Soundbytes and Culture

The idea that the immediate is better than the delayed is probably one of the most distinctive marks of our spirit of the age. This can be seen to be true in nearly every aspect of modern life – meals are microwaved in a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. Technology allows one to view their favourite television programs immediately. Communication has not been immune – indeed, one could argue that no realm of life has been influenced by the culture of immediacy than communication.

Consider a simple conversation in which one is asked a question of some importance. If one has to pause to think, to gather thoughts, to formulate an answer, this is seen as negative – for example, it can be and is seen as a sign of something to hide, or a sign of unprepared-ness. To give a delayed answer is to give the wrong answer – to refrain from answering on the grounds that one would prefer to think over the answer is nearly unthinkable in the our culture today. In almost every case, the answer must be had now

There is another result, though. This second result is that all communication is essentially being reduced to soundbytes. More often than not, a conversation consists not in an actual interchange of thought-out viewpoints, or topics of interest around which a meaningful conversation can be had, but rather as an occasion to exchange soundbytes designed to (a) make clear each persons viewpoint and (b) prove the superiority of one viewpoint over the other. Conversations have become occasions to simply wait for one person to finish speaking so a rebuttal soundbyte can be given with nearly no regard for the content of the other persons speech. Give-and-take conversation, or conversation in which one really listens with the intent of learning are almost rendered obsolete (listen for five minutes to nearly any political discussion for a demonstration of this).

Of course, some communication must be brief. Obviously to take certain forms of communication, such as police radio communications, and insist that the length of conversations be increased would be absurd (one could add nearly any branch of civil service – hospitals, firefighting, the military, etc). If I call my stock broker to know when to sell, I need to know exactly when to sell what and for how much, and I need to know this now. These forms of communication, however, are not what I would define as actual discourse – an extended period of verbal communication between two parties. Even here, though, there are exceptions – legal defences often take the form of prolonged conversations and lengthy, well-crafted thoughts.

Discourse between two people for the sake of intellectual interchange of ideas requires, more than anything, leisure. It takes, obviously enough, time to have an extended conversation which does not consist of soundbytes. However, as I said above, it is increasingly the case that something that takes long is viewed less as a good and more of a negative.

The irony here, then, is that that which thrives only in a culture of leisure is seeing its death in a culture where immediacy is king. Immediacy is something that purports to be a way of maximizing the amount of usable time available – DVR’s, microwave meals, etc – all exist so as to eliminate wasted time so as to allow us more leisure time with which to enjoy any given thing. So maybe the irony isn’t so much that something which requires leisure is dying as a result of immediacy – it’s that, as a result of immediacy, leisure is dying.

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