Quantum Empathy

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Throat singing was one of the oldest forms of music in the world, which is perhaps why it went overlooked for so long. The modern problem of developing language to reflect our knowledge of spacetime was, no doubt, a task for modern technology. If we really wanted to solve the hypocrisy of syntax, of words strung together in a false linearity, then we’d need to figure out a way to compress, or expand (the camps were divided on this point), the moment in which we spoke. Once we understood that what they were doing was more than singing—it was, in fact, a method of verbal tunneling, a quantum syntax, grammar for the world we actually lived, are living, in—the science shifted.

“We,” of course, refers to the people in the urban centers, us deaf to the rhythms of rivers and winds, who lit up the night with false suns. The Tuvans, Turks, Inuits, Xhosa—they’d all known that time moves differently around mountains than across plains, they’d known that humans are capable of redefining the present as it happens. The rest of us had been tethered to this idea of cause and effect that rendered empathy always a little too late. I hit you, you say, “Ouch,” I say, “I’m sorry.” The time between when I hit you, and when I expressed sorrow for hitting you, meant that I would never know how it felt. My ancestors enslave your people, you demand reparations, I say, “But, that was so long ago.” The space between Now and Then is an excuse, but a convenient one.

Linguists started developing an app. The idea was that if multiple ideas could be written or spoken at once, then communication might become more accurate. Instead of texting,

I love you. I'm so sorry.

your words might show up like this:

Love                      you

So sorry               

The idea was called “quantum empathy”: if you can express thoughts as they happen, then maybe the thin-skinned distance between people could evaporate. Marketers for the app proclaimed that it may allow for greater understanding between nations, races and religions, and heralded world peace. But even if you could express two thoughts simultaneously, how could someone intake them both at once? Our texts had assumed order: left to right, top to bottom—or vice versa, it didn’t matter because you’d still read one thought before another. Are you more sorry, or more in love? Being both equally, at the same time, seemed impossible to convey. Poets argued that you might be feeling all feelings at once, but the act of naming one made the others diminish slightly; physicists argued that maybe there was only one feeling at all. A probability cloud of emotion.

Then, there was the issue of interpretation of meaning. The apps were created by linguists who came from noun-centered languages. So when people from verb-centered languages—including many of the indigenous people who knew better than anyone that defining a “past” was an act of violence—might say this:

Run in the forest, feel, know and sing

the app might say:

Inside the forest, you have a song.

Our languages were built on possessions—to own a thing that already existed, rather than to act upon your environment and, therefore, create it. Several peoples from across the world banded together to protest the app’s ignorance, which was a PR nightmare for the company that had bought the rights to the app in every country it could.

The app-creators, frustrated, tried a text-to-talk feature, which would spit out two thoughts simultaneously in voices that were based on the tonal distinctions that made throat singing possible, but even the quickest minds could only capture one at a time. The reverberations in the folds of the throat that made overtone singing possible were used to mimic sounds like water bubbling, leaves rustling, a baby crying. Singing multiple notes at once was not meant to speed up communication, but to paint the cycles of the natural world, omnipresent, as a backdrop for the story of the song. But we, the dispossessed, could see only the story arc, and not the forest around it.

Despite its failures, the app and its many iterations were a phenomenon. People around the world used it for sending tongue-in-cheek texts, prank calls, making avant-garde art and looping samples for hip hop and electronica, and, occasionally, trying to communicate. The lead linguists on the project were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for developing, the Committee was sure, a technology that may one day “solve all known social ills.” The company’s stock rose exponentially, making a lot of humanities majors very rich.

Yet throughout all of this, no one thought to ask the various throat singing communities what they thought of “quantum empathy”—until an enterprising young ethnomusicologist from Amsterdam decided to spend his summer internship (“This will MAKE my career!” he texted a friend) asking Xhosa throat singers what they thought of the app.

He interviewed a woman who, according to his research, was one of the first Xhosa overtone singers recorded on tape by David Dargie in 1980—a woman whose voice influenced the double-throated apps.

“So, how does it feel to be the mother of future communications?” he asked the interpreter, who asked her.

She laughed. “I sing for the people here with me now,” she said.

“But, ‘now’ is a construct,” the ethnomusicologist smirked, “so don’t you want to sing for the past and future as well?”

The woman stared at him. The young Amsterdammer took this to mean she did not comprehend, and tried a different question: “The app based on your singing could revolutionize social interactions. People think it might create a new type of empathy. What do you think of that?”

The woman sighed, watching her twins giggle and garble in their invented language as twilight whispered to the horizon, and said, “You must believe things used to be so simple.”

About the Author: 
Sarah is a nonfiction writer whose first love was sci-fi. She’s from the United States, though she's lived in various communal farming spots in India, Haiti and Costa Rica. She is working on publishing a book of essays that wrestle with mental health, culture, religion, race and gender.
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