Culture At Large

Do you hear what I hear? Audio reality and public perception

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

I recently read this fascinating piece on Medium about how changes in audio technology have altered perceptions of live events, including political conventions.

Mack Hagood, a professor of sound and media, says that the quality and variety of microphones and mixing technology allows sound engineers to use “huge digital mixers and signal compression to combine these many sources into a detailed surround-sound mix of both loud and quiet elements. This mix offers the home audience an ‘ear of God’ perspective that no one at the actual event could possibly experience.”

In other words, even though the recorded and mixed sound from live events is in some sense more complete than someone live in the space would experience, it might give you the impression that you’re actually hearing what it would be like to be there.

Audio is an especially interesting example of the many ways our perceptions can be skewed without us realizing. We are more used to thinking about how our eyes might deceive us. Photographs might be framed or cropped by the photographer or digitally edited to represent something that never existed. Part of the fun of Pokemon Go is the way it causes us to imagine animated monsters appearing in our living rooms, neighborhoods and public spaces, but we aren’t (usually) deceived into believing that they are “real.”

Our savviness around audio is a little less advanced, although we are aware of technologies such as Auto-Tune, which alters the sounds of performers’ voices. What the Medium article reminds me is that mediated audio (just like video) is always a construction made by skilled technicians.

We become deceived when we believe our perception of reality is all there is.

Certainly, the producers of live events such as political conventions are intending to give us an accurate sense of the event they are representing. But what that means, exactly, and how it’s limited and enabled by technology is a more complicated matter. It even leads me to wonder which is the more accurate portrayal: the perspective of one person who was present in a place, or the more expansive perspective possible with technology?

The Apostle Paul was onto the ways human perception is limited when he called our earthly vision a mirrored reflection (or, in the King James Version, “through a glass, darkly”). It’s interesting that the “reflection” translation references a piece of early technology—a mirror—that often helps us see more, but not always better. Then as now, objects in your perception may be closer than they appear. Paul doesn’t mean to say we see nothing, or that what we see is deception, only that we are limited in a way that God is not, and that we will continue to be limited until Christ’s return.

Similarly, I don’t mean to suggest that mediated representations of current events are intended to deceive us (usually) or that our human senses are untrustworthy. Only that both are limited, as we are limited, and that we do become deceived when we believe our perception of reality is all there is. Only God can really see the whole picture, but we can see more of it when we consult others with a different vantage point (or, I suppose, who can hear more). So our job is to do the best we can with the information we have, and prayerfully follow God’s leading as it comes through Scripture and others.

It’s also worth remembering that sometimes God works through our very limitations. I wonder what Gideon’s attack on the Midianites would have sounded like if it was broadcast on television. What a story of human limitation and God’s strength! God uses the ways Gideon’s army is limited to demonstrate His might, while the confusion and panic of the Midianites equally demonstrates how small human perspective can be compared to God’s.

True, it can be discouraging when we realize the very technology that expands what we can see, hear, know and perceive also shapes and limits those perceptions. Yet in many ways things are the same as they ever were. Humans are limited; we like to pretend we are not. Better to trust in God than in what we ourselves (think we) see and hear.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Gadgets