Silence is Golden: A Short History of Talking

Amazon zoomed past expectations in sales and profit during the last holiday season, but one spot was especially bright for the retailer. Amazon said it sold “tens of millions” of Echo devices, the company’s voice-activated digital assistants. “Our 2017 projections for Alexa were optimistic, and we far exceeded them,” said Chief Executive Jeff Bezos. “We don’t see positive surprises of this magnitude very often. Expect us to double down.”

Since then, Bezos used a voice command to open Amazon’s life-sized terrarium in downtown Seattle and Bezos starred in a Super Bowl commercial promoting Alexa’s irreplaceable voice. Bezos is describing a voice-activated future and he’s not being quiet about it. He may not know how much history he is trying to reverse.

The voice, before it became a reality television singing competition, was for millennia — not Millennials — the primary mode of human communication. Think of our voices as social media before there was such a term. But for the last few centuries, the trends have been toward “Shhh.”

Reading joined talking about 5000 years ago, but they were done together. As recently as 1700, it was generally considered rude to be reading silently when others were in the room. Since others in the room were probably not literate themselves, they could benefit from hearing the texts being read.

In the late 1700s, parents worried about moral decay if they allowed their daughters to read alone in their beds at night. If that sounds a little bit like children sleeping with their smartphones, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1900, more American homes had pianos than toilets. Gathering to play and sing music was the most popular form of family entertainment. Then along came the Victrola — the phonograph. Its original name in 1901 was The Victor Talking Machine — presumably because Jeff Bezos had already trademarked “Alexa.”

Once families had a machine that talked, humans sat around and listened. Radio and television asked even less of humans, ignoring their voices. Telephones produced a quick resurgence in the value of the human voice, but that didn’t last long.

Businesses started using email strings to reduce the necessity of meetings. Why corral all the relevant talent into a single room to talk about a situation when each participant could contribute to the faux-conversation, using reply-all? Reply-all didn’t end loneliness. It caused it. Offices became quieter, like classrooms filled with well-behaved children.

Computers increased worker productivity in the 1990s, but not only in the ways you’ve been told. That was the decade that we all learned to type. Even senior business leaders got comfortable with QWERTY — mostly to exchange niceties with their AOL-savvy grandchildren. Stenography was no longer necessary. Secretary pools dried up.

The FAX machine reminded us how annoying machine sounds could be, but only until the Internet replaced it. Speaking of annoying sounds, people spoke too loudly into their first mobile phones because the phones’ designers skimped. They abandoned simplex wiring.

Landline telephones always had an extra wire that took the sound from the bottom half of the phone and played it in the top half. You could always hear yourself speaking into your phone. Cell phones didn’t pipe the speaker’s voice back into the receiver, so people spoke louder to compensate. They pressed the phone instinctively to their ear when they couldn’t hear themselves, causing them to speak even louder.

But technology then marched on and gave us tiny keyboards on our phones, making the world quieter, if not better. People especially love texting from conference rooms or lecture halls. It gives them something to do while others are talking. If we’re lazy or driving — but only when we’re alone — we might speak into our phone and ask its wizardry to turn what we said into text to be sent to a friend. They may then ask their phone — or Alexa — to read that text aloud.

We seem to prefer computer voices over human ones. Much has been written — less has been spoken — about how our smart devices are making us stupid. It sounds like they may also be making us dumb.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs from a place where no one can hear him scream.