Speech is easy, and ambiguous

It sometimes happens that someone perfectly elucidates an idea or insight you’ve been struggling to patch together. It happened to me yesterday—I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across this from Adam Elkus:

“I have the opposite prejudice as the one famously expressed in Phaedrus. I’m inherently suspicious of anyone that privileges orality over written communication.

Most of my suspicion has less to do with the paper trail issue and more with the ways in which a charismatic speaker can get people to quite literally lose their grip on reality

This can also be done with the written word. But the significance of nonverbal communication in phonocentric modes of communication makes it also both easier to do and harder to diagnose.”

I understand where Elkus is coming from. Firstly, he is—to a greater degree than me—critical of Jordan Peterson, the “secular evangelist” at the helm of one of the culture war’s biggest hype trains. I suspect the above comments are made partially with him in mind. Second, after reading much about the Second World War and Nazi Germany, I’ve come across Adolf Hitler’s ability to make his audience “lose their grip on reality”, typically via vague assertions of political policy, generic appeals to ideology, a liberal use of us-versus-them posturing and exaggerated displays of emotion, all wrapped in a facade of unquestionable authority and irresistible momentum.

But the more interesting consequence of Elkus’ statement is not that I agree with it, but that it correlates with the uneasiness I feel when I think of podcasts.

Everyone and their mum has a podcast now. The reason, perhaps, is that it’s easy to do. As Seth Godin says, no-one gets talker’s block. Further, most of the time, the host has “interesting people” as guests, so the conversation usually covers old ground instead of breaking new ground—guests talk about current or previous work, instead of uncovering new insights or treading new trails of thought. Thus, when it comes to podcasting, the barrier to entry is low.

However, as Brent Beshore observed, more people seem to have “life-changing” experiences because of a podcast episode than because of a book they’ve read. And I think it has to do with what Elkus talked about—ambiguity in speech versus concreteness in prose.

Both oral and written communication are proxies of thought. But it just so happens that the latter is a much better indicator than the former. Try it for yourself. Try explaining a closely held idea to someone by speaking and to a different person via writing. It’s easier to talk about something than write about it because verbal communication has fewer barriers. Whereas when you read something someone has wrote about an idea, it’s easy to diagnose either the idea or its communication as shoddy.

So, oral communication is a more ambiguous representation of thought and thus more impactful on the majority than the written word. It’s why podcasts are so popular, why politicians are able to be so slimy, why demagogues are able to rise to positions of power, and why we should be wary of those who persuade with their mouth instead of their pen.