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A Sound Is A Sound

Published in Strays.

To quote John Cage, “Accept that a sound is a sound and a man is a man. Give up illusions about ideas of order, expressions of sentiment, and all the rest of our inherited aesthetic clap trap.” 

I don’t believe I ever understood what this meant, but from the time I first read those words they’ve remained important to me. My hero, John Cage, a man who laid claim to four and a half minutes of silence as an original composition, waxing on about shared illusions.

I have my doubts about writing this. But this message is all that might remain of me after today, or of my small part in a much larger story. In far too small a way, it’s an act of accountability.

As with each generation, each technological leap, we reached the turning point long before I was born. The idea, conceived decades earlier, was to weaponize sound. Not through militarizing its sonic energy nor as a mechanism for torture, as had been crudely experimented with by careless political regimes in the past, but as an auditory virus. An aural injection. This idea grew ripe just as I was being brought into the fold alongside a dozen other young programmers. We were eager to create, though none of us yet able to comprehend what would become of MindTune. 

In retrospect, how we became associated with the cochlear implant movement seems naive. How could we not see that our work had larger implications? At first, we believed we had been welcomed into the fold of an exciting puzzle, contributing to a larger framework of ideas without having a broader awareness of what the final product was to be. We savored the challenge. After year one, many of us had made incredible advances. I recall tracking the change log fifteen months in and seeing a birth of something exquisite. If the others were creating work akin to what I had been building, I recall thinking at the time, we were blazing a trail toward a better future. 

We had been treated as heroes at the firm, our work met with accolades and compensation that well exceeded our expectations. And then they flipped the switch and it was all taken away. Without realizing it, we had unknowingly created something which upon assembly, no longer required its masters’ touch to live, breathe, and more shockingly, evolve. It’s only in hindsight that I see the err of our ways. I’m sure the others feel the same. What we had created was bigger than any of us had ever imagined. 

The role sound plays in our world has never been well understood. Or, maybe I should add, well understood by all but a few. There have been those who recognized its potential, but we weren’t among them until it was too late. By the time MindTune went live there was no purpose in either rebellion or resistance. The bullet could not be put back in the gun.

Infection is the word that has been used, as if to say its resonance is infectious. But as it was crafted, the code was to produce a salve, not a disease. This is why we were so driven to do what we did. We recognized what might have been a beacon of hope on the horizon, one which we could take an active part in giving life to, and with it, we desired to produce a deliverance of healing. But the true nature of that beacon eluded us. Only those who realized the sound’s power recognized its potential.

Reading this back to myself, my words here fail to reflect the grief that I feel deep within me. We developed something which we had no control over, which unwittingly had the capability to destroy what we thought it might save. A self-generating, self-propagating frequency that turned us against ourselves. Enveloped in a united sound, humanity’s consciousness has been blanketed in silence. A sound is a sound and a man is a man, but only when the two became one did we discover which would survive.