The modern digital world is visually immersive. We are drawn towards image-saturated platforms like Instagram and Facebook like moths to a lamppost compared to platforms focusing on text expression, such as Twitter. But like moths, we mistake the artificial luminescent glow of the street-light for the moon, the real source of light.
The fad emergence of Clubhouse put the primacy of voice to the forefront, even if for a brief period. Now the established platforms are developing their own superior versions of what Clubhouse had to offer.
Voice is making a comeback. Initially the fixation of social media was to the massive sensory experience of timelines and reeling ads, enhanced in recent times with stories or fleets (or whatever simulated version of the original Vine platform), but this led to a dysregulated state of attention. A narrow focus is what enhances the flow state for both the listener and the speaker. Essentially, less is more.
A recent study discovered this. Often, a study is as an example of an established point that someone already knew to prove a point that they have already made. This study on the other hand, suggested points that went against the proposed hypothesis. The findings in fact, align with the current resurgence of voice as the primary force of interaction.
Synchrony occurs when two non-verbal forms of communication align. This is the flow of reciprocity during a conversation where two people naturally take conversational turns based on social cues. Synchrony promotes “collective intelligence”, which is what the study measured. Two groups were compared. One that used video for facial expression synchrony and the other that used audio for prosodic (the patterns of stress and intonation) synchrony.
As it turns out, video chats made groups *less* intelligent compared to the groups that used only voice in their conferences. We have seen an exponential increase in video chat use since the events of last year. Everything is a video chat, from world-renowned conferences to kid’s parties. Different contexts cater to different results, but when it comes to matters of collective intelligence or achieving synchrony for a topic, video becomes a distraction.
Scrolling has become a default state, especially since the lockdowns. Most of us spend a significant amount of time scrolling between timelines and feeds on three or more different apps, each with a unique flavor of sensory input. This is the lens of the new world. It is becoming increasingly difficult to remember what the world was like before we thought in likes and clips. Before our ambition was to watch or share. Now it is to simply live.
This study reminds us of what we have all but forgotten. Listening to someone’s voice gives us everything we need to learn. A narrow focus on listening enhances comprehension by reducing input from the other senses, especially seeing & reading, and reinforces the cognitive resources for auditory retention. When we had phones that were phones, we would tune out the world so we could hear better. We became familiar with the unique rhythm and prosody of person’s voice. How their intonation encapsulated their feelings, the joy the sorrow the anger the intent. We used to be able to listen for it. That sense has been drowned out with images and text.
We are inadvertently trying to regain the innate, primal sense of stopping and listening to hear the rustling leaves to determine how big and how far away the hunt is… or is it us being hunted?
No Imagination In Sight
The way we used to sit around the fire, with only the pale light of the moon and the glow of the flames dancing on the elder’s face as they told the tales of the ancients and the gods of old. How they spoke to us and we felt it in our being. We barely saw their eyes, but we heard their voice and felt it reverberate in our souls. It guided us up and down the staircase of the stories that told our history. We listened as it was imprinted into our DNA, so that we can pass it along with our genes, when it was our turn to tell the story. All we had was our memory, etched in the echoes of their words.
The emphasis was on listening because that is where the information was. We learned to listen before we learned to read and write, after all, letters represent sounds. Modernity has changed that and put the emphasis on different modalities. The digital world emphasizes seeing and reading but our ancient senses are rooted in speaking and listening to learn and remember the stories of our culture.
We need to listen because the voice encapsulates the character. The voice reveals what text attempts to hide. There is an intimacy in a conversation that is lost in text. The voice occurs in real time, it is in the moment, it is closer to a flow because you both can’t speak at the same time. You are sharing a moment because you are talking and listening, it requires your focus and attention because it is ephemeral.
Contrary to what we would assume, the video aspect doesn’t enhance our comprehension because it isn’t natural, it becomes a distraction. The added layer of technology has an inverse effect because it inundates us with too much information to process. Latency issues, the filtered lens, the pixelated features, they create subtle distractions that pull us away from the essential details. It makes it more difficult to register the prosodic and non-verbal features that create the flow of a conversation—this reduces our collective intelligence compared to when we are only given auditory information to process.
The way grandpa sat and listened to AM radio for hours explains the explosion of podcasts. People want to hear a voice. When we can listen without watching or being seen, we are freer to move. We can put everything into listening. Can you remember what that was like? To fully listen to something. It is a transporting experience to focus solely on what you hear. What happens to your other senses when you are listening? I invite you to explore that experience. Silence is a virtue because it allows you to hear, and it allows others to hear you.
As technology improves, perhaps we will find more intimate ways of communicating that enhance our perception instead of distracting us. I am optimistic at both the potential for new avenues of communication and the emphasis on the ancient modalities that our world evolved from.