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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Our Noisy times 

Regular Clarion Content feature contributor Cliff Phillips returns with another insightful piece about pace, society, and environmental change. Once again he examines our shared modern world and ways. His astute observations take what had heretofore been subterranean and casually ignored, and ask us to acknowledge and confront it in our cultural selves. We would say, "Amen, brother, shout it from the mountaintops!" but it would probably be drowned out by the din.


What is the difference between a broom and a vacuum? Between a scythe and a mower? Between a horse and a car? Between a rake and a leaf blower? The newer tools save labor, of course, but it’s also important to recognize that the older tools belong to a quieter time.

Stop to picture doing things the old way and you will notice a critical break industrial man has made with our past. The bad old days of manual chores seem impossibly difficult to us now, but it has been easy to forget that they were blissfully quiet compared to the sonic environment we endure today. And the ongoing technological proliferation of gadgetry, machines and toys comes at the direct cost of escalating noise levels.

While studies document the damage of noise pollution to hearing, cognitive function, mental health and cardiovascular health (and not just for humans), there is no measure of the collective social damage caused by the stress, anxiety, and even pathological behavior unleashed by the escalating racket. And the roar is steadily increasing, even periodically doubling in many environments (like near growing airports), with no indication of how it might level off. The din is not merely diminishing our quality of life. Worse, civilization is sick with noise.

Noise pollution is defined as any environmental noise which is annoying, distracting or physically harmful. “Annoying” and “distracting” may seem to stretch the definition, until you try to listen to one of two or more competing sounds. It’s not just difficult, it can be irritating, and those unwanted sounds are a problem. Consider an office worker, standing beside a running copy machine in a busy office, straining to make out what their boss is saying to them from across the room. They may well feel a surge of annoyance, not all of it caused by their boss.

At 60-80 decibels, the competing sounds of conversation and office machines are beneath the 90-95 decibel range at which prolonged exposure can result in hearing loss. The typical modern environment is pretty cluttered with 60-80 decibel sound, whether from humans or from their electronic surrogates. But the brain can’t easily distinguish between multiple sound sources, making the quantity of noise just as problematic as its volume. The office worker can’t distinguish her boss’ words from the meaningless sounds, and events quickly outpace her senses. The tiny primal thrill of hypertension (“annoyance”) she feels is harmless in itself, but a busy day in the office can become thrilling in a bad way. When we talk about having “stress” and “distractions,” we are often referring to noise.

Our standard for what we deem unreasonable noise is bound up in notions of what a reasonable person would tolerate in their sonic environment. But when we try to imagine this “reasonable person” in our noisy contemporary world, it is often the exceptionally tolerant person we picture. Given how prolific noise sources are, we need to seek a standard of quiet rather than a standard of noise tolerance. There truly is a level at which noise is not only too loud, but too much, and just not healthy for individuals or society.

But can we remember the quiet well enough to make the judgment? What would the “reasonable person” of 1900 or 1800 have thought was unreasonable noise? How would they respond to an environment where streams of jet planes rip through the city skies, highways scream past crowded neighborhoods, televisions broadcast from every room in the household, cell phones sing spontaneously from every pocket, and swarms of leaf blowers and lawnmowers drone perpetually through the warm seasons of suburbia? The astonishing fact is that almost every basic task of life has been automated and has a corresponding mechanical or electronic noise. We live with a ruckus unanticipated in the hush of 1900. Unimaginable in the stillness of 1800.

No doubt, our ancestors would be rattled to encounter the sonic environment of 2011. The crescendo would alarm them, but so would the sheer fact that we endure it. No doubt they would wonder, because we seem unaware of the riot in the air. It might seem to them that in all the sustained commotion, human consciousness itself had been blasted into an altered state: that interacting with our environment no longer sharpened or heightened our senses but actually deadened them; that instead of listening we filtered out, instead of paying attention we ignored, instead of experiencing we disengaged; that the restorative beauty of silence, now nearly extinct, caused many only loneliness, anxiety and fear.

Maybe they would be sorry for us. Maybe angry at us. They would think us lonely, for sure, but also sense-addicted and over-stimulated. Was something gained? Would our ancestors see a world of “connectivity” and because of it leisure and freedom? Or would they see a bleak echo chamber where the human spirit is shouted down and gradually forgotten, silenced by the rampant, petty violence of exponential noise?

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