Enjoy the Silence

The noise of the electronic age deafens us from our own thoughts.

Silence will be available for your listening pleasure.”

When will we hear that generous offer? Not likely soon. Our time will probably go down in the history of the future as the age of Too Much Communication. Studies tell us the average US office worker gets over a hundred messages daily by phone, e-mail, and otherwise. Holding on the phone for people we know will never come, we’re force-fed Muzak, advertising, and worse. Our public spaces have become auditory free-fire zones. Earlier concepts of public etiquette wash away as cell phones and fellow electronic marvels pulsate, sing, and shriek. We’re bombarded everywhere by noises that have nothing to do with us but endlessly beat back our own thoughts.

The most characteristic message of our time may be not electronic speech but electronic screech. The high-pitched squeals of car doors simply locking and unlocking, alarms that would have provoked curiosity — and alarm — a few years back, are taken for granted on the endless auditory battleground. Each shriek makes us pay brief attention, taking us out of ourselves — but not to anyone else — speeding our hearts, shocking us like we are under wartime attack or are perhaps animals being experimented on, taking more and more of our time and energy and consideration, more losses unaccounted for in the Gross Domestic Product.

Once such sounds would have urgently told us something was wrong and demanded our involvement. But no one can be continually alarmed. So the well-adjusted contemporary person learns to ignore virtually everything around him. As more and more random startling noises besiege us, we harden, deaden ourselves in small unconscious ways to soften their impact. To illustrate the dangers, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident was reportedly caused by plant workers, numbed by continual alarm bells, finally ignoring the real ones.

Yet the staple response of our institutions and those well adapted to them remains, as ever: “Get used to it.”

Second-hand tobacco smoke, auto exhaust, mercury poisoning, global warming, other people’s cell conversations, car alarms — economists call them “externalities”: negative side effects of market dealings that unintentionally affect others, which only action by communities and governments can reverse.

Meanwhile, our corporations are meanwhile “externalizing” machines, programmed to place as much of their costs as possible on the poorly organized public, the “commons,” in pollution, noise, and other unpleasantries. Businesses in our culture are obligated to maximize profit, if need be at the expense of the public environment, up to the point they are stopped by law. So without public action — what corporations and their political representatives call “expanding big government” — we keep paying.

The electronic car alarm is emblematic of the externality. Carmakers wanted cheap ways to reduce theft and win more buyers. A cost of these devices not paid by maker or purchaser is the high-pitched electronic blast they make each time someone (who hasn’t considerately disconnected them) locks or unlocks a car door. Payment is rather made continually by all of us who have to hear it.

Aren’t these small troubles, though, compared with the greater tragedies around us? Genocide, war, global warming, hunger? Granted. But what is it, not insignificantly, that gets pushed down, often drowned out, under auditory bombardment? Our own thoughts. Reflection. Memory. Creation. Conscience. We get inured to what’s in front of us, overwhelmed in a sea of distraction. Get used to it? Let’s not.

Social values like community and nature and quiet and civility, public boons that can’t be bought and sold as individual products, are constantly losing ground in our corporate culture before those that can. The free market doesn’t account for the value to us all of natural beauty, clean air, civilized children, and public health any more than it does a level of quiet that lets us hear ourselves think.

You can’t blow cigarette smoke in people’s faces anymore. Surely we can make it similarly unacceptable to shock other people each time you open or close a car door, or get a cell phone call. As the noisemakers proliferate, it becomes ever more critical that communities adopt and seriously enforce rules against electronic noise. Coffeehouses and restaurants can restrict offenders like cell phones to limited sections. The numbing blare of the electronic age underscores how noise pollution will no more be automatically restrained by the market than were air or water pollution. Only acting together, as communities and through governments, can save a world with space for silence.


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