Notice that there is no analogous “disease of sounds.” Sound moving in time is not inherently mesmerizing or captivating. It doesn’t grab. To the contrary-the listener has to reach out with his or her attention and grab it, pull it in, and keep pulling with a considerable amount of focus. Television producers and Webmasters have learned to speed up images as a way of seducing people to refrain from changing channels. That doesn’t work in radio. String together 90 split-second fragments of nonlinear audio in the same way that MTV does with video, and you’d see many unhappy faces.
Images captivate us effortlessly, and are difficult to filter out. Screening out sounds, though, is something that humans are well-constructed to do. It is very easy, we all know from experience, to lose focus on what someone is saying to you in a room, even when there is very little audio competition. And it’s downright common to have the radio on and stop noticing its contents altogether. As soon as we stop pulling audio in, it fades into the background.
Being able to ignore radio so easily turns out to be the luckiest thing of all for the medium, because it also means that in order to really listen to it, we must become truly engaged. Radio won’t “work” in the neural background. It won’t settle for an intellectual glazing over. It requires more of a commitment, a certain level of consideration, concentration, rumination. And there’s a direct payoff for the cerebral effort: Studies by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Patricia Greenfield and colleagues show that radio inspires more imagination than television.
A healthy imagination and other aspects of creative thinking are the surest signs that we’re pulling the information into our minds and interacting with it, that we’re converting the information into knowledge. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this point marvelously in a recent magazine interview: “I can remember when TV was going to teach my children Korean and trigonometry,” he said. “Rural areas wouldn’t even have to have very well educated teachers; all they’d have to do is turn on the box. Well, we can see what TV really did….We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents….A book is an arrangement of 26 phonetic symbols, 10 numbers, and about 8 punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo. But it’s no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these circuits. Now, there are professionally produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. And now there’s the information superhighway.”
Vonnegut’s remarks suggest that electronic visual technologies have changed the rules of imagination. Historically, we have associated sight with understanding. “Of all the senses, trust only the sense of sight,” Aristotle wrote in his Metaphysics. Our current language is loaded with words and phrases that analogize the two-“insight,” “illuminate,” “enlighten,” “clarity,” “observation,” “brilliant,” and so on. In an age in which more and more images are in motion, though, sight can neither be trusted nor counted on to propel us into thought and action. We’re going to have to recalibrate our language and our thinking for a digitized age.