Sonic Skills: Listening to Machines

This project examines how engineers and mechanics listen to sounds of machines. The two case studies encompass automobile repair and paper production. The project uses archival sources and oral history interviews to unravel the listening practices at the shop floor.

The sounds of paper machines and car engines contain important information on their technical state. Engineers and mechanics listen to these sounds to check the proper working of the machinery – a practice we call monitory listening. Once they notice a significant sound that might indicate a technical fault, engineers and mechanics listen in to diagnose the problem – a practice we call diagnostic listening. The project examines how engineers and mechanics learn and practice these different modes of listening. It further analysis the role listening plays in the self-conception of engineers and mechanics as knowledgeable experts.

(Image source: Robert Bosch GmbH Stuttgart, Unternehmensarchiv)

Similar to medical doctors’ practice of auscultation, the techniques of monitory and diagnostic listening have been questioned as more and more diagnostic technologies were introduced since the 1950s. These new diagnostic instruments promised a faster and more reliable diagnosis of technical problems. However, engineers and mechanics continued to listen to machines: they had embodied their collective listening practices as part of their habitus and the use of diagnostic instruments questioned their professional identity as sonic experts.

Main researcher: Dr. Stefan Krebs