John Colapinto is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is This Is the Voice.
Although you probably haven’t given it much thought, you are absorbing more news, culture, politics and entertainment through the medium of the human voice (in isolation from any visual broadcast image) than ever before. The reason for this unprecedented boom in vocal culture is the smartphone or tablet that most of us carry wherever we go, along with the handy headphones that envelop us in those devices’ cocoon of intimate, up-close digitized sound. But despite the high-fidelity stereo on offer, you have been treating your iPhone and Android not like a superelaborate version of the old Sony Walkman, or the still-earlier transistor radio (with its one, lonesome, hearing-aid-like earbud). We used those portable sound machines mostly for music delivery. To be sure, you sometimes use your iPhone to fire up a few tunes from your Spotify playlist, but the numbers show that what you – and everyone else – tune into, in numbers not seen before in the history of broadcasting, are marathons of talk, in the form of three-hour podcasts and 12-hour audiobooks.
The stats say it all. Pioneered in the early aughts, podcasts became a genuine viral phenomenon with the rise in popularity of the smartphone coupled with the 2014 premiere of Serial, a true crime murder-mystery podcast by the makers of This American Life. The popularity of Serial (by 2017, episodes from the first two seasons had been downloaded 250 million times) spurred the gold rush. Today, there are more than 1,750,000 individual podcasts worldwide, and 43 million episodes. More than half of all people over the age of 12 in the United States are podcast devotees, and they drive an industry that surged, in ad revenue, to almost US$1-billion last year.
Meanwhile, the audiobook has also exploded in popularity. Although it was around, in one form or another, for most of the 20th century, the recorded book was a decidedly fringe phenomenon, delivered via stacks of dusty, clattery cassette tapes or scratched vinyl. Digital downloads and streaming changed all that. Audiobooks are now a US$1.3-billion industry in the U.S., with average sales increasing 13.3 per cent a year, every year since 2016. Sales jumped 17.3 per cent last year, netting publishers some US$553.6-million. The novel (and memoir and biography) is not dead. At least, in its spoken version.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. Less than a decade ago, prognosticators about the “wonders” of the digital revolution predicted a future in which the smartphone was tantamount to the squeaky old wheel – the Ur-invention from which the true wonders would soon arise, chief among them the “virtual reality” headset. This device was meant to usher in a brave new world where movies, TV, books – reality itself – would become essentially obsolete, boring, replaced by a stereopticon of flashing computer-generated imagery and surround sound, a simulacrum of existence, our own reality bubble geared mostly to sensation-driven entertainment. The makers of thrill-ride superhero movies and first-person-shooter computer games (to say nothing of the purveyors of pornography) were over the moon. So was Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg who, in 2014, paid a stunning US$2-billion to acquire a nascent VR-headset startup, Oculus VR. Oculus proved to be a massive flop, like every other VR headset, and today, Mr. Zuckerberg, and all the other VR true believers, are having to contend with the awkward (and remarkable) fact that the most momentous outcome of the “Digital Renaissance” has been … the rebirth of radio. Or to be exact, radio’s more targeted, purpose-built offspring: podcasts and audiobooks. In short, the oral tradition. The one Homer was into, back in the 8th century BCE.
I got in on the ground floor of all this back in 2000 when, on the occasion of my first book’s publication, I was invited to participate in a quaint-sounding event in downtown Manhattan run by an organization calling itself The Moth. They wanted me to come and “tell a story,” and they assured me that there would be a decent crowd. And to my surprise there was; easily a hundred people, maybe more, crammed the small bar. The crowds have gotten bigger since. The Moth storytelling events have spread around the world, in venues that hold thousands, and according to The Moth’s website their podcast (featuring nothing but single voices telling stories) is downloaded more than 50 million times a year, while their Moth Radio Hour is broadcast on more than 500 hundred radio stations across the planet. This human voice thing is big!
