This was already in the news last December, and not in the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic. A UC-Davis study had found that “the louder people talk, the more airborne particles they emit, making loudness a potential factor in spreading airborne diseases.” Particle emission during talking had other factors, but loudness was a consistent indicator of emissions. In fact, and this is the part that may shock people the most, talking loud emits particles in a fashion similar to sneezing or coughing. The authors of the study did mention the role of loud talking in transmitting influenza generally, but that makes sense because various strains of influenza are among the most contagious and serious of illnesses across populations.
Skip ahead to a White House briefing in April 2020, when, Victor Tangermann reports, a “prestigious scientific panel” told officials that Covid-19 could be spread by talking. Again, this was one piece of a range of observed transmission methods that included just normal breathing, “bioaerosols generated directly by patients’ exhalation,” and a much greater risk indoors than outdoors. For those who had wondered about the utility of wearing masks for potential transmitters and not receivers, the muffled talking that occurs behind the mask must have seemed to be a pretty benign force compared to people loudly jawing off and possibly infecting someone.
But all this might raise concern that when we get back to whatever near-to-normal we might get, the workplace will no longer be protectable merely by making sure nobody comes in with a cough or fever. Talking itself will transmit the disease. Social distancing will have to continue, unless technology enters the picture to somehow give us either distance without loss of exchange, or exchange that resembles distance.
Let’s start with that artificial distancing, or exchange that resembles distance. How do you create artificial distance, or the safety of distance while still being just a foot or so away from someone? Someone has already designed glass (plexiglass or clear plastic) dividers beween seats on airplanes in a post-pandemic world. Perhaps airplanes are not the only application. Dividers could be placed in between seats at a conference table, or on a panel discussion. This would substantially decrease the risk of transmission in everyday conversations.
Of course, the real alternative is a lot more teleconferencing. And this alternative doesn’t just apply to distance learning. Even if all participants are in the same building or on the same campus, a Zoom meeting can happen in place of a face-to-face, or larger group meeting. The good thing about this solution (besides the fact that loud-talkers can still talk loudly) is that it’s also really good for the environment. This isn’t just because of the decreased carbon footprint that comes from eliminating travel. There’s also the reduction in paper, printer cartridges, ink and toner. And there’s the reduction of plastic and food waste in not having to feed conference attendees.
There is a particularly sad angle on this story about transmission through talking, and it bears on the evidence that the virus lingers in or travels through the air in some contexts. A group of choir singers in Mount Vernon, Washington met to rehearse. They stayed far apart, and all reported being healthy when they attended practice. Two are now dead of Covid-19. Conferencing technology has its aesthetic limitations, as musicians trying to use it to record or rehearse will quickly learn. In a list of ten forms of pandemic-appropriate collaborative platforms for musicians, one that sticks out is JamKazam, good for both collaborative recording and music teaching. If, as theorists have long told us, technology is merely the extension of body parts, we’ll have to see how much technology can simulate natural exchange while decreasing transmission risks.