Smart Things in a Not-Smart World

As the "convenience economy" conquers ever more of our lives, a call to remember what technology can't do
Van Damme State Park ( Flickr/Eric Heath )

Quiet. As a city dweller, this word does not mean what I think it means. There's noise everywhere. The thrum of electric motors, power lines, cars, refrigerators, cable boxes. It's other people taking out the trash and listening to their music and starting their cars. I can close my eyes and know that the human-made world and the humans who made it are all around. 

It turns out that almost no matter where you go in America, this is true. We are a noisy species. Hillel Schwartz's insane(ly good) book, Making Noise, points out the central role that noise plays in most creation myths. To make humanity is to make noise. 

Add modern technology to extend the human empire to the ends of the Earth, and noise goes everywhere. Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist, has traveled the world recording soundscapes, and he can say, pretty definitively, that there are only 12 places in the United States where you can go more than 15 minutes without hearing any human noise. He only discloses three of them: The Hoh Rainforest in Washington, Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, and Haleakala National Park in Hawaii. The others he keeps confidential.

Of course, his rules are strict. Hempton only counts areas of about 1,200 square miles or larger, "enough to create a sound buffer around a central point of absolute quiet," BBC Future's Rachel Nuwer wrote.

These rules are certainly stricter than mine would be. For me, it was enough to run a few miles up a trail along Little River in Mendocino's Van Damme State Park. The redwoods grew taller as I climbed the gentle slope at a good pace. And when I got to a fork in the road, I stopped and looked around me.

Even out there, without a human around, I could see how precisely humans had constructed this place. It wasn't wild. Most of these areas have been logged in the past. Trails are cut and maintained alongside the river. This place was made for you and me.

But if I closed my eyes, I couldn't hear a person or a car or a plane or anything. I heard my blood. I heard the river right ahead of me. At this time scale, it was steady and calm, identical one moment to the next. Birds sang at different distances and angles. In the quiet, with all my attention focused on my aural experience, I could almost imagine the feats of echolocation that you hear about from time to time, people who navigate their environments by sound alone

Visually, we are bound to live in the technological world we can see. But if we want to escape that world momentarily—maybe not even for 15 minutes, maybe just for a few seconds—all we have to do is close our eyes sufficiently far away from other humans and infrastructure and listen.

It maybe not be the perfect quiet that Hempton desires, but it is something deeply calming and also nothing special. It is just the world going on, the bones of your ears another point in space, vibrating like all the rest. 

And for me, that intersects with a most important thread in technology recently: We're creating a world that seamlessly, effortlessly shapes itself to human desire. It's no longer cutting through a mountain to prove we dominate nature; now, it's satisfying each impulse in the physical world with the ease and speed of digital tools. The shortest way to explain what Uber means: hit a button and something happens in the world (that makes life easier for you). 

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