The Era of Sound Bites

We live in the era of sound bites.

The overwhelming majority of our communication has been reduced to posts, tweets, text messages, and one-liners. Attention spans have dwindled, and argumentative reasoning has been reduced to “the final statement,” which often is none other than the title of an article! Few have the mental energy to follow a complicated argument, to read a long and demanding essay, to engage with a piece of writing or with an idea at a deeper level.

This spills over to our everyday human interactions too: Many are not interested in listening to an elaborated thought. Before you even start speaking, it is insisted upon you to provide a summary, the conclusion, the “main message” of what you have not yet uttered. Content has become the description of the content!

In the last few years, I have all the more frequently been hearing phrases like: “You don’t need to explain it to me. Just tell me where you stand with respect to this.” But my explanation – the way I think and reason – is the what, the how, the why, of where I stand. My final “stance” is less important than the mental process that led to it. The reasoning, the analysis, the “proof” is the real pedestal on which a person “stands”. Otherwise, with his opinion, his values, his reasoning lacking, he may as well have copied what somebody else said, or simply have chosen at random any one of many different positions – akin to having cast a ballot. But mindless voting is worse than not voting at all.

Although we live in the digital era where “engagement” and  “interactivity” are meticulously studied and scientifically quantified, we are increasingly unable to truly engage and truly interact. Many make statements or post tweets, and have others similarly respond to those statements, without ever feeling obliged to explain how they came to think that way. The statements therefore remain hanging in a vacuum of  presumably basic universally held assumptions that they expect others to fill-in. Yet, the assumptions are rarely basic, nor universal. They are, in fact, the argument that the utterer of the statement has failed to make! There is no real conversation, an engagement of ideas. Just a series of loosely connected statements that are stacked one after another, endless comments in endless threads, a downward spiral of ephemera.

The era of sound bites is also the era of intellectual laziness. Phrases like “keep it short,” “get to the point quickly,” “too complicated, make it simple,” are nothing but an attempt to mask intellectual laziness. Many are not willing to mentally exert themselves, to truly listen attentively, to focus. For they have become used to being served easy sound bites that require minimal mental effort.

Yet neither human communication, nor deep ideas, nor music, nor art, nor literature, can conform to this new universal obsession. The real world we live in is not a world of sound bites. Neither are some of the greatest human creations we all admire – whether it be a long musical composition or novel, an elaborate philosophical theory, or a mathematical proof.

There is a very powerful scene in the movie Amadeus, in which the emperor, who is lacking in musical appreciation, feels like making a comment of some sort, simply in order to make a comment. So he tells Mozart, who has just finished conducting one of his operas, that the piece had “too many notes.” He then tells him to “cut a few and it will be fine,” to which Mozart ingeniously replies, “Which few did you have in mind, Your Majesty?” The king became naked the moment he was challenged to elaborate on his strange idea, just as the tweeter or sound-biter will be revealed the moment he is challenged to engage on a deeper level.

Just as you cannot shorten a Mozart opera to make it more palatable to the untrained ear, similarly you cannot shorten a cinematic masterpiece to make it more digestible. Yet, this is exactly what happened in the same year the movie Amadeus was released: 1984. The film distributors of Sergio Leone’s magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in America, decided to shave off over an hour from the movie so it would fit the slots of movie theaters and be less “demanding” of the viewer. The movie did very poorly in the US, where it was shortened, but did well in Europe, where the director’s cut was shown. Since the film’s storyline spanned over half a century of New York’s history through the lives of its protagonists, the almost four-hour duration was imperative. Sadly, this movie was Leone’s last, for he passed away a few years later – some say because of his sadness over the failure of his film in the US box office.

Now, thirty years later, Leone’s magnificent creation is acknowledged as such, and its length is seen as an integral part of its message. It was the storyline that determined the film’s length, just as it is the nature of reasoning that determines the length of a philosophical argument, and the nature of a writer’s inspiration that guides the length of a poem or an essay.

The year 1984 is not brought into the discussion by chance: It also points to Orwell’s masterpiece. The novel 1984 describes an alienating totalitarian world of brainwashing and propaganda. As it turns out, all propaganda is based on sound bites, on ideas that are immediately understood and impress the mind without any effort. Yet, for propaganda to succeed, its recipients must have become passive, too lazy to think, and prone to easy, mass-produced, simple and simplistic ideas. The only way to resist any propaganda is to challenge intellectual laziness, to fight against the lack of argument, the absence of proof and complicated ideas: the descent to a world of sound bites.

The actual year 1984 did not bring with it the world Orwell had imagined. Yet, for me, because of the subtle connection of the two concurrent movies mentioned (Mozart resisting the shortening of his musical content, and Leone experiencing in real life the shortening of his film!), 1984 marks the beginning of the Era of Sound Bites. Furthermore, the fact that this era began in the Orwellian year holds a hidden message: that the danger is not over, and that it may lie in something seemingly innocent and inconspicuous with which we are all becoming slowly accustomed.

There are times, as in advertising and in various campaigns, when short messages and slogans are necessary and prudent. But when most human discourse is increasingly becoming sound bites, one needs to be vigilant, and, quoting Dylan Thomas in another context, “do not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying of the light.”


© 2017 Nicos Hadjicostis