning, or discovering water, or other substances. The most well-known example is using a forked stick to find underground water.