The Sound of Solitude

We are all cocooned in noise, and can escape from one another's only when immersed in our own. What effect is the sound-culture having on our self-awareness and faculties of thought?

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It was on the uptown 1 train somewhere around Dyckman Street that it all crystallized. The first thing you should know about me for the purpose of this story is that I live in New York, but in the neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx -- on 235th Street, to be precise -- which to a real downtown New Yorker is not merely uptown but upstate, and so I've had more than my fair share of long, late-night subway rides, replaying the night's festivities in my head while the train clicks north.

The train at 3:00 a.m. is a lonely, boring place, and there are a number of ways to relieve the boredom. Often I read. Once, I did pullups with two drunken gentlemen on the metal crossbars. By far the most common means of coping is to listen to music, which my fellow riders invariably do even when I don't. The faces change but the scenario remains the same. The noise leaks out from familiar white earbuds or large recurved headphones, and it reaches my ears even though I'm not wearing them. The wearer is two or three seats down the subway car, and he's nodding his head in time to the beat or blissed out with his eyes closed lost in his own private world or sitting there calmly looking straight ahead as if an unconscionable wave of sound weren't battering his eardrums.

What I'm experiencing in these moments is bleedover, collateral aggravation from the personal consumer choices of others. Living in metropolitan areas, we all experience bleedover. To drown it out, I'll put on my own headphones, perhaps creating the same problem for others -- and so on, in a domino effect of disturbed privacies. This minor incident, which we might pass over in silence as a mere inconvenience of modern life, in fact indicates a disturbing aspect of our culture. This is the ubiquity of private noise, the way we use sound to be alone.

In our eagerness for a semblance of solitude, we've lost much of what made solitude traditionally valuable: peace and quiet.

Forty years ago, George Steiner was a voice in the wilderness when he wrote of the "sound-culture" that had become all but synonymous with youth culture: "A large segment of mankind, between the ages of 13 and, say, 25, now lives immersed in this constant throb.... Activities such as reading, writing, private communication, learning, previously framed with silence, now take place in a field of strident vibrato."

He wrote this in 1971. How much truer are his words today? Apple has sold 300 million iPods worldwide in the past decade. In this time, users have downloaded 16 billion songs from iTunes. Much has been written about the isolating effect of the iPod, but little has been said of its other pernicious consequence, the way it makes self-inflicted sound a constant feature of our solitude. We are each of us cocooned in noise, and can escape from one another's only when immersed in our own.

As George Michelsen Foy details in his book Zero Decibels, the urban environment is full of noise stressors -- car traffic, the rattle of subway cars, the inane phone conversations of strangers. The engine of a city bus idles at 90 decibels. This isn't new. What's new is our coping strategy. Instead of retreating into the quiet of private space, we retreat behind our headphones, blocking out the offending sounds with our own wall of noise.

It's only natural that we should seek refuge. But in our eagerness for a semblance of solitude, we've lost much of what made solitude traditionally valuable -- namely, peace and quiet.

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Brian Patrick Eha is a New York-based journalist and poet. He works for Entrepreneur.com and has written for City Journal and The Rumpus.

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