Essays on Technology and Culture

The Parable of the Megaphones

In the beginning, there were megaphones. These megaphones were expensive, and hard to use, so the only people who used them were ones who knew how, and could afford them. Over time, the megaphones got cheaper, and easier to use. So, more people got megaphones. The cheaper ones weren’t quite as loud as the expensive, fancy ones, but they were often loud enough. Not everybody could afford a megaphone, and fewer still knew how to use the cheaper ones, of course. Sure enough, though, they found a way to make cheaper, easier to use megaphones that were louder than the second batch.

And so on, and so on, and so on, until now almost everyone who wants a megaphone has one. The new megaphones are almost as loud as the fanciest, most expensive megaphones, and they’re easy enough to use that some people only ever use their megaphone to communicate. Naturally, this makes things very chaotic, loud, and bothersome. To make matters worse, not only the megaphones are pretty easy to use, but they’re easy to misuse too. And nobody’s read the damn manual, if they even came with one. And more people are getting megaphones every day.

Of course, not everyone has a megaphone, but a lot of people do. Until fairly recently, the only people with megaphones were either big companies who could afford the biggest, loudest, and most complicated megaphones, or early-adopter type people who had the cheaper, almost-as-loud ones. There were just enough people with megaphones that it wasn’t overwhelming, but progress marches on. While those of us who have had megaphones for years are trying to figure out how to handle a noisy world with lots of echoing feedback, the people who haven’t had megaphones are anxious to jump in.

To make matters more complicated, a lot of the people picking up megaphones have seen us using ours in public view. They’re used to just hearing our amplified voices, and not being heard over the din. Now they have an even footing. Their megaphone is as loud as ours, and all the other new people with megaphones can listen to anyone, or amplify what either person says. No wonder it’s so noisy. So the old megaphone users aren’t happy with all the noise, and they aren’t happy with how the new people are using their megaphones, and fights are breaking out.

And that’s where we are today.

The thing is, none of us know how to use our megaphones. Some of us think we’ve got it all figured out, since we’ve been using them for so long. Then those upstarts come up and starting using their megaphones differently, for different reasons. Even if they’re not directing their megaphones at us, it’s annoying. Thing is, they’re going through the same learning process we did when we got megaphones. Not only are these new megaphone users learning the ins and outs of megaphone etiquette, they’re learning it in a different environment than we, the early-adopters did. There weren’t many rules when we picked up our first megaphone—we made them up as we learned, and what we made were rules that fit a world where fewer people had megaphones. As the new megaphone users learn how to use them, we’re being forced to adapt how we use our megaphones to the louder world, and that’s hard to do.

We’ll probably never agree 100% on how we should use our megaphones. Time will sort out most of it, until the next batch of people get newer, cheaper megaphones, and the cycle will begin again.