From Ears to Society

Tedx TalkMarch 29, 2014

I'm Maarten Vanhoof and today I'm gonna talk about the way I think my hearing disability has led me to have some specific views on creativity and innovation.

But first, let me ask the question if everybody is able to hear me clearly? If not, I probably don’t have the time to fix this, but don’t panic, if you want to, you can reread my presentation on this site, or you just send me an email and i'll send it to you.

Ok, now, let me introduce my left and my right ear. What you see on the x-axis are the different frequencies of sound a human can here, ranging from low sounds to high sounds.
On the y-axis you see the loudness of sound ranging from the top, almost no decibels, to the bottom, 120 decibels.
The dots here in the middle, they represent my ears. What this graph shows is that, on average, I’m only able to hear sounds the moment they are louder than 40 db.

That is, let’s say, equal to the normal sound of a tv playing at a meter distance. If I take a step back, I won’t notice that the sound is on. So, you can imagine that this makes things quite complicated for me, especially when I want to follow a conversation in group, then things tend to become very difficult, even with the help of my hearing aids.

The result is simple: for me, conversations are filled with gaps because I can’t hear what is being said. Today, I’m going to talk about how I deal with these gaps. And although I experience them every day, I noticed that talking about my solutions is not an easy thing to do, but hell, let’s give it a shot won’t we?

A first thing i'd do is to focus very hard on all the signals I receive to reconstruct what is being said. I would focus on the sound, I would read lips, look at body language, but also would I think of the typical themes, the way others react on what is being said, on what is socially accepted and what’s not, and so on. And i can tell you this works. Throughout the years, my body has been, although mostly unknowingly, developing a technology so extraordinary, that it makes me capable of understanding people, without having to hear them. Innovative isn’t it?

Now personally I don’t think this is innovation, its ingenious yeah and it’s a sort of technology but most of all it is adaptation. And it is not difficult to image a lot of people who are much better adapted to much more difficult situations than I am.

What I think is far more interesting is the second way in which I handle these gaps. The difference here is that I only use this solution when the gaps are bigger, say whole sentences, because in this situation my first solution doesn’t work very well. What I’d do then, however, is very simple:
If I can’t follow the conversation anymore, I defocus. And I start making up the conversation myself.

Years of training later, and after having been wrong a thousand times, I find myself now to be quite good at this. Most of the time, the abstractions I make are quite in line with what is being said. In my experience, conversations tend to be very predictable. And boring. Very boring if you already know, more or less, what is going to be said.

So I pushed things further. Instead of constructing a conversation, I go a little bit crazy. I completely stop following the conversation and, in my head, i try to connect the topic of the conversation to the first thing that pops in my mind. I literally build an unexpected connection between the conversation I think I’m following and whatever I feel like dancing to. I have to admit that usually, these links are quite silly; wordplays, stupid jokes, fantasies, remarks and so on. But hey, these links entertained me while all the rest was talking, so what's wrong with that?

It took me some years to realize that this creative escaping also serves a purpose. You see, I can use these ideas, wordplays, jokes, fantasies of mine to bring myself back in the conversation even if I haven’t been following the conversation for a while. Or even better, a well-directed idea is able to change the course of the conversation enabling me, to even steer the conversation. Now would you consider that as an innovation? Or is it merely creativity?


I don’t really know about that and I know this might sound a bit stupid, because I work at a place called the innovation lab of Orange but really, it’s not that easy. As I found out, the difference between what I’m doing with conversations and the projects we do at work isn’t that big. Let me try to explain that a bit more in detail with an example of our work there.

You remember this line don’t you? Now suppose this time it is not a conversation but it is a typical way of researching human mobility based on the registration of people’s telephone activity. Basically, if you use an antenna, this gets registered and so researchers have an idea of the different antennas you visited. In general, this allows researchers to describe the ‘overall’ mobility of a country or a region, like we did here for Avignon, but it is very difficult to make an interpretation of the mobility patterns of individual people because you do not know what happens between these antennas.

And so the team decided to take a leap of faith and to start working on an innovation which would enable to make these data more interpretable; sensible, tangible even, on the inidividual level. In order for this to work, we needed to let go of the typical way of interpreting and visualizing these kind of data, which are mostly points on a map or timespace prisms.

Then we focused on a new idea, in this case, the idea that we could use other forms, other ways to represent the data

We worked on these ideas, a lot, experimented, refined, redefined and so ultimately decided to go with one idea where peoples locations traces are depicted as surfaces which can be placed on maps.

And this is the result. Afterwards, I admit this might seem a small intervention, but this object is very valuable in fact. Because right now, if we confront people with their own 3D model, they are capable of saying that these mountains, where there have been a lot of calling, are their homes, there works and other places. They are able to describe their displacements between two places because, you see this curve, this is a traject between two places where we don't know anything about from our data but to which people can attach meaning.

These object enables people to tell us how they travel between spaces, when they go there, with whom and so on. All of this enables us to gather new information and to make totally different interpretations, hereby initiating a completely new way of research with exactly the same data.

Great! I'm quite sure that this is what one could call innovation. But really what is the difference between this innovation and my personal creative escaping? Because obviously they seem to have a lot in common, isn’t it?

Personally, I don’t think there is much difference between the two. But the difference that exists is an important one. Basically, for conversations, it’s quite easy to perform this creative escaping as the gaps are given. In other circumstances, however, the canonical force of this predefined line is very strong and so the cost to perform this creative escaping is quite high.

I find this a very intriguing insight. Because indeed, most of these predefined lines in our society do not allow for this kind of creativity to happen. The creative escaping i described here, is actually very absent in our daily lives and practices. It is not there in our institutions, our work environments, in our social norms nor in the way we educate. This seems stupid. If we want to be innovative as a society, we should be encouraging people to be creative, empowering them to break out of this predefined lines.

That's the reason why I think we are in a great need of recognizing how much these predefined lines are restricting us. It's a bit of a terrifying thought but I think these lines could be a lot of things. They could be the format in which we evaluate our children at school, the way we hold our conversations in the same scheme over and over, they could be our prejudices against people who think different than us, or they could be our lack of interest in each other, which prevents the other from being comfortable being himself.

If we don’t start realizing that, I fear we might never arrive at fully acknowledging that each and everyone of us has a capacity to be creative, given any circumstances, given any disability. And that each one of us has to right to use this creativity for a change, for the best, for an innovation. So, in fact, I really hope that this little personal story of mine, together with all the other talks today, might just inspire you a little bit more to do two things:

1. To believe in yourself and the others. That you all have the potential to be creative in any context, given any circumstances.
2. To acknowledge that every relationship, every encounter, you have, with no matter who, can form the line that prevents the other from being creative, but it can also provide the space for the other to shine.

I know very well that this is not an easy thing to do, but believe me, neither is talking about your bad ears to a crowd of unknown people. Thank you for your attention, and have wonderful evening.


© 2014 Maarten Vanhoof. Based on the illuminating example of Benjamin Wiederkehr's Visualised Talk.
A lot of thanks to: Rose Dumesny, for the designing of the slides. Catherine Ramus, for the guidance in exploring my ideas, Matthieu Sannie, for the support in this experience and Kim, for all the inspiration.