Random Reflections: Hearing Voices

I occasionally post some thoughts here in Limbo under the title, “Random Reflections.” I am not in general an aficionado of randomness, and by “random,” when I apply the word to my written thoughts, I never mean chance or arbitrary. I mean something more like reflections that have no obvious place within ordinary discourse, or that seem to come from somewhere just beyond the border that defines The Conversation. I borrow the latter image, speech from beyond the border, from Milan Kundera.

I abhor talking machines. I do not want my electronic devices to tell me things. Nor do I wish to hear my office door’s message alerting me that the door is now locked, or unlocked. I do not want the bank machine to tell me what I should do next, or the fast food kiosk to ask me whether I want to add a McSludge to my meal. I would probably despise these talking machines less if their voices sounded like stereotypical robots, as one may hear in old movies. That is, the quasi-vocal effusions of today’s ubiquitous talking machines would not offend me as much were they not all programmed to sound as much as possible like human voices.

The human voice is nature’s greatest gift to communication. Communication does not mean pre-determined orders, one-way information issuance, or mechanically triggered alerts and warnings. The human voice is designed by nature to express human thoughts and feelings in a temporal and social context, with a view to a specific audience, and with the ultimate goal, implicit or explicit, of eliciting — from a known and intended audience of one or many — mutual understanding, consent, agreement, or further opinion. The essence of communication resides precisely in these intended outcomes, or in the unplanned outcomes which occasionally assert themselves in spite of us with an intention of their own. That is, communication means bringing together or uniting through expression. Uniting what? Humans, of course, which is to say souls, or if that pre-modern notion offends you, let us say minds. Communication is the heart of friendship, love, learning and teaching, political stability, voluntary exchange, and leadership, as well as of the higher forms of self-defense, disavowal, and disapproval.

A machine that is programmed to shoot comfortingly realistic faux-human vocal sounds at me, or more precisely at anyone, willy-nilly, who happens to be in the physical position I am in, is no more able to communicate with me than an inflatable doll is able to provide me with spiritual companionship. To cultivate the taste for such fake voices, or at least to normalize their omnipresence in our daily lives, and, even worse, to invent increasingly subtle programs to simulate realistic interaction, is to gradually blur the psychological boundaries distinguishing human speech from Pavlovian conditioning, rational choice and agreement from passive compliance with disembodied dictates, reasons from rules, personal contact from generic authority, thinking from information, purpose from utility, and the improvement of human life through technology from the mass mechanization of humanity.

If a person is earning an extraordinary amount of money, or possesses some other form of practical power, then every opinion he espouses or argument he offers regarding political or moral issues which happen to touch upon his material conditions ought to be met with a skeptical question: “Is he speaking from an unadulterated search for the true and the good, or from a desire to preserve or increase his wealth or power?”

This, I emphasize, is skepticism, not cynicism. That is, I am not suggesting that no one is capable of seeking the truth in good faith in an area where he also has vested material interests; nor am I denying that a man might espouse a view for dubious reasons which also happens to have some truth in it. I am merely suggesting that when a person who stands to gain material rewards from the general acceptance of a certain point of view or policy (or at least believes he does) does in fact adopt that view or promote that policy, one has every right to scrutinize that person’s motives with a doubtful eye, unless and until his premises and logic prove themselves utterly irreproachable on purely rational grounds. In short, when corporate billionaires pontificate about the world order, or when prominent celebrity pundits for profit pitch their sectarian certainties, or when incumbent or aspiring politicians issue apologias for this or that ascendant authoritarian or vulgarian tendency within their party, you have no reason to grant them the assumption of good faith with regard to their motives, but rather every reason to ask, “What’s in it for him?”

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