Thursday, March 29, 2012

The new noise: so loud we can’t even hear it

Posted By on 03.29.12 at 09:37 AM

Dear Gmail: Will you please be quiet, please?
  • Dear Gmail: Will you please be quiet, please?
Some silences are harder to find than others. Or maybe it’s that certain noises are harder to avoid? In any case, people keep trying. Quiet has become “a delicacy just for urbanites, who’ve gotten so used to fighting for silence that it now seems exotic.” Taking it a step further, soundscape ecologists (yep, those exist) have trekked deep into the Alaskan wilderness to track down a species of silence—one devoid of all things man-made—that’s all but extinct.

I get it. I understand the anthropological nostalgia attached to such a pursuit. I appreciate pristine tranquility—and its scientific significance—as much as the next person. But I still love the noise of the city. Bring on the din of traffic, the stray siren, the chugging bus. It’s the sound of life, of hustle, of progress.

But there’s another, newer noise that I find disturbing. And those of us who hear it will probably never find a way to turn it off.

I’m fortunate to have reached adulthood before this noise materialized, meaning I’m able to remain, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, wary of it—despite its hold on me. It’s not a noise registered by decibels but by its ability to invade every nook and cranny of one’s psyche. It’s the noise of everyone talking at once (on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc) and of a bunch of people simultaneously trying to get your attention (via e-mail, Gchat, text, and, somewhat archaically, phone). And it’s really, really loud.

I was 24 when I got my first cell phone. I started texting when I was 29. I got a first-generation iPhone for my 31st birthday. Two months later I started tweeting. The following year I signed up for Facebook. The date of that epic event—as Facebook Timeline has made me acutely aware—was June 30, 2008. The ensuing four years feel less like a timeline. They feel like a lifetime.

I love these things for what they are: tools that connect us. I also hate them for what they are: tools that deafen us.

My long-dormant Yahoo account, which dates back to age 23, is littered with 3,889 unread e-mails. The scary thing is that today, my active e-mail accounts are similarly filled with so much unanswered chatter, be it my personal Gmail account (3,061 unread) or my professional Reader one (7,613 unread). I’ve only had the latter for a year.

That’s a lot of noise. And to think that all of it has accumulated in a dozen years—that everything was so freakishly quiet before—is to discover what those soundscape ecologists who ventured into the Denali National Park and Preserve must have found: that the noise surrounding us nowadays is so loud we don’t even hear it. And that makes it sound a lot like silence.

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