Making sense of a moment where noise is televised, digitized, and auto-tuned, and silence is an oppressive luxury.
I was fortunate enough to experience my teenage years before digital technology infiltrated every aspect of human existence. I’ll never forget driving with a group of friends to a party someone heard about in the next town over; at the time, GPS navigation was something utilized only by military aircraft. There I was, at the wheel of my dad’s Hyundai Elantra as we meandered through a maze of suburban tract housing, squinting at dimly lit street signs through an icy windshield while a cacophony of conversation and something in the vein of Saves the Day filled the car’s interior. As I leered at the next street sign and contemplated how lost I was, I lowered the stereo’s volume. “Why do you need to turn the music down to see?” interjected one of my more annoying friends in an effort to be witty. “To concentrate,” I replied.
For anyone that possesses – for lack of a better term – a thinking mind, this should be nothing revelatory: silence really is golden. However, there are men and women at work, full-time, tackling the subject to make this not so. The noise we’re subjected to now goes far beyond auditory, though sound without a doubt still reigns supreme as the foe of silence.
Xochitl Gonzalez’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Do Rich People Love Quiet?” actually romanticizes noise. She details the horrifying experience she had attending an Ivy League university and actually being asked to be quiet in a library or in a dorm room where people were sleeping. This is all juxtaposed with her minority-majority home neighborhood in New York City, where noise is common which means de facto great. If you grew up in a place with noise (like Brooklyn, of course) you’re authentic, if you didn’t, well tough luck for you, I guess. Just like the content of every institutional media outlet, her article is framed to show how whatever the topic at hand, it oppresses people of color, and all the usual suspects are alluded to as perpetrators: white people, gentrifiers, WASPs, rich people, Karens (these are all the same in the eyes of someone like Gonzalez). However, she conspicuously omits a certain group: smart people. I wonder how much noise was in the room of The Atlantic editorial office when her piece floated through?
It’s worth noting that the war on silence is nothing new. English polymath and, ironically, inventor of the concept of the digital computer Charles Babbage was ridiculed about his distaste for noise, relayed in the chapter “Observations on Street Nuisances” in Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. Making fuss at the sound of street musicians and performers in his once quiet neighborhood backfired for the inventor, and he was subjected to increasing levels of harassment by lesser minds. “(A) crowd of young children, urged on by their parents, and backed at a judicious distance by a set of vagabonds, forms quite a noisy mob, following me as I pass along, and shouting out rather uncomplimentary epithets.” This was one such example of the outcome of Babbage’s one-man war on noise, my personal favorite is the following:
Another willful disturber of my quiet, was a workman inhabiting an attic in a street which overlooked my garden. When he returned daily to his dinner, this fellow, possessing a penny tin whistle, opened his window, and leaning out of it, blew his shrill instrument in the direction of my garden for about half-an-hour.
Did the whistle-blower not mind the sound of his own intended annoyance? Apparently not, for “[t]]hose whose minds (that) are entirely unoccupied receive it with satisfaction, as filling up the vacuum of time.” Too bad for the engineer-inventor-cryptographer-mathematician-philosopher, subjected to the Gonzalez’s of the world, hating silence and loving noise.
We’ve all interacted with this type before: the neighbor who can’t comprehend that sound waves travel beyond property lines or apartment walls, the coffee shop patron seemingly incapable of controlling the volume of their voice, the neighborhood resident that somehow doesn’t mind the sound of their dog barking at all hours of the day and night, or the roommate who needs the television on regardless of paying attention to it. The key term here is need, and any polite request to lower this need is an affront, for it exposes the inadequacy of the noise-generators’ intellect, cultural proclivities, etc. Philistines aren't merely indifferent to culture; they’re hostile to it.
The slightly less ornery take on the subject comes from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s essay “On Noise.” His perturbation at the sound of teamsters needlessly cracking whips borders on hysterical, but his point is no less apt: “Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought. Of course, where there is nothing to interrupt, noise will not be so particularly painful.”
Enter the landscape of modern noise. It’s televised, digitized, and auto-tuned. It comes at you through speakers made to look like rocks in gardens. It barrages you from screens in every room of your home and in your pocket, and even gas pumps now have flatscreens. Commercials blare at decibels almost painfully louder than the mindless noise you’re already half-watching while scrolling through more noise on your smartphone. It’s even in text, the trash that passes for journalism and education today is no less noisy than an eighteenth century wagoner cracking his whip or the bimbo next door playing Nicki Minaj songs on repeat.
The ghost in the machine that drives this noise can be the focus of a separate examination. Whether it’s Guy Debord’s spectacle, Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism, Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model, a combination of the three, or something entirely different, the obvious outcome of the legions of pro-noise adherents are proof of its effectiveness. Babbage and Schopenhauer would have immediate heart attacks if they were alive today, but it’s important to emphasize that the concept already described by the world’s two most crotchety thinkers hasn’t changed: the noise is designed, from inception, to prevent you from thinking. Know this, but don’t dare acknowledge it. You’ll be hated for it.