In the age of the internet, what is the value of the human voice?
“The pen is mightier than the sword” is a famous quote, derived from the work of the English playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in the 19th century. The written word, it seems, can move men to deeds in ways that raw violence just can’t. Come the advent of photography, another saying arose, and put lofty text in its proper place, telling us “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Photos trump words, while the written word trumps the sword, but in an interconnected media age, what is the value of the human voice?
Images, and to a greater extent, words, can be interpreted in countless ways, yet it’s the human voice that marshals the concepts depicted in mesmerizing photos, or expounded upon in inspirational text, into action. When you listen to a vocalist like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, or D’Angelo, the words sung might be filled with ideas about life, sexuality or social change, but the quality, or uniqueness of an iconic singer’s voice is what makes you tune in, and listen to what they have to say (or sing) over and over again. The vocal timbre behind the words, whether those musings are significant or trite, is what forces us to pay attention.
Writers from Locke and Rousseau to Kant and Marx have influenced millions of people with their philosophies. Their words, written down on paper, have fertilized various political and social movements across the planet, prepping human beings for one type of action or another. Yet it takes persuasive and impassioned orators like John Adams, Adolph Hitler and Vladimir Lenin to bring these ideas (the applied enlightenment, fascism, and communism, respectively) to life—ideas that come from words, put into motion to great and oftentimes terrible consequence, by the sway of a particular human voice.
I had been of a mind that the influence of a single voice was on the wane. These days, anyone can post their thoughts—along with the sound of their voice, and the strength or lack of strength of their oratory skills—online. In essence, this means that poets and people with truly thought-provoking notions have to compete with millions of others who simply wish to chat about the mundane (nothing wrong with that), or wackadoos who have a lot of crazy, yet ultimately unimportant things to get off their chests. The thesis I was working from was that the white noise born from a multitude of voices all speaking out at once would drown out the future Gandhis and Lincolns of the world. Now I’m not so sure.
Perhaps it would be harder for a Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr. to be heard above the rumble of the modern day media noise. Yet even so, with so many voices vying for our attention, a “true” voice still might be able to emerge from the confusion. With an unprecedented number of choices of who to listen to—musically, politically or spiritually speaking—anyone trying to communicate his or her message must now submit to a rigorous vetting process in order to be heard for any length of time, but if a speaker breaks past the competition and catches our ear, it just might be that person has something meaningful to convey.
A voice might rise suddenly with a viral video, or by taking advantage of a passing trend, but it generally fades fairly quickly as well. Only the most moving of voices stay with us, calling us to arms, asking for peace, or rocking our souls with an incredible song. Pens, pictures and swords have their place, but it’s the power of the human voice that truly gets things done. Remember that the next time someone suggests that you have nothing important to say.
Image credit: Steve Snodgrass/Flickr