David Abramovic

@davidbekic

How Audio Could Bring Us the New Einstein

Art by Emma Darwick

Audio has been a hot topic for a few years now. With the rise of voice assistants, audiobooks and podcasts, it seems like everyone is talking about the significance of audio.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really start thinking about this alleged importance, until my friend told me exactly this:

For the first time in history, the spoken word has the same reach and arguably as much power as the written word.

I’m not sure I fully understood what she meant, but something about that sentence hit me with the rare and deeply cherishing feeling that I had just heard a whole book’s wisdom eloquently compressed into one sentence.

Investigating my friend’s statement further, not only did I discover that she probably was right, but also just how important the consequences might prove to be.

For most people, speech is the easiest and most obvious way to communicate. It’s fast, direct and has plenty of room for nuance with the help of intonation, enunciation, tempo and loudness. But for virtually all of history, the spoken word hasn’t been scalable at all, limited to the communication taking place between you and the people in your close physical vicinity.

However, when we first started using language about 50 000 years ago, that wasn’t too much of a problem. Our societies rarely consisted of more than thirty, fairly primitive hunter-gatherers, spending most of the day trying to find food to survive.

Then, roughly 11 000 years ago, came perhaps the biggest innovation of all time. An innovation of such significance that it could be held as the main catalyst for all the professions there are and will ever be; agriculture.

New solutions, new problems

Agriculture meant that we could suddenly stay in one geographical area and actually have a surplus of food. We no longer had to spend all of our time moving around our community in search of new resources to exploit, leading to the establishment of cities, new professions, and much, much larger societies.

Now, every solution breeds new problems. We humans really aren’t made for living with strangers. The emergence of cities meant that all the different tribes that had their own separate political and social backgrounds were brought together, and so we had to find a way to unify with more people than just our own family.

This eventually lead to the birth of states: Organized communities in which people live under one single political structure. The state coupled with common religions resulted in strangers being able to function surprisingly well together.

So how did we manage to keep large communities together with the limited communications system that is our mouth? We didn’t.

The written word

Before the emergence of states, we had another essential innovation; writing. Writing expanded the possibilities of communication in what must have seemed like wizardry ways to ancient humans. Just the idea of storing information on a physical object, which could reach more than ten people and be utilized over a long period of time must have seemed like the most outrageous idea, but it was becoming reality.

Initially, the invention was reserved for highly educated elites such as scribes and priests, but it still solved the issue of enforcing laws, keeping track of exchanges, having a consistent religion, and other problems that came with larger societies. Writing turned information in to tangible form that didn’t get lost in translation.

The printing press

As with many groundbreaking technologies, writing became cheaper and more available as time passed by, mostly because of the German entrepreneur and goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg. In roughly 1440, Gutenberg invented a printing press that radically sped up the pace of copying books, and soon after, ideas were coming from everywhere and could reach almost everyone.

This was a huge deal. By the end of the 16th century, printed books had gone from a couple of thousand copies, to 200 000 copies. This was an enormous step for the democratization of knowledge. Books were less and less an object of exclusivity, and more and more a common good. Soon after, the rise of the newspaper unfolded and gave a whole new way of conveying up-to-date news and information to the masses.

Impact

The printing press would also prove to be a crucial step for the Scientific Revolution. Scientists were now provided the means for easily sharing their research through scholarly journals that were distributed all throughout Europe. Also, the words of a book stayed the same, unlike before, when due to the complicated copying procedures, the same work could differ between copies in London and Rome.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Gutenberg’s printing press. Claiming it to be the catalyst for the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the Technological Revolution, and wherever we’re at right now, really isn’t that farfetched.

The comeback of the spoken word

As centuries went by, the written word refined itself and grew in importance. Literacy became a crucial skill for functioning in society, and libraries all over the world made sure people had free access to information.

Nonetheless, there were still problems to be solved. For example:

  • How do you send information quickly across long distances?
  • How do you spread important news to people as fast as possible?

Those were some of the questions not yet answered.

Telecommunication

At the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, people were starting to work on these problems. Telecommunication, a field previously associated with pigeon post, was starting to become seriously high tech. Through wires and electrical signals, we learnt how to successfully use electrical telegraphs to trade information across thousands and thousands of miles, within an hour.

Soon after, the telephone was invented, and we could actually talk to people at any distance, in real time, using our own voice.

With the later inventions of radio and television allowing broadcasting, our trusty old friend was properly starting to make her presence known, the spoken word. Broadcasting allowed us to utilize speech to communicate with the masses, like a faster and more direct newspaper.

