Lost Sounds Imagining Digital Inequity in North Carolina as a Sonic Landscape

COVID-19 and a widening divide

As COVID-19 forced millions out of physical workspaces, schools, and libraries, convenient and stable Internet access became increasingly essential as a conduit for continued employment, learning, and information retrieval. But broadband’s heightened importance brought—or, in many cases, restated and emphasized—sobering lessons, especially as they pertain to questions of equitable availability and adoption. Even before the advent of COVID-19, survey data from the Pew Research Center illustrated substantial imbalances in home broadband connections between white (79%) and black (66%) populations across the United States. And similar trends emerge at the state level: 2019 data from the North Carolina OneMap Broadband Adoption Index reveals a disconcerting relationship between relatively high per-county percentages of black residents and lower broadband adoption scores. For instance, Bertie and Hertford counties—which as of 2019 had the first- and second-highest population percentages of black residents at 61.2% and 61%, respectively—each scored below 30 points on the adoption index at 22.2 and 28.7 (for scale, the highest-scoring county, Wake, sits at 70.3). Yet when we measure these counties against others with lower percentages of black residents, such as Alamance (20.6%), we see a notable climb in broadband adoption score: from below 30 to 46.2.

In this sense, broadband adoption—as opposed to availability—scores prove especially insightful on account of the various metrics they incorporate. While variables such as a county's highest available broadband speed certainly merit a place in the larger conversation, the ratings on the broadband adoption index derive from important demographic data that shed light on who ultimately receives access, including the percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree, limited skills in English, and those living in poverty. To demonstrate how the index synthesizes these scores, consider our previous example of Bertie county, whose rating of 22.2 sits among the the five lowest in North Carolina: here 23.2% of the population live in poverty, 13.6% hold a bachelor's degree, and 37% have no home internet access at all. Alamance, on the other hand, improves on each of these scores at 16.1%, 24.8%, and 18.6%, respectively.

As mentioned, COVID-19 brought these imbalances into stark relief; through repeated lockdowns and public safety restrictions, those with stable and fast broadband access could more reliably work, attend school, purchase groceries and other essentials, and connect to healthcare services from home, whereas those without such access faced greater difficulty and risk in completing the same vital tasks. And although we may finally be approaching widespread vaccination and, hopefully, the waning days of COVID-19, inequities in digital access and literacy will nonetheless prevail as powerful influencers of educational, professional, health, and social outcomes. The pandemic gave these issues unprecedented visibility and volume, and going forward we cannot allow them to fade into inconspicuousness. The artifact described below was made and operates very much in this spirit: to serve as a persistent reminder of the disruption, isolation, and frustration of limited access and connectivity.

A sonic landscape: ideation

When considering the different forms my artifact might take, I found myself lingering on the idea of signals, of unseen information streams channeling between towns and cities across the country, lighting our screens with news reports and cat videos and conference calls. I dwelled on the intangibility of these signals, and how they share this characteristic with sound waves—another vital conveyor of information, and one capable of moving us with profound emotional, visceral, and intellectual effect. With this in mind, I settled on sound—or, more specifically, music—as an effective representative of broadband signal. I imagined this signal coursing across the state, from county to county, intermittently humming and hiccuping, gliding and stumbling, as it passed between places with and without access, that could or could not make out the sound.

Components: the main signal

Indeed, such contrast—between clear and garbled, heard and not heard—sat at the center of what I hoped this artifact would embody. But before deciding how to represent gradients of high and low access, I thought it more prudent to first create the signal these gradients would affect. In other words, I sought a foundational and constant sound that would serve as a representative of broadband signal itself. Given the electronic nature of this signal, I felt the textures generated by synthesizers and other modeled, programmable instruments would prove especially relevant as central voices. With this decided, I programmed a synthesizer in Ableton Live to create a repetitive, largely unobtrusive loop—something intentionally forgettable, much like real broadband signal. Until, of course, it is disrupted.

Components: population and major city markers

In the base signal, I allotted three seconds to each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, organized in alphabetical order. On top of the foundational sound, however, I wanted to add voices that would distinguish counties above certain percentages of black residents. For this purpose I created sonic markers that would play over counties with black population percentages above 20% or 40%. Additionally, I felt that counties containing one of the state’s ten largest cities should also receive some differentiation, one that nodded to their louder, more bustling nature. To render this quality, I created a short 808 kick drum loop that would punch through the otherwise gentle aural fabric.

Rendering disruption: the gate and custom automation

With all of the foundational components synthesized, I could at last address how I might represent the disruption of broadband and all its accompanying benefits faced by communities of color. Of all the audio resources available to me, I decided that using a signal gate would prove appropriate both from a thematic and functional standpoint. In audio engineering, gates can be programmed to block signals below a specified volume threshold (measured in decibels). To achieve an effect that mirrored the broadband adoption data, I would need not one but many thresholds—one for each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. For the decibel values I used each county’s individual broadband adoption score, assigned to change over three-second intervals as the ‘song’ passed from county to county.

The result: a song pocked with holes and silence

My hope is that, as you move through the artifact’s total duration, you find yourself intermittently immersed in a soft and rich soundscape and jarred, irked, or even confused by sudden pockets of silence and disruption. For such an experience might not only represent the shifting state of broadband signal as it passes through our imbalanced infrastructure, but also the way we experience it: in hypnotic, repetitive cycles of consumption, interrupted here and there by disconcerting news or disconnection, only to be washed away into memory as we reconnect, as we start the cycle anew.

Created By
Benjamin Newgard