Graduate Student Audrey Amsellem Wins NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant

April 12, 2021

Ethnomusicology graduate student Audrey Amsellem has won an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research grant for her dissertation: "Sound and Surveillance: Recording and Privacy in the 21st Century." Her abstract is below. Congratulations Audrey!


My dissertation focuses on the social, political and ethical conceptions of privacy through musical consumption and sonic practices in the contemporary United States. Through a multi-sited ethnography, I conduct three case studies on the recording and listening capacity of technological devices of everyday life in order to theorize what I term “the neoliberal ear”– a twenty-first century mode of listening to the world embedded into surveillance capitalism. This research is centered on non-creative recording practices, investigating the recording and listening capacities of everyday technological devices, as well as their impact on citizens. The first case study is on the streaming service Spotify; its relationship to the privatization of the Internet through intellectual property laws, and how the service uses sonic data as a means to construct identity. The second case study is on Smart Home device Amazon Echo, equipped with a voice assistant named “Alexa.” Devices such as Echo are constantly “on” and listening, gathering sonic data from users through opaque practices. The third case study is on the so-called “Responsive City”—the connected city of the future, according to tech companies involved in urbanism—that gathers data on citizens in their daily lives.

This research treats policy, legal texts such as terms of use, marketing discourses, and discourses in the media and on social media, as ethnographic data. In addition, it uses traditional fieldwork methods such as interviews and participant observation conducted in non-profit organizations, at conferences, and in public spaces, primarily in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. The ethnographic work gathers qualitative data on three main points of view: those of privacy advocates, tech company workers, and “users” of technology. This project seeks to bring competing viewpoints together, thereby resisting current contemporary tendencies towards polarization, and provides relevant analysis of the main constituencies involved in debates about privacy. This project is interdisciplinary in scope and operates at the intersection of ethnomusicology, sound studies, surveillance studies, law, decolonial theory, gender, class, race, computer science, and urbanism.