Michael Harris is the author of several books, including Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World and The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.
I have in my ears a faint buzz or whine that has, for several years, played its unending note over every potential silence. I hear it now, a faraway A-flat, like a warning.
Overlaying this sound there is another disturbance – a broader, culture-sized tinnitus. Have you heard it? From our screens, from each other, from the thrumming city street? Our world grows louder, decibel by nattering decibel. Our lives are forever bending toward noise.
In Canada, 80 per cent of us live in cities now and that means urban din. Sirens, traffic, excavators. The roar of a subway and the airplane overhead. It all adds up to an unescapable wave of sound. And this ratcheting of volume is not benign. The World Health Organization warns that urban environments now produce sound levels well above safe limits. In Europe, there are 12,000 premature deaths each year caused by the stress and cardiovascular disease brought on by excess noise.
But, in our private lives, we sense all this already. We know that restaurants are too loud for conversation. We know the clamour of nearby traffic can drive us to distraction. We know, too, that billions of insects, frogs, birds and whales are so tormented by our noise that their migrations and mating patterns are fracturing. And we know that, like them, we’re painfully in thrall to all these noises – for our ears can never close.
We think that we deserve this confusion, this ramping up of distracting sound. But the reason for the noise in our lives is more insidious than that: We have been primed, in fact, to accept it. We have been taught to let this din roll in.
Every age is transformed by its ascendant technology. In medieval times, the mechanical clock made our days uniform and regulated, shaving our lives down until they fit into minutes and seconds. In the 20th century, the automobile remade our lives again to suit its speed, scale and preference for isolation. And today a maelstrom of online content makes its own adjustment: It teaches us to believe in noise.
We believe that pandemonium is inevitable, certainly. But we also believe that we don’t need clear signals anyway – that meaning (or at least a little dopamine, which feels the same) can be sifted from the chaos. We believe that real attention and library-level focus are fond antiquities and – worse – we believe that, if we really could turn inward in some miraculous return to silence, there’d be nothing there of real value.
The more successful a technology becomes, the more our senses are remade to suit it. Our perceptions are ground down, torqued and pierced until they resemble the tech through which we apprehend the world. And few technologies have been so successful at this remodelling of the sensorium as today’s bundle of online wonders. We’re forced by the sheer scale of online life to accommodate its peculiar biases; and then, without thinking, we start to mimic its accent.
And what exactly is the bias of the internet? It is the privileging of noise over signal. A lean into scattershot content with no interest in the salience of one thing or another.
Marshall McLuhan described how, after the initial insult to the senses that every new technology produces, there follows a kind of somnambulism, a sleepwalking. We grow numb and find ourselves passively accepting the technology’s point of view. In the 1980s, for example, as television swelled in importance, the media critic Neil Postman found it had become “the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe.” Television was a babysitter, a nursery rhyme, “so familiar and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing.” Our own “background radiation” is noise itself – noise in the mind and noise in the ear.
If the perpetual state of interruption and noise that we live with feels normal to some of us, it’s only because we are already so completely changed. We’ve been conditioned by our devices to expect babble, to even grow worried without it. And so, if the physical world did not grow noisier and more clamorous each year, we would grow nauseous from withdrawal.
Before the collapse of resistance, there is only a small period of time – this period, our time – when the tragedy of noise will be felt at all. Already, to complain about noise (whether in restaurants or in our social feeds) is to invite youthful eye-rolls. And, of course, every generation is doomed to discover “that racket” in their turn. The waltz was a shocking entertainment when it arrived in 18th-century Vienna. And yet …
Is the ramping up of noise really just a quantitative change? More of the same old youthful divergence and geriatric grumbling? Or could it be a qualitative change, something tectonic and dangerous? Consider: After the lightbulb was invented at the end of the 19th century, our cities grew steadily brighter and brighter until light pollution blotted out the stars. Quantitative change, pushed past a limit, becomes qualitative change after all. Less than two centuries after Thomas Edison invented his lightbulb, we have lost a firmament that inspired our ancestors to invent gods.
What are we blotting out today? What value is there in silence that our noise pollution obscures?
Scientists who gave lab mice daily doses of silence found that cells in the hippocampus grew faster (while constant noise stunted brain growth). Elementary schoolchildren placed in classrooms by noisy subway tracks had lower reading levels than those who worked on the quieter side of the school. These are concrete effects. But there are less obvious boons, too. Many authors (myself among them) have detailed how silence leaves room for the development of a rich interior life, for daydreaming and the formation of an identity independent of the hive mind. Our personalities mature in the empty spaces that allow them to self-reflect; we discover what we really think or really feel when inputs hush and we can sit a while with what we’ve already received. In this way, amid doses of quiet and stillness, the self coheres.
None of these physical, cognitive or spiritual benefits can be ours, though, if we do not demand the silence that our online minds are so convinced we can live without. We will always fail to make that demand – of ourselves, our cities, each other – so long as our minds are primed to believe that constant interruption (and casino-grade stimulation) is natural. Cut out the noise within our heads and we might learn to shun the noise around us.
These two pollutions – the mess in our minds and the mess in our ears – are, I think, intimately linked. Online life shapes our senses and determines our idea of normalcy. To the adapted mind, physical noise seems less and less like an irritant and more like our only option.
It is not.
With a little effort, we may again notice that every stream of elevator Muzak, every pinging phone, every grating television is not merely a moment of distraction – it is a message. And the message is this: “Your own quiet life is unworthy of your attention.” Each intrusion asserts that you, really, have nothing of importance to reflect upon, nothing of value that can’t be shimmied aside just one more time. Why not instead be bathed in input from marketers and strangers, from automatons and loudspeakers and every kind of constructed cacophony that blurts and belches?
We end up believing that our quiet inner lives really may be worthless, that we’re just human-shaped objets made to ricochet down a stream of stimuli. And that’s what we remain – until we demand something more.
Sometimes I think the ringing in my ears will never end. But then, randomly, it will. I revel in the silence when it comes. The vain busyness of life drains away for a moment and I’m able to apprehend something clear and solemn and soft. I notice the celeste shade painted at the top of an empty sky. I stand a little while in that rare vacancy – and then, at last, I can listen.
The sound of silence: More on The Decibel
When COVID-19 sent much of the world into lockdown, three Canadian researchers had perfect conditions to study how much noise we normally produce. Nicola Koper, William Minarik and David Barclay spoke with The Decibel in 2021 about what they learned. Subscribe for more episodes.