Le Guin and the inhumanity of Zoom
Thank you for reading this.
I’m only writing it so that I actually write today. Finished the last show on my books the other day. Between lockdown and the general path of freelance work in the arts, I’m back to Zoom.
And books. I have finally had the time to finish Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay collection “the wave in the mind”. Within it, she discusses the more… human aspects of communication in the essay ‘Telling Is Listening.’
To listen to someone in-person is to be involved in a continuous interchange. It is not the pseudo-interactivity of the digital, where the bounds of interaction are set in advance, or the simplistic idea of A having a unit of information to send to B, encoding it into words, and B receives the words which become information. It is something unique, created in the moment between the speaker and the listener, each responding to the other.
Le Guin’s essay considers three cultures - oral cultures with primary orality, literate cultures, and literate cultures with secondary orality. Oral cultures communicate through spoken words, often with non-literal meanings. “Coyote went there,” “once upon a time,” “when I was a young boy” all go far beyond their literal meanings to signify something along the lines of “the speaker is going to tell a story; it is about Coyote (not just a coyote), a fairytale, or an elder’s youth.” The speaker knows we will understand their intent, at least in part.
Literate cultures use words, written down and pinned to a page. As printing has become more common, literacy has become a basic requirement of full membership of those societies. This leads to people in literate societies dismissing oral cultures, because an oral-culture person is hugely disadvantaged in a literate society. However, although literate people may find it easier to be well-informed, that does not make them wiser or more virtuous than oral people. Power is not the same as being right.
Le Guin then goes on to use Walter Ong’s concept of secondary orality. If you sit down and hear an elder tell a story in the same room as you, that’s primary orality. So too are hearing a lecture in-person and catching up on gossip in a local shop. However, secondary orality is mediated. The weather forecaster looks into the camera and addresses us with speech, but doesn’t see us, hear us, and isn’t in the same place - that’s secondary orality. What we see and hear is a simulacrum - an image. There is no relationship - much though my housemate swears at the presenter to stop mumbling, they never change how they speak. Nor would my housemate swear so much if they could speak directly to the forecaster.
This brings Le Guin to her central point - that sound is an event. Words have power, in their beginning and end. Oral cultures communicate in a public, shared way, and therefore in a formal way. They use repetition to create structures, emphasis, and rituals. While repetition is frowned upon in literate societies, it’s an essential tool in oral cultures as part of the ritual.
Why? Because it sets up the rhythm of conversation. If the internet has helped us create a Global Village that transcends the printing presses’ Age of Nations, it is currently a “City of Night”, where it’s an intangible concept with a void at its core: The link is only mental, without the physicality of oral cultures.
Speech and hearing happen in the body. Being in the same room as other people leads to our breaths, heartbeats, and even lip-movements syncing up; outsiders and the neurodiverse can more easily pick up the rhythms of a dialect or style. Le Guin has her own examples, but for my audience: any comedian or university lecturer knows the feeling of losing the crowd. Those reliant on a script or notes plough on, because they are Literate People. I prefer and admire those who abandon the script and go on to adapt to the crowd, accepting the medium they’re working in.
Le Guin also prizes the irreproducible moment of oral speech - whether a poetry reading, lecture, or storytelling. This is the heart of the living moment, where speaker and listener are bound by telling and hearing.
As ever with Le Guin, I have missed out much of the nuance of her careful phrasing, and her good sense of how to reproduce the rhythms she desires in print. However, having read the essay (written in 2004) in the age of Zoom, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what it might suggest for our communications during this pandemic.
Why? Because Le Guin is an author who is acutely aware of how to be human.
Zoom sits strangely in Walter Goh’s model. It is definitely not literary - we use it to talk. While we could have responded to this pandemic with constant correspondence, I have heard far more of Zoom calls than of letters and emails being exchanged. That may be because Zoom, as a speech-act, feels more public. My suspicion is that it is because we have used Zoom more than literary tools. However, to use Zoom well, one must be literate - and not only literate, but versed in a dialect of symbols and words common to Californian technology companies. Those who cannot speak it get left behind.
Nor is Zoom entirely comfortable in the model of secondary orality. Unlike TV, the content of Zoom calls are not a social centrepoint to discuss - though the medium and platform are things we talk about in an increasingly media-literate society.
(An aside: I do wonder what Le Guin would have made of conversations around media that start with “you should watch—”, and continue with the exchange of things one ‘should’ consume. Would she have been delighted by people’s enthusiasm, or disappointed by the capitalist, consumption-focused viewing of many things in a passive, trivial way that lacked real engagement - and of, perhaps, content without much substantive to engage with?)
Unlike the weather forecaster, it goes to great lengths to give the illusion that we are able to influence one another, rather than a simulacrum created by electricity passing through a screen. To some extent, this illusion is true.
This is not to accept Zoom’s fundamental lie - that it is a tool for primary orality. Its lag denies us the fundamental rhythm of conversation; of knowing when someone has paused to let someone else speak. Its refusal to let more than one person’s audio pass through the screen denies the harmony or discord of people speaking together in approval (“aye, Amen”) or disagreement (“don’t you realise—!”).
Its ubiquity denies the possibility of real rituals - in some online communities, we show approval through the BSL sign for “applause”, others by a pantomime for applause, while others use a heroic gurn or thumbs-up. It even lacks the internet-level tradition of something like “Hello world”. Instead, it has its ‘interactive’ interface, demanding that you unmute to join in the oral moment.
Then there is the ‘record’ button. Zoom cannot offer a definitively irreproducible moment, since anyone could press ‘record’ and preserve it forever. A truly sneaky person could use screen capture software and record without anybody’s knowledge. This need for preservation - even of rather fleeting panels, conferences, and board game playthroughs - is a definitely literate urge. Having the possibility to create a near-infinite sprawl of worthless words, or let things fade away, we have chosen the former, rejecting the power of words when they are rare and passing things. I wonder whether the possibility of trivial immortality makes people think more or less about what they say.
Text-chats like WhatsApp and Messenger are similarly difficult to place - they are written down, but in the style of speech, and using pictures to indicate facial expressions and moods through archetypal forms. Unless people have been vomiting rather more than is healthy.
For now, let us say that Zoom is a tool for 1.5-orality. It sits somewhere between primary and secondary orality - communication is limited by the tool, and only with the tool’s simulacrum, not the person you are ‘speaking’ to. It isn’t real. We don’t see the same thing, depending on our device, operating system settings, and attention span. My pupils, for example, don’t know if I am rapidly Googling the difference between a mean and mode average.
Telephones, and low-latency software like Jacktrip, help regain some of the humanity of a shared space. But not all.
Given the restrictions on in-person gatherings, I am unsure what Le Guin might say to us. There is a comfort in hearing the voices of those we cannot see due to death or geography. We can seek small rituals in online spaces. But we must beware making bargains about how we can be human; that way monsters lie. We must beware the self-deception in pretending that we truly hear them until we share their breath.
Right now, that is the last thing we are allowed to share.