Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Listening as placemaking
   

When we rehearse in our minds a conversation we think we might have tomorrow or remember an episode from yesterday, the quality of our thought depends to some extent on the quality of the audience that we imagine. If we imagine we will be with dull-witted thugs, the character of our thought is quite different than if we believe we will be in the company of attentive and thoughtful listeners.

Furthermore, the quality of the audience we imagine depends to a great extent on the quality of the audiences we have experienced. Seeing this we can see that better audiences make the world better--not in a mystical way but quite directly. They change the narrative environment in ways that improve our thinking.

Most of us, including our students, would become better thinkers if we had had better audiences, and becoming better thinkers is an important step on the way to becoming better people.

It’s safe to assume that our successes or failures as listeners may have a profound influence on the narrative environment--as much as the words we speak. We spend much of our time as audience for someone or for something, and how we listen is an important part of our narrative intelligence. What we attend to, what makes us smile, what we hear, what we ignore, what makes us linger, what we construe and what we don’t--these are not small matters. Good or bad audiences can change a person’s life.

Listening is also an important part of placemaking. A place is a geographic location associated with human meaning--a space in which people have made something--sometimes a city but sometimes only a memory. When some ancient fisherman in the Columbia Basin, pondering the fish he had burned his fingers trying to cook the night before, shared his idea of a stone fireplace and saw his friend’s raised eyebrows and approving nod, they were well on their way to transforming their piece of the world. They gathered the rocks and before the sun set they had created the memory of a shared dinner of grilled trout. They had made their spot along the river into a place.

It became a place by becoming a feature of the two characters’ story worlds. The built environment and most of history takes form first in story worlds we construct out of memory and imagination. If the friend had answered in such a way that made it clear he hadn’t really been listening at all but was instead caught up in his own worries, quite likely world history would have been one barbeque poorer. His listening was part of creation.

Interestingly, if he had listened to his friend carefully in the past, he may not have needed to be present at all to have done his part. His friend could have imagined him, based on memory.

Listening is so important that it has become a major preoccupation of the most powerful creatures on earth--vast mercantile creatures--business corporations are the most common form, but these are being joined by large universities and other cultural organizations, by mega-churches, by large-scale criminal gangs and by nations and former nations.

Oh do they listen. They conduct polls, they do market surveys, they find ingenious ways to track our movements and purchases, they organize focus groups, they test market--they do everything they can to keep us under their surveillance. They are obsessed with hearing from us.

They listen with passion but it’s a disciplined and focused passion that doesn’t include us, necessarily. Mostly they want to know just what it is that we, in turn, will listen to. Their listening is a strategy to find the ways to be sure we hear them. They have figured out the world of humans is, more than anything, a competition between stories. And it’s a competition they want to win.

They specialize in strange types of storytelling. One of these they call “branding.” Old-style advertisements tended to give information: buy our shaving lotion because it has lanolin and it will soothe your skin.

But brandmakers tend to provide images--visions of a world as, they hope, you want it. Their stories often give no information at all. Their plots are more like dreams than like arguments. If I argue with you, I wake up parts of your mind that might listen to other voices than mine. So I might offer you a vision of a Sunday afternoon in the summer, and you are free, driving fast along a highway that swoops along the edge of a vast ocean. You have nothing to worry about. Eagles soar overhead. Pulses of music pierce you, shafts of sun through white clouds. You go faster, a beautiful stranger beside you. Nothing can hurt you. And faster. The music pounds. And faster.

Are you listening?

If not, there are other stories, some far better and some far, far worse.

The ones that get listened to win, and out of them empires grow. They get larger and more powerful month by month, the managers deciding, by watching what works, what to make with their vast resources. On the Internet the pattern is already clear: computers never stop tabulating your mouse clicks and monitoring how long you look at which pages. What you ignore shuts down and goes away. What you look at gets replicated and developed. What you click on gets more powerful.

You are free to look at whatever you want. And as our choices multiply, we are more and more free not to look at or listen to what we do not want. And so, less and less are we all in the same empire. Some of us are so far away we can’t hear each other, really. Each of us moves farther and farther into story worlds built especially for people just like us. We are separating into empires that get stronger by our very listening.

Already we have branded housing developments such as retirement communities with just the amenities and architecture we dreamed of. It may not be long till whole towns are built and people move into cities that were imagined, designed, constructed, scripted and sold--people will move into them and they will be real. It may be our destiny to live in worlds whose qualities--ugliness or beauty, superficiality or depth, depravity or goodness--are precise renderings of the quality of our listening.

And the rest will be forgotten.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/26 at 06:14 AM
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