You've probably heard the phrase "a flash in the pan." It has been defined as "a transient occurrence with no long-term effect." Originally, it described a misfire, when gunpowder "flashed" but failed to ignite the shot in an old-style rifle.
A couple of weeks ago there was a digital phenomenon that seems to exemplify a modern flash-in-the-pan moment. I'm talking, of course, about the Yanny vs. Laurel debate that briefly swept the internet, and then, just as quickly evaporated into pop-culture mist.
It was a classic viral event. Through social-media sharing, it seemed like everybody in America one day was listening to a digital voice file that — depending on your ears — was either saying "Yanny" or "Laurel."
Looking back, it seems like very old news, an episode that has passed its sell-by date.
But for a 48-hour span in mid-May it seemed like magic. It was completely mystifying that two sets of ears could hear such dissimilar words given the exact same audio input.
At the Kennedy house, we had a 15-minute laugh fest as our 16-year-old son swore he was hearing "Yanny" while the rest of us — his mom, dad and 11-year-old brother — were firmly in the "Laurel" camp.
"You're kidding, right?" I said.
"No, I'm not kidding," he insisted. "I promise I hear Yanny."
"Listen," I said, pressing play on my laptop. "See? Laurel."
"It's Yanny," he countered, wide-eyed, braces gleaming.
"Laurel!" I shot back.
"Yanny!" he snapped.
This went on for several minutes until we both gave up and collapsed into laughter.
According to a New York Times report: "The clip and an online poll were posted on Instagram, Reddit and other sites by high school students who said that it had been recorded from a vocabulary website playing through the speakers on a computer."
The Times also reported, wryly, that New Age musician Yanni could only hear "Yanny."
Meanwhile, women on Facebook named Laurel had fun with the controversy, wondering if half their friends were ear-blind to their actual name.
The New York Times also published an audio "tool" that allowed you to modulate the voice file in two directions. Drag an arrow one direction, and the voice file sounded more like "Laurel." Push it the other way, and the word sounded increasingly like "Yanny."
I got to thinking about the whole Laurel/Yanny thing, and it struck me that maybe it was God playing a joke. Maybe it was his way of reminding us that two human beings can have exactly the same information but hear/feel/think two completely different thoughts.
Stick with me here. Instead of Laurel vs. Yanny, substitute blue vs. red or left vs. right. Imagine a world in which half of us, presented with the same information, see blue while the other half sees red. Or we instinctively turn right while others turn left. It doesn't make us bad people. It's just the way our brain works.
Now imagine that, after a time, we might stop being amused by our differences and we start being annoyed.
What if, instead of sharing a laugh, my son and I had gotten angry. What if that anger had metastasized into something dark and we decided to stop talking and retreat into our own Laurel or Yanny echo chambers. Meanwhile, commercial media, always ready to sniff out a profit, creates a Laurel network and a Yanny network to monetize our emotions.
There seems to be a clear message here.
I'm thinking this might actually not be a flash-in-the-pan event after all. Try this. The next time you get ticked off about somebody else's views, please just write it off as simply a Yanny/Laurel moment.
You might even try creating a new phrase to express your exasperation with people you disagree with, "Well, Yanny have mercy." There's no need to grit your teeth and convert the Yanny-eared people in your life to Laurel likers, or vise versa.
In fact, the best possible result is that you both end your disagreement with a mystified smile.
Or better yet, both sides could take a deep breath and LOL.
Contact Mark Kennedy a firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.