image title
ASU students craft a song, with the help of a pair of pet rodents.
"Ratsputin" isn't just a clever name, it's music created by rats and humans.
January 4, 2016

ASU students create music with a pair of rats, and it sounds pretty interesting

The song that filled the room in ASU's Stauffer Hall with psychedelic drones, atmospheric bleeps and ethereal cries wasn’t exactly jazz, or pop.

But, sonically, the composition could have been mistaken for the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” or even a more dissonant take on Bjork’s “Biophilia” album.

It sounded nice, if not interesting.

Which could be surprising considering half of the musical quartet was vermin. And we’re not talking about street punks or rat finks, but actual rodents named Gus and Izo.

The rats, pets of ASU student Andrew Sanchez, were enlisted as part of a musical project called “Ratsputin.” The project was headed up by Sanchez and Jennifer Anderson, digital culture students in Arizona State University’s School of Arts, Media and EngineeringThe School of Arts, Media and Engineering is part of both the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

It’s understandable if you recoiled a bit at the mention of rats making music. The public’s unfavorable perception of these rodents was the driving force behind the project.

“The general public views rodents unfavorably, and even going as far as labeling these animals as a second-class set of species. We wanted to change the perception of that,” Sanchez said. “Rats are as intelligent as any dog or cat and can be easily trained. If they’re out of the cage and they’re nice enough, they will come to me if I call them.”

And in December, they responded to the call to produce sounds for an experimental piece for their Collaborative Projects and Research class, which Sanchez says he stumbled upon by accident.

“It came to me one night when Gus was out of the cage and crawling around on my iPhone. I noticed his hands and feet affected it, and I thought, ‘If Gus’ paws could have an effect on an iPhone, then it could have an effect on an iPad,’ ” Sanchez said. “I figured this would be a worthwhile opportunity.”

So did Sanchez’s mentor, Garth Paine, a professor of sound and interactive media.

“There’s value in interspecies communication, and animals definitely use sound to communicate,” Paine said. “The intention here is not to do a full empirical study because we’re making music with them. It’s more about the interspecies level of communication and what it means to be autonomous agents into the musical world.”

It wasn’t the first time rats and music have been used in an academic setting. In 1998, Francis Rauscher, a cellist turned psychologist, played a CD of Mozart for rats in an experiment she conducted in a University of Wisconsin lab. She suggested the famous composer’s music stimulated specific neuron connections in the abstract reasoning center of the brain, making rats scamper faster and more accurately through a maze. The experiment and a series of others conducted by Rauscher coined the phrase the “Mozart Effect.”

Sanchez and Anderson sifted through mountains of research on interspecies performances but could not find any evidence where rats actively participated in the creation of the music.

“I’m a classically trained musician, so the prospect of doing something like this just seemed wild and fun,” Anderson said. “We knew the rats couldn’t sing or play an instrument, so we had to come up with an idea that made them not only active participants but actual leaders.”

This was achieved by placing four Apple iPads at the bottom of an enclosed wooden crate. The rats crafted sounds by their movements on the tablet, which was then run through a Kaossilator Pro, a palm-sized synthesizer that features a wide array of sound and loop recordings. Once Gus and Izo began to perform — thanks to a decent supply of kale and cucumbers — Sanchez droned on his bass while Anderson filled in spaces of silence with carefully chosen sounds and effects on her synthesizer, adding textures and timbres that complemented and played off their smaller counterparts.

For Anderson, jamming with Gus and Izo was not much different than performing in a classical concert.

“As a violinist I have to watch the conductor to see what the cues are and where I should be in order to follow,” Anderson said. “The same concept sort of applies here. We can have all the structure we want, but it’s really up to Gus and Izo and how playful they feel. They lead the way whether they know it or not.”

No idea if the Gus and Izo are Rolling Stones fans, but they certainly helped these two students achieve total “Ratisfaction.”

The image of the rat Izo at the top of the page was photographed by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 
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Tech changes, but the theory behind social media doesn't, ASU professor says.
Why a master's in social media? ASU prof: "This is where the jobs are."
ASU prof: Understanding future of technology also means understanding its past.
January 5, 2016

In a field where careers are burgeoning, ASU master's program studies the crucial role social technologies play

“Please turn off all mobile devices.”

Is that even possible now?

In two generations, phones have gone from something that hung on the kitchen wall and didn’t get answered if you weren’t home to the polestar of consciousness. Look to your left; look to your right — it doesn’t matter where you are, including the freeway — someone within eyeshot is staring into something glowing.

We run into friends we haven’t seen in 40 years, we shop, learn, complain, fall in love, commit crimes, are recruited by terrorists — and it all happens in the etherworld of cyberspace. Twitter was for morons, pundits proclaimed at its debut. Now tell that to Pope Francis, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, all of whom have made major announcements via the social medium.

