Mark Liberman, commenting on a story that the FAA is considering lifting the ban on in-flight cell phone use, points out that the problem is not that there will be more conversation on the airplanes, but the specific nature of the conversations:

As I’ve observed before, there’s something funny about this. People do still have face-to-face conversations, and many people do this on airplanes, in my experience. So a phone-free airplane is not a place where the unwanted conversation of other people” is absent. It could be that the survey respondents feel that cell phone availability in planes would cause the number of conversations to increase, and they might be right about that. But as Mark Twain was the first to point out, and as controlled experiments have since confirmed, listening to one side of a conversation is much more annoying than listening to a whole conversation at the same distance and volume level.

Fortunately, thanks to DARPA researchers, we may no longer need to even listen to half of a conversation.

DARPA, the US Department of Defense’s research agency, is working on a project known as Advanced Speech Encoding, aimed at replacing microphones with non-acoustic sensors that detect speech via the speaker’s nerve and muscle activity, rather than sound itself.

If they can make commercial applications of such technology it would be fantastic. Unfortunately the person at the other end of the phone would hear a computer synthesized voice rendering sub vocal speech (not to be confused with subvocalization), rather than the speaker’s natural voice. Everyone else would hear nothing but blissful silence. That and babies crying.

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