Saturday, 21 December 2013

"Tell me about your mother" - Xpression App and The Vagus Nerve

Thanks to Anja Kanngieser for flagging this up. - Xpression is a smartphone app that "listens for telltale changes in a person's voice that indicate whether they are in one of five emotional states: calm, happy, sad, angry or anxious/frightened. It then lists a person's moods against the times they change, and automatically emails the list to their psychologist at the end of the day."

The obvious question here is: do all voices change in the same manner when a persona is happy or stressed - I do not think so. Voice changes when a person is happy or sad but not all peoples voices change in the same way (Anecdotally, I know my voice sounds calm when my adrenalin surges, I'm not sure why this happens but it bemuses my friends and family who I have to call after things like exams, car crashes, accidents etc... but then my voice sounds nervous generally!) So whilst increased blood pressure, or tension, or sympathetic nervous system changes may alter the physiological components that are involved in making voice I would suggest that voice changes in a unique way for everyone. The vocal change is unique to the individual precisely because voice is firstly a sound of many different parts of the body interacting. Secondly because despite the voice not being reducible to these parts; the sum of these parts do not make voice, voice is always an excess as well as the sum of parts of the vocal apparatus. Alfred A Tomatis knows this well, even in his reductionist pursuit of understanding singing, taking account of diet, posture, athleticism, mouth shape and vocal tract size he still admits that lifestyle, well being and emotions play a major part in determining the nature of voice - in effect he reconciles the excess of voice with some general grey zones. (see The Ear and The Voice).

One particular peculiarity of vocal production that points to why our voices change under stress or elation is the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is strange, it loops round the aorta, taking the long way round as if it got snagged as our hearts moved in the process of bi-pedalism. It controls many aspects of speech production but also stimulates other organs such as the stomach, sphincter, gall bladder, as you may guess, the Vagus nerve plays a major role for both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system responses (which is why Tomatis proposes singing as a means to combat "neuropsychological imbalances"). Likewise, just as singing may be able to sooth an imbalance in the stimulations from the Vagus nerve, its influence can go the other way too - we see and hear this all the time, breaking voices, stutters, confused speech motor skills etc. But, there is still no direct connection between emotions, the body and voice, there may be a neuro/motor/bio-logical constellation of empirical causations and influences to map out but these will always be subject to the ultimate status of the voice - as an excess, it is everything we are, and a little bit more - always irreducible to our clunking bodies and the organs we employ for the production of voice. There is certainly not uniformity across peoples vocal changes either.

The use of technology to listen, to reduce our voice to content and differ-ences is perhaps the manifestation of our bodies being required to adhere to formats. Technology has mothered and listened, but it also insists on a format: 0/1. Berardi comments on how our speech is learnt in a heavily technological environment: "For the first time in human history there is a generation that has learnt more words and heard more stories from the television machine than from its mother." - FB - PR. pp.36-37. And Connor comments about how from a very early stage our voice is augmented, amplified and transported by technology:

"Much of this book has been written in the early mornings to the accompaniment of the cries, gurgles, and babble of my youngest son, whose room is equipped, like that of many young children, with an intercom alarm. Joe's early-developed capacity to summon his mother and me to his presence through the power of his voice has been considerably enhanced by this technology. It is tempting to feel that the meanings and powers of the voice for this particular young child have been affected by his growing awareness of the powers of the little plastic box in his room to enhance the already magically extensive powers of his voice" (cue Home Alone scene)

In a sense, because of the ubiquity of technology we owe much of our voice to technology. It has been modulated and afforded by media and communication networks.

The Xpression app rests on many presumed reductions. Of uniform reactions to emotional or biological states, and the reducibility of the voice. But I think its reductionism plays into the Turklean concept of being alone together. Technologies like Xpression play into, or performatively elucidate, how we want our voices to be ours and to be listened to, we feel we are responsible for our voices and that these voices tell others something special about us. Whereas our voice is never ours, but leads a strange life of autonomy from our control and our body (hence Connor's What I Say Goes). Also for human listening, the hidden nuances of voice do not 'tell' or 'communicate' on an empirical basis, but rather, on the subjective basis of the listeners intuition (how many troubled singers voices are made infinitely more bittersweet by our knowledge our the singers misfortunes?). Xpression shows our (Turklean) anthropologizing of the machine, we want a machine to understand us, like a mother's subjective audition may sense distress in the night. Machines have played a role in teaching us how to speak and allowing us to be heard, we want them to listen too now.

In the first chapter of Cold Intimacies Illouz explores how the therapists strategies of listening have migrated into managerial practices under capitalism. A good manager must, before all else, be able to listen. In todays world, with our heavy subjectivities, plethora of concerns, short time and attention the desire to be listened to manifests itself through technology and business. The Xpression app is the poor surogate, the Harlow wireframe mother, the app cannot listen, but only read and identify particular patterns.

(There is a riff to be made here about Ted Bundy's relationship to listening and reading, his mother would type all his school work, Ted would dictate. I half-want to suggest that Ted was read and not listened too, but this judgement is perhaps a touch too quick.. nonetheless - P.18 Ted Bundy Conversations with a Killer is fascinating along with P.21. I'm not suggesting any 'family values' correlation between his crimes and his early years - what intrigues me is his frustration over the surface play of language.  There is a big difference between being listened to and being merely read, and some of Bundy's comments and the Xpression app highlight this.)

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