This event has now finished.
  • Date and time: Wednesday 12 October 2022, 4.30pm to 5.30pm
  • Location: In-person and online
    Room LMB/036X, Law and Sociology Building, Campus East, University of York (Map)
  • Audience: Open to alumni, staff, students, the public
  • Admission: Free admission, booking not required

Event details

York Sociology Seminar Series

Stories influence our perception of the world; they stretch our imaginations and cause us to question the future. Stories about science and technology play a particular role in the public understanding of science and innovation. Often stories of science fiction tend toward polarised views, perhaps the subject of hype, their role is often to grab our attention or to induce fear and wonder. But what of the role of documentary in science communication? Is a documentary about science something we should simply take as ‘fact’? What factors influence an audience’s perception of technology when they watch (or listen to) content in which current trends in AI, for instance, are documented? This seminar looks at the sound design of documentary about AI. Using a corpus of documentary films alongside expert interviews with sound designers, we examine approaches to the sonic framing of narratives about Artificial Intelligence (AI).

When sound is used in storytelling, it is chosen for the resonances and emotional overtones that it brings to the topic - framing a story with fear, sadness or joy (Brown & Volgsten, 2005). In screen media, this power is used liberally to create the pace and the framing of narratives; e.g., the two notes and rising tempo which has impacted society’s perception of sharks (Nosel et al, 2018).

When paired with factual content, like documentaries, music has the power to make the audience take sides on a narrative that is notionally objective. Exploring sonic narratives is especially pertinent for new technologies like AI, where our initial introduction is shaped by the narratives presented in science fiction or media-driven hype. Hype, some argue, is an inevitable condition of innovation, but while the future with AI is so clearly shaped by stories told about AI, the music chosen may also “obscure public views of the future” (Milne, 2020). The effect of background sound for documentaries has been largely overlooked in research (Rogers, 2015). Studies which do exist differ on the degree to which background music affects perception of the topic (Nosal, 2016; Herget & Albrecht, 2022).

We argue that when music is used to ‘frame’ how we wish a piece of storytelling to be perceived, attention and scrutiny should be paid to the resonances and emotional overtones it brings. Without responsibly telling stories about AI, we are stuck with dominant emotional reactions of fear (‘scary robots') or hope (utopia and myopic bright siding) about a future with AI (Cave et al, 2019) which may never come.

Snacks and drink will be provided based on Bring Your Own Cup policy.

Join the conversation online



James Cummings