Speech has Presence. A Speaker Stands Before You, Insisting on Your Attention.

“All sound is inherently powerful. If a hunter kills a lion he can see it, touch it, feel it and smell it. But if he hears a lion he must act, fast, because the sound of the lion signals its presence and its power” (Ong, Orality and Literacy).

Books were built for the hand and the eye. Books are boxes of knowledge that can be shared by hand across a distance. Books are read with the eyes, silently.

The scroll was built for the mouth and ear. Scrolls did not have spacing or punctuation; the ear would disentangle what the eye read and the mouth spoke aloud (Manguel, A History of Reading).

Culture was mostly shaped by sound, by the mouth and the ear, by speech. One might think that oral culture could not engineer complex works, yet the Iliad and the Odyssey were oral creations.

“We all learn to read by listening word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase to those reading to us” (Prose, Reading Like a Writer). We mouth words when we learn them. We imagine the voice of the author or a character in a book. Adults still sound out difficult words. All reading and writing is transformed in the brain back to the original sounds. Reading and listening are the same process (Carver, Reading Rate; Dehaene, Reading in the Brain).

Speech has presence. A speaker stands before you, insisting on your attention, projecting emotion, demanding your response. Today’s voice technologies are conversational like speech but they are still disconnected, separated by computer technology based on text. I can ignore a computer’s voice prompt. It can ignore me.

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