Enchanted by Speech, by Melanie Chan

Archives

Sono volunteered to catalogue the Terran archives because she was fascinated with history. Using her datex she accessed Earth archives. Ploughing through the archives, she learned that speaking was considered dangerous after the onset of a pandemic. Exchanging air, breath and sounds with others transmitted a hyper infectious virus, so talking became hazardous. It wasn’t only face-to-face speech that had changed, people also avoided touching others and surfaces to avoid transmitting the virus. The archives revealed that when a vaccine for the virus provided elusive people started to rely on techno-mediated communication using pix which combined images, sounds, synthetic voices and even haptics.

Pandemic

Sono decided to send a pix to her grandmother Gwyn to find out more about the pandemic. Gwyn replied that in the aftermath of the pandemic people forgot how to speak and even synth voices were considered a quaint reminder from the past. Gwyn had lived on Earth and remembered speaking. She explained to Sono that each person had a unique way of speaking. It was even possible to identify someone by their voice. Gwyn’s pix showed how various human languages were formed by associating symbols and sounds to create meaning. Other footage revealed that human bodies had started to adapt to non-verbal forms of communicating – the Broca area of the brain had shriveled and jaws and tongues slackened due to lack of use.

Culling speech

Gwyn went on to explain that Terra Two offered a chance for humanity to escape from the virus. When Terra Two began to be populated in 2025 strict quarantine measures were put into place to prevent the interplanetary spread of the virus. As a second generation Terran, born in 2075, Sono had never spoken. As an infant she had learned how to use a datex to create, send and respond to pix. Sono had only known the Terran alphabet as a code or pattern of written letters so she found the idea of speech thrilling.  Sono dug deeper and located an article about the culling of words about speech in dictionaries.  Words relating to speech such as oratory, talking and sermon were deleted from dictionaries because no-one had first-hand experience of them. 

Sono knew about government plans to change the language used on Terra Two. The Digix system would abolish human language and create a new system of communication in line with digital technologies. When the Digix system came into force everything would be described by binary code. Terrans would be assigned a number and personal names would be defunct. According to a government edict Digix would roll out within a year, producing a seamless planetary network.  The government promoted Digix as a move towards rationality, a way of standardizing meaning. Digix would break with the irrationality and ambiguity of human language.

Sono was perturbed by Digix. What might be lost when the new system was in place, she wondered. Over the last few months, her archival research had piqued her curiosity about speech. She decided to experiment and find out what speaking felt like. Calling up archive footage of voice training, she practised moving her jaw, lips and tongue. After a couple of weeks training, she began to mimic sounds and movements from archive footage. At first she made awkward sounds with her mouth and tongue, ‘aaaa,oooh, eugh…’ Her lips parted, her jaws moved. Sounds formed into words.

Words are alive, thought Sono. She enjoyed the sensual experience of making sounds, of tasting them. She rolled her tongue, pursed her lips and felt her chest expand and contract. She had never known that speaking was so pleasurable.  After a great deal of practice, Sono even learned how to speak her name. Sono was so thrilled by the sensory experience of speaking, she posted pix asking if anyone else might be interested in forming a group of speakers.

Conversation club

It took Sono just a couple of weeks to establish a conversation club. The club’s members were a bunch of misfits, refuseniks and provocateurs who were curious about speech. Members met to re-enact conversations based on archive footage. As the group members became more confident in their speaking abilities they experimented with tongue twisters and onomatopoeia. Sono’s favourite onomatopoeia included whoop and hiss; she had great fun making and expressing these sounds.

Reed, Zibbi, Pav and Sono became the core members of the conversation club.  Their speaking adventures continued as they started to recite poetry accessed through the Earth archives. They began to make connections between iambic pentameter and their heartbeats. Speaking also changed their perception of the world around them. They began to realise that speaking is a continual process of becoming, an improvisation and an interactive dance with the world and other living beings.

At their last meeting, Sono told the group that she had found records in the archives about civil disobedience. The group had glimpsed the wonder of speaking and were not about to have this crushed by Digix. Instead they were united in their determination to embrace ambiguity and refuse certainty. 

 ‘But we are running out of time – soon Digix will obliterate human language,’ said Reed.

 ‘Speaking brings us closer to the landscape and other living beings; this cannot be reduced to binary digits,’  Pav said. 

‘That gives us all the more reason to refuse Digix as an act of civil disobedience,’ Sono replied.

Critical Commentary

In the past year, the covid19 pandemic has accelerated digitally mediated forms of communication. For many of us, Zoom, SKYPE, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams became crucial for work meetings, at-home schooling, seminar discussions, socialising and even keeping fit. At the same time opportunities for face-to-face discussion became dramatically reduced. ‘Enchanted by Speech’ is a reflective story about the impact of reduced forms of face-to-face communication and where this might lead us.

Theoretical insights from the story were drawn from the work of Sherry Turkle (2015) and Jenny Odell (2019).  Turkle’s work considers how face-to-face communication might become edged out by speaking through machines and speaking with machines (such as chat bots and personal assistants). Meanwhile Odell’s work connects Henry David Thoreau’s civil disobedience with a refusal to become embroiled in the economic drivers and surveillance mechanisms that drive digital technologies such as click bait and data mining.      

My fascination with the sensual qualities of speech stems from such sources as the work of cultural anthropologist David Abram (1997), British nature writer Robert MacFarlane (2015), author and public speaker Charles Eistenstein (2013) and the American novelist Richard Powers (2018).  Ursula Le Guin’s (2015) edited collection of short stories were also a fruitful source of insights about the binding of speech, symbols and meaning. What connects these disparate sources is a revelling in the sensory and an acceptance of ambiguity. In this way, these writers show humility and respect for our interconnected more-than-human world which we glimpse through speaking and writing, which can enrich our lives immeasurably.   

References

Abram, D. (1997) The Spell of The Sensuous. New York: Vintage

Eisenstein, C. (2013) The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Le Guin, U. (2015) The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose. London: Orion.

MacFarlane, R. (2015) Landmarks. London: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books.

Odell, J. (2019) How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Powers, R. (2018) The Overstory. London and New York: W.W. Norton.

Thoreau, H.D. (1993) Civil Disobedience and other essays. New York: Dover.

Turkle, S. (2015) Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age. London and New York: Penguin. 

Melanie Chan is a Senior Lecturer on the BA Hons Media, Communication Cultures course at Leeds Beckett University. Her book Digital Reality: The Body and Digital Technologies is due to be published by Bloomsbury in September 2020. She has also published a monograph, Virtual Reality: Representations in Contemporary Media (Bloomsbury, 2014), and additionally ‘Environmentalism and The Animated Landscape in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke’ as part of an edited collection. Her research interests span digital technologies, science fiction and creative writing.  

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