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The University of Southampton
Web Science Institute

The Global Black Atlantic as Sonic Social Machine: Past, Present and Future


This project applies the Web Science metaphor of the “social machine” to the musical practices and modes of artistic creation of the “Black Atlantic”: the musics of the global African Diaspora including sub-genres from the blues to jazz to hip-hop (Gilroy; Lewis). Following Shadbolt et al. (2019) and drawing on the resources of Actor Network Theory (Latour; Piekut) we understand a “social machine” to be a sociotechnical network in which people and machines participate to given ends (intended or unintended), where humans and non-humans (e.g. musicians and web platforms such as Facebook) serve as “actants” and where history (encoded in improvisational materials and styles) are held as “memory.”

To this theoretical framework we add the perspectives of sound studies. Our aim is to consider material sounding spaces in “contact zones” (ship's decks, wharves, streets, jazz clubs) with dematerialised soundscapes of the web (platforms that convey sonic information) (Pratt). Sound studies offers tools for understanding how people engage with communicative practices (music and dance) and employ these to move through particular sonic spaces at specific historical moments, particularly those entailing cross-cultural contact and exchange (see Goodman, Irvine). The idea of the soundscape clarifies the interplay between material (object-based) and semiotic (communication-based) factors in un-notated oral/aural repertoires. It can reveal how movement and sound (especially in public spaces) work as subaltern political strategy (Smith 2013, 2019). Contextualising social machines in past and present soundscapes, from bands traveling on ships to disembodied tracks on social media, will enrich both Web Science and sound studies by reimagining sonic social spaces as “platforms” in Web Science terms.
The pilot phase of the project considers the unfolding of jazz networks in two contemporary spaces (Hong Kong and Taiwan) and compares them to case studies of music, movement, and “noise” in small, medium, and large riverine and maritime cities of the historical Black Atlantic—New York, Boston, New Orleans, Baltimore, Mobile, Kingston Jamaica, Natchez Mississippi, and Marblehead Massachusetts.

All of these places are and were marked by high degrees of economic freedom and technological advancement. Yet political freedom is and was not a given. Freedom has always been a powerful constitutive metaphor in music studies and Web Science. Social machines respond to specific needs. When music becomes a social machine in a society that has historically struggled with political freedom, it serves a democratic (as well as cultural) purpose. This purpose would not be fulfilled without the aid of digital media. Our project, conscious that both the web and the musics of the Global Black Atlantic are sites where improvisation meets structure, asks about the possibilities and limits of sonic “freedom” in real social, political and artistic contexts.


Principal Investigator: Dr Tom Irvine

Co-Investigators: Dr Valentina Cardo and Dr Kieron O'Hara


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