Sunday, August 25, 2013

The rest is noise

Media commentators have no end of explanations of why our society seems to lack creative, or even sensible, ways to deal with national and international problems. We can't find a reasonable compromise or solution that sort of works: in the now-inescapable phrase, we "kick the can down the road," go for a holding action that will stave off the debacle a little longer.

This tendency is blamed on bad education, low-information voters, the debasement of politics to the level of professional (i.e., show business) wrestling, and numerous other factors. All those probably play a part, but there's another that may be even more basic -- noise. Life gets louder, sound more pervasive all the time, and noise keeps us from thinking.

It's hard to imagine now, but only a few hundred years ago, the environment (except in wartime battles) was close to silent. Nothing was much louder than human voices, and they were spoken at a lower volume than today, not having to compete with so many other sound sources. Nowadays it's not unusual when an exterior shot in a period film, complete with expensive actors, costumes, and props, has to be cut in the middle of a take because a jet plane flies overhead.

Noise pollution began with the Industrial Revolution and the factory system, but even their racket carried only so far. They say that horses' hooves and the metal wheels of carriages made for quite a din as they struck stone pavement, and possibly today's cars are quieter -- but big trucks and construction equipment aren't.

We entered a new era in the lifetimes of many of us when designers began deliberately creating environments to maximize noise. Restaurants used to have carpeted floors and sound-absorbing curtains, but now so many create a space where you have to shout to be heard thanks to bare stone or concrete floors and walls.

This trend is based on an untested assumption, that customers who grew up listening to rock music associate loudness with having a good time. That's probably true for some people, but what percentage? Has anyone ever done an objective focus group on the subject? Has any bar or restaurant experimented to see what the reaction, if any, would be by pumping down the volume?

Consider an analogous phenomenon, the TV monitors that are now in every public space, as if occupants will go mad without a telly around. Here we can get clues just by watching behavior. My observation is that, say in an airport lounge, almost no one pays attention to the idiot boxes -- all the more so now that smart phones, iPads, and tablets are typically among the clobber travelers carry. Even anyone who might otherwise be captivated by the big screens (almost inevitably tuned to CNN) can choose his own selected entertainment.

Getting back to the ubiquitous noise ... doubtless some people like it, or expect it. But unless someone does a methodologically sound (for once, no pun intended) study, we'll never know how many hate it. Introverts and the psychically sensitive "feel" noise powerfully; too much of it, and too loud, makes them tense. And while they may think so, introverts are not a tiny fringe of the population. For that matter, most people are at least a little psychic whether they realize it or not. It's just that our culture doesn't recognize this segment's needs because the entrepreneur/builder types are extraverts. 

If the designers of public spaces were as fanatical about creating quiet zones as they are about no-smoking zones, thinking and reading and quiet conversation would have a better chance. And so would our future.


Sheila said...

I have a pair of foam earplugs I carry in a case in my purse - for those times I absolutely cannot avoid being in a public waiting room. I loathe the ubiquitous, loud television tuned to the usual inanity in car dealers' waiting rooms, not to mention the usual irritating people. While some will type away on their laptops, others immediately start phoning people and chatting away, oblivious to all others. We usually drop off a vehicle (for an oil change or whatever) on a Friday evening and pick it up on a Saturday, so I don't have to deal with this too often.

I had my son's truck at the car wash the other week (long story), and had to phone him to tell him to keep using our vehicle for a requisite trip because his wouldn't be ready for a while. I exited the LOUD waiting room (television, Indian on phone, black kids) to go out to the summer Texas heat - and the piped music was even louder. I had to walk about 25 feet away from the building, past the grounds and bushes and into the next building's parking lot, to even hear a dial tone, let alone my own voice.

Unless I'm at the gym or consciously choosing to listen to music, I don't like background noise. I never turn on the car radio and rarely the television. I love having everyone out of the house and enjoying the peace and quiet. This is why a "vacation" of going away and staying in a typically noisy hotel is less satisfying, if I'm seeking peace and privacy. I used to make the 8 hour drive to and from college with no music - nothing but myself and my thoughts.

On the other hand, I grew up in a loud environment, and despite years of conscious effort I still have trouble modulating my voice to the appropriate level. I may hear myself (or the quiet) afterwards and realize how loudly I was speaking, but it's proven an incredibly difficult habit to break. How much is environment and how much genetics - I truly don't know.

Rick Darby said...


I'm sure we could all multiply examples. I particularly hate those filling stations that fit the pumps with CCTVs and speakers to blast you with junk programming while you pump gas.

The irony, as I alluded to in the posting, is that many (perhaps most) store and restaurant customers might prefer a quiet atmosphere. The managers just assume the clientele want constant stimulation; it seems never to occur to them to ask a sampling how they feel about it.

For the moment, Asian restaurants (mainly Thai and Japanese) are the last holdouts against air-raid-siren + sports bar ambiance. Some have no music at all. It doesn't seem to hurt their business.