Alexa? Pause Radio 4 whilst I read this…

Over the past century, the ways in which we communicate have undergone significant change.

Speaking to our digital expert, Andrew Walker, we dug a little deeper into the evolution of vocal and digital communication and examined where that change might take us in the near future. Both in spite of, and because of these advances, it seems that good communication could give us a competivie edge in this new era of voice technology… 

In a nutshell, the past century has seen a move from an age of complex systems and simple software, to one of simple systems and complex software. The telecoms and broadcast industry giants of the 20th Century have given way to companies such as Apple, Google, and Amazon, all of whom specialize in providing customers with cutting edge technology in simple, convenient ways.

Whenever major technology shifts occur, social change follows. By disrupting our carefully constructed social systems, the rapid evolution of a particular technology and the alteration of the value placed upon it causes understandable concerns to society.

In 1940 AT&T employed over 350,000 telephone operators in the US alone. Economists used to be concerned that the exponential growth of the telecoms industry, most of whose operators and call-centre employees were women, would lead to them being taken out of the home environment to such an extent that there would be a breakdown in the traditional American home. Whilst this concern was perhaps a little extreme, we can see how the value placed on vocal communication and its accompanying technology was so great that it had fundamental social implications. The currency of voice was riding high.

Today AT&T don’t even employ 350,000 people globally, and since the creation of the iPhone 11 years ago telecoms companies have seen the continual decline in voice minutes used by their customers. As soon as we could communicate more simply, and for free via the internet, we ditched the ‘phone’ part of our phones and disintermediated our vocal chords from our chats. As we chose to communicate effectively via visual means, using emojis, pictures and videos, the currency of voice plummeted to an all-time low. So are we really communicating better, or just differently?

We only need glance around the workplace, on the bus or at a party to see how the shift from vocal to visual has had a huge cultural effect on society. We don’t talk like we used to! Instead our eyes are fixed on screens as we ‘chat’, What’s app, Snapchat, DM, and email each other constant streams of information day and night. There is little doubt of the negative effects this has had on our ability to communicate face-to-face, but does this really mean we don’t want to talk to one another?

Ultimately we are witnessing a process of simplification, the pursuit of which exposes the flaws of the previous system. The mechanical wristwatch was nothing special until the digital wristwatch came along and gave it a new currency. The ones who toughed out the collapse of the market found their products elevated to a new luxury status. The same goes for vocal communication.

Whilst visual chatter can connect and is a fantastic collaborative tool, the spoken word still holds the greatest power. In a business environment we have learnt that video calls are more effective than phone calls, and privately we know that the most important news is always better told ‘in person’. There is a premium on having a good communication technology tool that doesn’t have the flaws of vocal and non-verbal communication. This is where voice technology is starting to infiltrate our homes and businesses and the power of voice is returning.

Sales of Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ voice assistant outstripped the iPhone by 50%, selling and astonishing 3 million units in 2 years.

By further lowering the friction points of communication, Amazon is paving the way for a new era of voice controlled technology. We are no longer required to hold a device to our ears to communicate, or to pick up a screen and use our fingers to place an online order – multi-tasking is now hands free.

This is not a technological innovation, so much as an anthropological reality. We only have one pair of hands and in our busy modern world we want, and need, to do more than one thing at once. Until there are systems that mean you only have to think something for it to happen, using our voices is as frictionless as it gets!

This is the power of the digital voice, which in turn elevates the human voice to new heights. Because there is no interface with voice, understanding linguistics is VITAL to the future of these technologies. With so many variables in the human voice, having good communication will give us a competitive edge. We have learnt to compute minute changes in tone and language over thousands of years, and in developing software that enables a machine to do this, developers are starting to ask in-depth questions about exactly how we communicate.

Communicating well will not only give us an edge with the people around us, it will give us an edge with technology and automated systems too. There will come a time where communicating clearly and effectively will be as essential a workplace skill as doing a spreadsheet or sending an email.

At the dawn of the digital age, our greatest societal fear was that we would all stop talking to one another and live in isolation, but it seems the reality of the near-future is far from this. We now have more computing power in our pockets and on our kitchen tables than we used to have in an entire lab of whirring PCs. We chose not to talk to one another because there was technological friction, not because we didn’t want to communicate. Now that voice is back and offering us seamless interactions, it’s far easier and more intuitive for us to use our voices, meaning a return to what is most instinctive to us. The future is not mechanical, it is high-technological.

In a time where we will be communicating not only with one another, but with machines too, the voice has never been more important. A new golden age is upon us. Let’s talk.