With time, broadcasting improved, expanded and became a vital part of our lives. Almost everyone had either a radio or a TV, often both. We would learn important information from the radio while driving to work and watch live news when we came home. Still, the written word had features that the spoken word couldn’t compete with:

  1. More people had the opportunity to write. There were more journalists and authors than there were public broadcasters, largely due to there not being too many TV or radio stations.
  2. Books had more room for depth. Books were much better at diving deep in to subjects and exploring different perspectives and narratives, while broadcasting largely consisted of entertainment and news.

So what stood in the way? Why couldn’t the spoken word achieve these features as well? The spoken word simply hadn’t invented the audio version of Gutenberg’s printing press yet.

The Internet

When the internet emerged in the 90’s and then solidified in the 00’s, the written word gained even more power. Now, anyone with a computer, either on their desk or in their pocket, had the potential to reach almost everyone in the world through blogs, social media and digital magazines.

The barriers to entry for sharing ideas through writing were radically reduced, and with companies like Quora and Medium emerging in recent years, the state of the written word has probably never been healthier.

The printing press of audio

As Moore’s law further manifested itself with the increase of computing power and allowed more demanding operations, audio and video started popping up more and more. Consequently, in 2005, a new website was created that changed the way we’ve consumed the internet ever since; Youtube.

Youtube provided users with a free and seamless way of uploading videos on its website, and very importantly, it also provided an audience. A year after its founding, the video streaming service was generating 100 million video views per day. Something about the medium connected with people in a very unique way. Youtube was like television, but with an unlimited selection, more direct connection with creators, and non-existent budget requirements.

The opportunity to speak to the masses through the spoken word went from being reserved entirely for professional broadcasters, to being opened up for almost everyone. Awfully similar to the effects of a certain German goldsmith’s printing press from the 1400’s, isn’t it?

Not quite there yet…

Even still, after all this competitiveness from the spoken word, the written word was the slam dunk champion for long formats and in-depth exploration of ideas. Books were still the place where an author could take any time in the world to lay out their thoughts. And even though the spoken word now had no significant technical limitations, Youtube was mainly a place for short entertainment videos such as music videos, comedy sketches, gaming and video blogs.

Podcasts

In 2003, former New York Times journalist Chris Lydon uploaded a broadcasting show on his website that by many would be considered one of the first ever podcasts. It was basically a radio show, but without the constraints of radio. There was no need for distribution through a channel, no censoring, and it was uploaded instantly through the internet for people to listen to for free.

Like Youtube, podcasts allowed for content free from music breaks and broadcast directors heavily depending on ratings. All over the world, people were uploading content with no barriers to entry, and the audience had the freedom to listen to whatever they liked.

Like the most violent of Icelandic volcanos, podcasting has massively erupted in the last few years, and the eruption isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Between 2017 and 2018, Apple Podcasts went from 17 billion to 50 billion total downloads and streams. So what did podcasts do that Youtube already didn’t?

It turns out, people are actually very interested in three-hour-long conversations with marine biologists, mathematicians and authors.

Firstly, a medium that only requires your ear’s attention can fill up found time like no other medium can. Think of the dull moments of the day a podcast can satisfy that a video couldn’t; commuting, dish washing, walking, etc. For a lot of people, this utilizes 2 hours a day for usefulness or entertainment.

But most importantly, for whatever reason, podcasting has truly conquered the long format. It has become the platform for the spoken word to fully explore concepts and ideas. It turns out, people are actually very interested in three-hour-long conversations with marine biologists, mathematicians and authors.

With the spoken word finally achieving the latter characteristic, there’s really no question that it has become a true rival to the written word.

Result

Now that I’ve made the case that the internet has had virtually the same effect for speech as Gutenberg’s printing press had for writing, why does it matter?

Well, Gutenberg’s printing press demonstrated something very important: As the route to knowledge becomes more accessible, ideas are shared, listened to, and executed, and the audio revolution has without a doubt made the route to knowledge more accessible as well.

The printing press gave scientists and philosophers a tool that proved essential to their work, and it lead to the solutions and scientific breakthroughs that we use today. Does this mean we can expect new ideas from philosophers and scientists to the same extent as we did from Gutenberg’s printing press?

The devil is in the detail. How many people prefer talking over writing? How many prefer listening over reading? What specific areas benefit more from speech than from writing? We don’t know yet, but the answers will reveal the impact.

Dream scenario

Of course, it could prove that this new technological trend doesn’t benefit as many people as we might wish for. Podcasting definitely runs the risk of becoming as limited and censored as any other medium as it becomes further institutionalized and audio shows are further distributed along the Pareto principle.

One thing that is for certain however, is that we have a new tool, and new tools allow for new ways of doing things. In a dream scenario, people that have a problem with reading and writing will finally have a different means of expression and learning, leading to more minds being utilized to their full potential.

As the problems in our world grow more sophisticated, getting hold of as much brainpower as we possibly can might not be too bad of a mission to strive towards, and audio may help us accomplish that mission.

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