a mash-up of talking & data
Using the steady pressure generated by inflating and deflating our lungs, air moves across a little flap of flesh in each of our throats called the larynx. This causes the vibration of that flap, which in turn generates an audible tone. We shape and nudge this tone into enunciated and projected words, and –at least as I understand it– this is how we create speech.
It is an analog process: sound waves in the air, mashed together by countless variations and combinations of frequencies, amplitudes and tones, all of it received by another little bit of flesh, this one buried in the sides of our head, that translates that analog information into a brain signal we interpret as sound with meaning attached.
What would it mean to have a digital voice?
Modern sound recording is often referred to as a digital process. Unlike past iterations of this technology (record players or cassette tapes) where sound waves were etched or modeled into a physical medium, we now use electronic equipment that is essentially an input device that demodulates the sound into binary information (though a microphone) or alternatively modulates that binary information back into a sound wave (through a speaker.)
This information is about the sound itself, largely because that’s what we are using sound for: to convey analog, audio information. But where there is already information being conveyed by the sounds that make up the human voice, there is precedent for using sound as a transmission medium for binary information: for example, computer modems. Or, at least the kinds of modems that relied on the analog telephone network of the kind we were all too familiar with a mere couple of decades ago. (Remember? The squeal and then the static? That was digital information being passed across a phone line as sound waves.)
In this hypothetical case, what would it mean if the human voice could –rather than simply generating and interpreting sound waves themselves– modulate and demodulate sound to transmit (for the sake of simplicity) binary data?
How would it change things?
Of course this is all speculation, but it is interesting to imagine a world where some or perhaps all conversation was able to convey raw information embedded within it.
What would we transmit? Would we retain a some of our analog conversational abilities for informal or familiar chatter and reserve the digital voice for information that was more dense? Would we transmit ideas at all? Or would we communicate through simultaneously talking in an analog way while embedding a signal with lesser or supplemental information in those words, a signal say that carried feelings or memories?
What would that mean for singing and music, and would we be able to transmit that additional information from our voices electronically the same way we do with recordings and broadcast transmissions now? If we didn’t use our voices for analog sounds at all, it seems unlikely that we’d have music. Or, if we did, it would be vastly different, perhaps acting more like a visualization of unique and interesting data patterns imagined by artists in that field, or patterns that evoked symmetry or fractal-like mathematics that we felt rather than heard.
What could go wrong?
The big question that comes to mind is the right to ignore someone else’s voice or information that is transmitted via digital sounds, if that is even an option. We live in a world where what we hear is transmitted through sound that needs to be interpreted by our brains, and we can choose to ignore that interpretation. What capacity would we have to filter raw information? Similar to a computer, could we infect people with ideas, like a Dawkins-esque meme but much more potent? Would this be a major problem that we faced as a society, with strong laws built around voice transmissions?
And things like advertising and propaganda would be abstractly different. A smooth reassuring voice could be carrying inside of it hate-filled rhetoric, or a beep from a nearby device could be transmitting SPAM-like advertising directly into our heads, and we might not even…
On second thought, maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.