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These days, silence is rare and expensive Add to ...

This Remembrance Day, the Royal British Legion released a charity single with Thom Yorke from Radiohead, though he didn't contribute any music. The song cost $1.29 in Canada on iTunes and is called Two Minutes of Silence, which is exactly what it is. The anti-song song landed in Britain's Top 20.

I would pay for it, even if the money were going to a less noble cause, like new swords for the Society for Creative Anachronism. This is what it's come to: Silence is a novelty, and a product. Why is noise winning?

In the city where I live, the daily assault sounds like this: At 7 a.m., our neighbour, a.k.a. Leaf Blower, begins his one-man war against foliage by firing up a Ghostbuster-style pack that sounds like a fighter jet parking outside our bedroom. At work, an innocent click on a pop-up sets off a blast of sonic blather worthy of someone named Mad Dog. Then comes the streetcar ride where a dude pulls two tiny speakers out of his backpack to provide a 45-minute soundtrack of imaginative variations on matriarchal fornication.

The unnoted hum of a post-Industrial society is now just a layer beneath a shouting army of very loud humans, amplified by technology.

Excessive noise is biologically stressful and agitating, contributing to sleep interruption and mental-health issues (naturally, the English word "noise" comes from the Latin "nausea," as in disgust). Hearing loss is the fastest-growing chronic condition in the country, according to the Hearing Foundation of Canada. While most hearing issues occur in those over 65, they are on the rise in people in their 30s and 40s.

Of course, noise is not news: The Romans enacted laws prohibiting chariots from clomping along the streets at night and living in unzoned London during the Industrial Revolution was no yogic retreat. George Prochnik, Brooklyn author of a book called In Pursuit of Silence, says (in a very soft voice): "We don't necessarily have noisier cities today, but we do have less public spaces that are silent."

Or even quiet. A 2008 Zagat survey found that the second-most-common complaint of diners in restaurants is noise. Remind me: In what way is my "relaxing night out" improved by a server repeating the specials four times at spittle range? University of California researchers discovered that the peak noise level in some restaurants is above 110 decibels. Optimum noise for a regular conversation is 55 to 65 decibels, and prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss.

Part of this sonic boom is a shift in restaurant design, away from sound-damping acoustical tile and curtains to sound-amplifying open space and hard floors. But restaurateurs who like it loud are also clearly aiming for a party atmosphere: To be loud is to be alive. There's no bigger insult to a restaurant than "That place is dead." And death is the one guarantee of silence.

In a 1983 New York Times article, a restaurateur defended his noisy open-concept restaurant by saying prophetically: "People don't want to be heard, they want to be seen." Almost three decades later, personal noise is officially a form of exhibitionism. As James Wolcott wrote in a Vanity Fair column last year, after enduring a mascara-streaked cellphone hissy fit by a twentysomething in his local pharmacy, "the ruinous effects of reality TV have reached street level and invade the behavioural bloodstream, goading attention junkies to act as if we're all extras in their vanity production." Theodor Lessing, an early advocate for noise abatement, wrote a century ago that making noise in public is a way for the powerless to assert their presence: The maid snapping the sheet is trying to be heard.

Now we elbow into public space with leaky earbuds and cellphones cranked to 11, and the result is exhaustion. Last month, a Canadian doing research at Cornell published a paper in Psychological Science asserting that the ability to perform a task was greatly reduced when in range of someone else's cellphone conversation - a "halfalogue." The brain starts firing to fill in the other, unheard half, a tiring experience that makes it nearly impossible to remain fully attentive.

But silence is rare and therefore expensive, a packaged privilege of the $20 yoga class and the $100 facial. Prochnik doesn't believe that the only alternative to noise is to buy silence, or join a monastic order. "In the past, even a large city like London would have more acoustical contrasts: more patches of undeveloped land, riverbanks, a cemetery attached to a church. All were ways to escape the noise. We need those spaces back."

Silence can quell the internal chaos, soothing the irritation of a life in constant motion, aural and otherwise. There's wisdom in silence, if not rapture. More access to silence may, in fact, ease the compulsion to bring the noise, and the ego, to every public space. Says Prochnik: "Silence takes you beyond the self."

 

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