The Noise Machine


Silence is today no longer an autonomous world of its own; it is simply the place into which noise has not yet penetrated. It is a mere interruption of the continuity of noise, like a technical hitch in the noise-machine—that is what silence is today: the momentary breakdown of noise.”  -Max Picard, The World of Silence, p. 40

The refrigerator hums and I sometimes don’t even notice it until it stops. But when it stops, I always take notice. There is a feeling of relief even when I may not have been consciously aware of being bothered.

Similarly, traffic has been found to interfere with people’s sleep even when they do not report being disturbed. They may report getting used to the ever present volume, even failing to notice it altogether, but their animal bodies are not used to it. At the physiological level there remains a measurable disturbance—evidence that the city remains an alien and hostile environment.

NYC_Subway_R160A_9237_on_the_EIn 2006, The Journal of Urban Health reported that regular use of the subway system in New York City is sufficient to result in noise induced hearing loss; standing on the platforms or riding in the train cars exposes riders to unsafe, potentially injurious, levels of noise. The average weekday sees over five million rides on the NYC subway system; it is a routine part of the day for most riders and so it is not surprising that the risk is generally overlooked. Researchers point out that “avoidance may be an option for some riders, but for most urban dwellers and commuters, this is probably not practical.”

It is not practical to avoid a means of transit that is likely to result in hearing loss. A refusal to sacrifice one’s hearing thus disqualifies a person from full participation in society possibly even employment and with it the means to feed and shelter oneself. To participate—and one is not readily allowed to opt out—in modern society requires that one not merely accept risk but readily submit to being harmed in very serious ways. The person who doesn’t ride the subway because of the noise is clearly an eccentric and possibly seen as dysfunctional (a most interesting word!).

But hearing loss isn’t merely inconvenience and it is not a stand alone problem. The website for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) explains that “[e]ven a small amount of hearing loss can have profound, negative effects on speech, language comprehension, communication, classroom learning, and social development.” Furthermore, noise induced hearing loss has been linked with impaired mental health, memory loss, disturbed sleep pattens, impaired communication skills, and even cardiovascular disease. This is what accompanies mass transit.

Mass transit represents a foreseeable and significant harm but not, strictly speaking, a deliberate harm. That is to say that the purpose of mass transit is not to deafen or otherwise injure riders. But it shouldn’t be overlooked that the irritating and the pain-inducing features of noise have been made use of in deliberate ways. For example, public places and private businesses that want to deter the presence of teenagers have installed devices which produce a high frequency noise that is said to bLRAD fergusone extremely unpleasant to teenagers but inaudible to adults. A more extreme example is the LRAD (long range acoustic device), a sonic weapon that is euphemistically described as “non-lethal”. The LRAD can direct a beam of sound at a volume well past the point of causing injury and pain; it has been used to disperse or immobilize protesters and thereby quell dissent such as last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Beyond Injury

But the problem with the noise of civilization is not limited to physical injury. Even if the hearing apparatus we have evolved were able to endure the volume of civilization, the noise itself would block out what is of considerable value thereby severing a vital link to the wider world. I try to listen to the voices of birds while walking through town but they are frequently drowned out by the noise of cars. I try to hear the water that travels along the bike path but its quieter sounds are very often blotted out. Only the loudest voices reach my ear, the quieter ones are effectively eliminated from the soundscape.

It’s important to remember David Abram’s assertion that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human”. If we are cut off from the voices of birds and rushing water, we experience a profound loss. The noise machine of civilization blunts our senses and shrinks our world. It is the aural equivalent of wearing blinders.

Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence, has suggested that “the rate of quiet places extinction vastly exceeds the rate of species extinction”. The number of places where quiet can be experienced is shrinking. While once almost a birthright, more common than a subway ride or air travel, the experience of quiet is actually becoming quite rare. Lacking the experience it’s unclear how many will be aware of what is being stolen from them.

Just as there is no easy way to opt out of noise-induced injury, there are almost no quiet places where one might escape or even visit. The noise is totalizing.

False Silence

More often than not noise is a by-product and, worse yet, may signal an inefficiency in the system. On the surface, this seems to provide a motivation within the framework of civilization to turn down the volume. But the silence of civilization is something altogether different.

A quieter subway system is not a tenable solution. Gordon Hempton’s goal of re-routing commercial jets so they don’t fly over national parks is admirable but woefully insufficient. Ear plugs, noise damping materials, new technologies, and new legislation will not be sufficient to quiet the noise machine of civilization or to create a meaningful silence.

The only silence that can be achieved within the framework of civilization is a false or perhaps toxic silence; indicative of a loss rather than a presence; a deprivation rather than an opportunity. It is the silence in the title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It is the silence of social control, domination, and death. It is silence achieved with a muzzle. It is sensory deprivation and isolation.

The pursuit of silence within the framework of civilization bears no resemblance to George Prochnik’s suggestion that seeking silence generally involves “the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world”. Another way to put this would be John Zerzan’s vision of “a world that doesn’t need running”. It’s not sufficient to silence the noise machine but rather there is an urgent need break it; not to run the world more efficiently but to give up control.

True silence makes it possible to listen. Either through refusal or inability, we haven’t truly listened in a very long time.

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2 thoughts on “The Noise Machine

  1. As a parallel in music, it’s utter theoretical nonsense spouted by those like John Cage (“Silences found within traffic always being different” and thus desirable as opposed to always ‘the same’ within a Mozart or Beethoven) that propels this nightmare into other crevices or hopeful refuges of modern life.

  2. Thank you for writing about this topic. I think about this all the time, especially in the fall season when leafblowing is in full effect. The noise and air pollution from leafblowers is unbearable. Leafblowing also contributes greatly to soil erosion.

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