One pleasant offshoot of all this is that it puts the lie to an idea that has been floating around pseudo-science for some time now: that our species’ cognitive apparatus has been refashioned by electronic mass media, fast-edited movies and TV shows, and now clickbait YouTube videos and TikToks – entertainments that have reduced our attention spans to the point where it is impossible for us to follow the spoken arguments in, say, president John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech or the complex disputation in Abraham Lincoln’s historic 1858 debates with senator Stephen A. Douglas, vocal showdowns that were a minimum of three hours long each – and people were riveted! Today’s campaign debates feature candidates who “discuss” the most momentous issues of the day in rapid-fire one- or two-minute verbal sprints – which TV networks tacitly justify with our supposed decline in attention. Except that it is not true. If we were suffering some kind of species-wide ADHD that forbade listening to sentences longer than a tweet-ready sound bite, there would not be the current frenzy for downloading three-hour-long podcasts by Joe Rogan and Sam Harris – or the 153-hour-long audiobook version of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
There is, moreover, evidence to suggest that taking in long, complex stories and ideas via the ear is a more efficient and effective way to absorb new information than reading. I learned this some years ago when, as a journalist, I had to master an interview subject’s massive literary oeuvre in a very short time and realized that, to do it, I would have to use every available moment of the day – including those when traditional reading was impossible (jogging; grocery shopping; doing dishes). I “resorted” to the audiobook, which, up to that time, I had shunned. To my surprise, I learned that it was a better, and even more pleasurable, way to absorb written material than silent reading. I’m now an addict. The best audiobook narrators make prose come alive in ways that my own inner voice and ear often cannot match. I also discovered (counterintuitively) that listening to a book aids my comprehension and retention. Amazed by this, I e-mailed a leading neuroscientist, V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. I asked if he had any insight into why audiobooks are more effective as prose-delivery devices than reading. He pointed out that our language comprehension and production evolved in connection with our hearing, around 150,000 years ago. Writing is only 5,000 to 7,000 years old – “partially going piggyback on the same circuits,” he wrote. “So it’s possible LISTENING to speech (including such things as cadence, rhythm, and intonation) is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centres – hence more evocative and natural.”
But I’m not sure that even neuroscience, or the ubiquity of the smartphone, can fully explain our current fascination with the sound of human voices speaking intimately into our ear, either singly or in conversation. I believe that the current flourishing of the oral tradition also has to do with the uniquely destabilizing and frightening times we have been living through; specifically, the rise of authoritarian populism that gave us, first, the Brexit vote in Britain, then the election of what I can finally refer to as ex-president Donald Trump. Earlier existential shocks delivered in this century – I’m thinking primarily of the attacks of 9/11 – put us on high alert for breaking news, for any further signs of new violence (if you see something, say something!). But the calamity of Brexit and Mr. Trump (and the erosion of democracy in countries around the world) are self-inflicted wounds, slower to unfold their lethality, and they trigger more introspective questions concerning who we are, what we believe, what we have become and how best to govern ourselves. In short, philosophy – a purely verbal discipline, one that uses language, speech, to wrestle with the most fundamental questions of our existence.
And while it might seem like a stretch to call Mr. Rogan a philosopher (given the amount of podcast time he devotes to musings on mixed martial arts), his extended verbal grappling with guests (from Elon Musk to Edward Snowden to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and fellow podcaster, and neuroscientist, Mr. Harris) are, in fact, in the grand tradition of the man who gave birth to western philosophy: Socrates. And like Mr. Rogan, Socrates practised his craft purely in the spoken realm, wandering the streets of ancient Athens and engaging citizens, famous and non-, in discussions about the meaning of life, the direction of the republic, the fate of humanity and the meaning of democracy. Socrates never wrote down a single word. (His student, Plato, did that, after Socrates’ death.) Philosophy as we know it was born purely from the entanglement of actual human voices confronting the most important ideas of the day in spontaneous conversation – giving birth to new ideas that then went out, virally, into the city, to be picked up by other voices, which passed them along. Through this ever-rolling conversational dialectic, Socrates shaped the collective mind and heart of Athenian society – and every Western society that has come after, including our own. In listening with such attention and singular focus to the voices crowded close to our ears, in podcasts and audiobooks and old-fashioned talk radio formats, we are seeking, in a time of doubt and confusion, to do what Socrates urged every human being to do, through the act of philosophical conversation: to know ourselves.
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