After Speech – What?

One of the most important distinguishing features of the human species is speech, our ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings in the form of spoken and written language.

Of course, many animal species communicate, but human beings use language in a much more sophisticated way. We use it not just to inform, but to deceive; not only to express, but to manipulate. For us, language is woven into the social, political, and economic fabric of our lives in a way that is—as far as we know—unique.

The ability to make sounds—grunts, purrs, yelps, roars—likely goes back millennia, but somewhere along the line, humans evolved to handle more precise and varied sounds, to which we attached meanings. As our dictionary of sounds grew, so did our language, until our brains grew to the point that we no longer had to depend merely on words but on syntax. We could express relations between things and concepts, even if those were abstract. Our language evolved from there (and has gone through many cosmetic changes) but has retained its central significance to human life.

Today, we not only speak, but write and type, not just to our neighbors, but to people all over the world. With a few keystrokes, we can communicate with an audience of millions.

Throughout our history, access to an audience has climbed ever higher; our communications have been capable of reaching more and more people, farther and farther away. However, increased access cuts both ways. As speakers gain access to new audiences, audiences are exposed to more and more speakers, and there inevitably comes a point when the human brain, primarily equipped to deal with a small social network, must tune out some of the voices.

(The phenomenon—sarcastically known as ‘selective hearing’—is well known in long marriages or relationships, in which hearing seems to decline but the ears work just fine. Audiologists, who can measure our ability to hear with great precision, recognize that a lot of their patients have not come in with a hearing problem, but a listening problem!)

The problem with tuning out voices, however, is that we tend to ignore speakers who disagree with us and listen only to the people who echo our own beliefs right back. The result is a seeming, but fictional, consensus, which makes us even more confident in our beliefs: after all, everyone agrees with us! The result is—in part—today’s partisan political climate, in which moderation, compromise, and fact-checking are disdained.

In the past, newspapers and their editors served the purpose of selecting what speech could influence our national discourse. While the editing process was certainly colored by the opinions of individual editors, the load of incoming information was manageable for the average person. Today, that editorial role has been taken on by the consumer, whether directly (by choosing who to follow on Twitter) or indirectly (as when Facebook’s algorithm filters out posts that you are not inclined to read). While we are naturally suspicious of anyone who chooses what information we will have access to, some selectivity is necessary to keep the flow of information balanced, factual, and manageable.

It seems to me that no matter how much further our technology progresses, we have already reached peak communication—that is, our ability to speak has outstripped our ability to listen.

Therefore, the question is simple: where do we go from here? How do we encourage debate and compromise in a society with such dysfunctional communication? How do we crack open the echo chambers of the Internet and let dissenting voices flow in?

If you have any ideas, please let me know. I’ll do my best to listen.


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