Hogging the talk with a speech jammer

As a writer, freedom of speech is near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the basic principles of the democratic form of government. And yet it seems to be constantly under attack, for one simple reason: it’s easy to say you believe in free speech when people are saying what you agree with. It’s a lot harder when they start saying things you vehemently disagree with.

As a writer, freedom of speech is near and dear to my heart.

It’s one of the basic principles of the democratic form of government.

And yet it seems to be constantly under attack, for one simple reason: it’s easy to say you believe in free speech when people are saying what you agree with. It’s a lot harder when they start saying things you vehemently disagree with.

“He/she/they shouldn’t be allowed to say that!” is perhaps a natural human response, but it’s still one that must be overcome if free speech is to flourish.

Which is why I find a recent technological development rather disturbing.

Imagine if, instead of shouting down people who say things they disagree with (as, disturbingly, so many people seem to think is the best way to deal with disagreeable speech, even — especially, it sometimes seems — on university campuses), squelchers-of-free-speech had a gun that could prevent someone from talking.

It sounds bizarre, but that’s exactly what Japanese researchers Koji Tsukada and Zautaka Kurihara believe they have come up with.

They call it the “SpeechJammer,” and it works because, in order to speak properly, we need to hear what we’re saying: we modulate our speech based on this auditory feedback.

Singers can sing better when they can hear their own voices over headphones in the recording studio, or over the monitors on-stage: radio personalities, ditto.

But interfere with that auditory feedback by delaying the sounds coming back to our ears by just a tiny bit, and we become discombobulated: it’s thought that the delay actually interferes with our brains’ cognitive processes.

And that’s exactly what the SpeechJammer does: it squirts a person’s own words back to them after a delay of 0.2 seconds.

As the researchers put it in their paper, “This effect can disturb people without any physical discomfort, and disappears immediately the speaking stops. Furthermore, this effect does not involve anyone but the speaker.”

The researchers’ prototype SpeechJammer consists of a directional microphone and speaker attached to a box that also holds a laser pointer and a distance sensor (and, of course, a computer, which computes the delay based on the distance to the speaker).

To interfere with someone’s speech, you point the SpeechJammer at the person talking, using the laser pointer as a guide, and simply pull the trigger. It can be effective up to 34 metres away.

The researchers conducted a preliminary study with five participants, testing various settings and using the SpeechJammer on two different kinds of speech: “reading news aloud” and “spontaneous monologue.”

They found that speech jamming occurred more frequently in the “reading news aloud” context than in the “spontaneous monologue” context, and that it never occurs when meaningless sounds such as “Ahhh” are uttered over a long time period.

Their preliminary study has pointed them toward further research to make their device work better, but the technology seems so simple and straightforward (so straightforward they’re not even attempting to patent it) that it will almost certainly find real-world applications.

Which is where it gets a little creepy. Imagine politicians cut off in mid-speech because someone is jamming them.

If you think that sounds grand, you’re not thinking hard enough, because it won’t just be the politicians of the hated other party getting squelched, but the brilliant orators of your own beloved movement.

Or imagine you’re at a meeting where your boss is presenting changes to the workplace you strongly disagree with — but you are unable to voice your concerns because the conference table is equipped with a SpeechJammer at every seat the allows whomever is chairing the meeting to literally control who gets to talk, and for how long.

That’s not to say I can’t imagine plenty of occasions when I think such a device might be useful and even desirable — but the point is, you might imagine plenty of occasions, too, and they’re probably not the same occasions.

As Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t sing (but might have), “If I had a jammer, I’d jam you in the morning, I’d jam you in the evening, all over this land . . . ”

The world might be quieter.

But a lot less free.

Edward Willett is an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction from Regina. His latest book is the adult fantasy novel Magebane (DAW Books), written under the name Lee Arthur Chane. Email comments or questions to ewillett@sasktel.net. Visit Ed on the web at www.edwardwillett.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer RCMP say a 30-year-old man faces sexual charges against a teen. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Innisfail RCMP arrest man following ‘lengthy pursuit’

Innisfail RCMP say a “lengthy pursuit” through a rural area ended with… Continue reading

Red Deer South MLA Jason Stephan speaks in the Alberta Legislature on Wednesday in this image from his Facebook page.
Red Deer MLA Jason Stephan sounds off on socialism in anti-lockdown speech

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan has applauded his government’s COVID-19 response, saying… Continue reading

(Photo by Paul Cowley/ Advocate Staff)
Mask bylaws not popular in rural areas

Red Deer and Blackfalds bylaws requiring masks in public places kick in on Monday

A GoFundMe campaign to support a Stettler couple following a fire has raised more than $3,000. (Contributed photo)
Family pet dies in Stettler fire

GoFundMe page has raised more than $3K so far

Canadian Olympic gymnast and National Sport School alumni Kyle Shewfelt announces his retirement in Calgary, Thursday, May 21, 2009. Calgary's board of education will close the National Sport School that has produced Olympic and Paralympic champions for 26 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Calgary’s National Sport School to close, looks to join a different school division

Calgary’s National Sport School to close, looks to join a different school division

Canada's Erica Wiebe, left, celebrates after defeating Nigeria's Blessing Onyebuchi, right on the ground, to win Gold medal in women's FS 76Kg wrestling at the Commonwealth Games on Gold Coast, Australia, Thursday, April 12, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Canada’s Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe eyes return to competition

Canada’s Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe eyes return to competition

Louisiana-Lafayette running back Elijah Mitchell (15) is tackled by Coastal Carolina linebacker Enock Makonzo (43) and safety Cameron Mitchell (49) during the first half of an NCAA football game in Lafayette, La., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. It's already been a season to remember but Canadian Enock Makonzo and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will chase two more firsts Saturday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Paul Kieu
Canadian Enock Makonzo, Chanticleers chase Sun Belt East regular-season crown

Canadian Enock Makonzo, Chanticleers chase Sun Belt East regular-season crown

Atlanta United's Mo Adams, right, challenges Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo during first half MLS soccer action in East Hartford, Conn., Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020. Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo says he finished the season with an injured leg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jessica Hill
Toronto FC ready to refocus on future as long, hard season comes to an end

Toronto FC ready to refocus on future as long, hard season comes to an end

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart speak to the media during a visit to the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Thursday, January 16, 2020. City councillors in Vancouver voted unanimously this week to ask federal officials for an exemption to Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, a decision advocates hope will blaze a trail for the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use in other municipalities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Advocates aim to shape ‘Vancouver model’ for drug decriminalization

Advocates aim to shape ‘Vancouver model’ for drug decriminalization

Senator Murray Sinclair appears before the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Sinclair is planning to leave the Senate early next year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Sen. Murray Sinclair, former head of TRC, set to leave the upper chamber next January

Sen. Murray Sinclair, former head of TRC, set to leave the upper chamber next January

Carolina De La Torre, right, owner of Arepas Ranch in Calgary, poses for a photo with her husband in this undated handout photo. The Venezuelan woman who believes she was used as part of Jason Kenney's argument not to lockdown restaurants in the province remembers her encounter with the premier as a lot less dramatic than he suggested. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Carolina De La Torre *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘No crying’: Venezuelan refugee Kenney cited says interaction was less dramatic

‘No crying’: Venezuelan refugee Kenney cited says interaction was less dramatic

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question from a reporter during a bi-weekly news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau feels most Canadians could be vaccinated by September 2021

Trudeau feels most Canadians could be vaccinated by September 2021

Most Read