“These are technologies that are so much a part of our everyday life,” said Greg Wise, a professor of social and behavioral sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on Arizona State University's West campus. “With these technologies, things don’t go away. People don’t go away. Pictures don’t go away. Information doesn’t go away. It’s easy to find stuff, but that’s a different condition to live in. That history is always there. That’s an opportunity to rediscover people and to be re-found, to have a broader social network than what we would have every day.”

ASU began teaching a new Master’s in Social Technologies degree last fall. Wise, the program director, said it was due.

“It seemed like a good time to do this sort of program that, I think, highlights the roles these technologies play,” he said. “People are always very interested when you say it’s a Master’s in Social Technologies. It’s very resonant today.”

The program, taught by nine faculty members, divides its focus between theoretical and applied work, drawing on social, behavioral, critical, cultural and design perspectives. Courses include Networked Social Technologies; Social Technology; and Community Informatics.

ASU professor Greg Wise sits at a laptop in his office

“These are technologies that
are so much a part of our
everyday life," said ASU
professor Greg Wise.
A master's program in
social technologies
is “very resonant today.”

Photo by Charlie
Leight/ASU Now

One of the program’s goals is to give students a solid theoretical basis, said Alex Halavais, a program faculty member and associate professor of social and behavioral sciences.

“If you talk to people in the field, what they find is people have kind of cobbled stuff together but they don’t have good ideas that can tie together a larger strategy,” Halavais said. “Theory is really important for the research — that’s obvious, it guides what people are interested in — but it also ends up being really important for the applied, too.”

The degree is not about studying Facebook, Halavais said.

“We don’t want it to be dated as soon as they graduate,” he said. “Theory allows it to carry through over changes in technology. We also have a 20-year view of the technology, too. You have to think about not just what technology looks like now, but 20 years from now, and often that means looking back 20 years and saying, ‘What’s the trajectory over a long period of time?’ ”

Lauren Hewell just finished her first semester in the program. She came to the program with a bachelor's in communications.

“As an undergrad I was interested in social psychology and had a small interest into how technology integrates into our communications,” Hewell said. “A lot of our interpersonal communication is mediated by mobile devices. You can’t ignore that anymore.”

Hewell wants to work in content creation. “I’d like do some kind of social media management for an online platform,” she said.

Currently she works part time at an Apple store.

 “It’s been fun to apply what I’m learning to my job and vice versa,” she said.

A woman smiles while standing outside“A lot of our interpersonal communication is mediated by mobile devices. You can’t ignore that anymore,” said Lauren Hewell, a student in the Social Technologies program. This and top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

 

Not only is social media not a fad, it has gone from pastime to profession. According to LinkedIn, job postings for social media opportunities jumped 1,357 percent between 2010 and 2013. More than 5 million professionals have endorsements for social media on the same source.

Careers in social media are burgeoning: Internet marketing director, digital strategist, content marketing manager, online community manager, social media manager. In mid-December there were more than 31,000 social media jobs open nationwide. Postings included social media and content strategist at a midsize, high-tech public relations agency in Silicon Valley; social media strategist at a digital ad agency in Los Angeles; and social media correspondent for a public relations agency in New York.

Clint Post came into the program with a bachelor’s degree in human communications. Currently he runs social media platforms for two Valley health-care companies.

“I do enjoy this kind of work, but I see myself more as organizing a company around this work or the management and training of such employees,” Post said. “I don’t see myself being in one area. … I don’t have a set career in mind.”

Facebook and Twitter might or might not be around forever, but the need to communicate is here to stay, Post said.

“My end goal is to be involved with what’s coming out and how it shapes and changes societies,” he said.

For those who say all this is entirely new, they’re forgetting the history of how people interact with technologies, Halavais said. Things don’t get invented and immediately adopted. Cars went from being a rich man’s toy to ruling our lives. Adoption takes social changes and cultural changes, as well as other factors.

“It’s not just enough to know what the state-of-the-art is and the tech,” he said. “You have to know how that relates to people’s expectations around technology, the culture around technology, and the policy and social structures. … We can look at it in hindsight and say that’s how it played out in the past, and that’s probably going to be a model for how we can look at new technology.”

Technologies change all the time, Wise said.

“It’s this program, it’s that program, it’s going to be another program in another couple of years, but if you understand the principles and what they’ve been doing, it’s easier to manage that,” he said.

Ridiculing the degree as a master’s in Facebook is shortsighted, Halavais said.

“The easy response is: This is where the jobs are,” he said. “If you want to be working in technology, social media is all media, and it is all technology right now. There’s nothing frivolous about Google. There’s nothing frivolous about Facebook, either. This is where the business is, and it’s a large part of how we interact socially. It’s how our political system works, it’s how we interact with other people, and it’s a large part of how businesses connect with their customers. …

“I sometimes describe myself as a Facebook professor just for the laugh, but it’s really hard for me to understand how anyone could see this as frivolous. … On the contrary, I can’t imagine something that would be more central to social and business life right now.”