The Luxury of Silence

In the noisy modern world, peace and quiet come with an increasingly hefty price tag.

David Gray / Reuters / The Atlantic

In his 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein enjoined his readers to respect the limits of language:

“. . . und wovon man nicht reden kann, darueber muss man schweigen.”
(“. . . and about that of which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”)

This might seem self-evident. But silence is much more than the homage we offer ignorance, the abashed confession we sigh out of shame, the prayer we address to the ineffable.

Today silence is also a commodity, one bought and sold at prices rivaling our most sought-after consumer goods. “Let us have the luxury of silence,” Jane Austen writes in Mansfield Park. Unfortunately, the cost of that luxury is increasingly beyond the means of most shoppers. And most surcharges for silence now profit those who have produced the noise we seek to escape.

Few industries have moved as aggressively to charge for the alleviation of the din they themselves generate as air transport. But while airlines have grown thuggish in extorting payment for formerly free amenities of travel, complaints about add-on fees seldom extend to the steep price of admission to their airport lounges, among the most successful of boutiques peddling silence.

To anyone who has weathered squawking public-address announcements about gate changes or final boarding calls or picking up the nearest courtesy phone, to anyone who has cringed beneath a loudspeaker blaring Muzak or the narration of a CNN special on obesity in American pets, or to anyone who has been startled by a beeping cart bearing the disabled across a terminal, it will come as no surprise that the most welcoming feature of the airport lounge is the muted lighting and dampened sound that greet one in its reception vestibule. For beyond the free chips and fresh fruit, the complimentary soft drinks and house wines, and the selection of trade magazines offered for the guest’s reading enjoyment, travelers primarily purchase respite from the bustle of the terminal.

The layout of such lounges segregates silent work areas from carpeted bars and soundproofed playrooms for children. Even in their most convivial areas, where television screens display market news and sporting matches, a hushed decorum is maintained, with outbursts a rarity. Offered by airlines to first-class ticket holders and frequent fliers who have purchased annual club memberships, airport lounges make clear both in their promotional literature and their discreet entrances that segregation of noise from silence is an expression of segregation by class.

American Airlines, for instance, explicitly markets its “Admirals Club” as an expression of rank: “Treat an Admirals Club lounge as an oasis of peace—away from all of the airport hustle. Because we know a little space to yourself can add up to a feeling, well, really big.” The United Airlines Club promises that, for its $500 annual fee, you will be able to “Relax in a sophisticated environment when you wait for your flight.” Not surprisingly, many clubs have dress codes.

The association of silence with wealth is not a recent marketing strategy, of course, but the marriage of tranquility and privilege is, in fact, the very purpose of airline lounges.

This reverence that silence pays affluence is even more obvious once the traveler ascends to the heavens, for noise can be subdued not merely in the airport but on the airplane itself. First introduced in 1986 for the protection of the hearing of pilots, Bose noise-canceling headphones have been used on NASA’s space shuttle and on the International Space Station. Now available in consumer models starting at $300, these battery-powered headphones mute the roar of the massive jet engines just a few feet away. Having inherited a pair of these headphones from a deceased relative, I can attest personally to the extraordinary effect of this technology: One does arrive less exhausted from a cross-country flight when that journey occurs in near silence.

Of course, the Bose Corporation is well aware of how attractive silence will seem to fellow travelers during such a grueling flight. So each headphone case is equipped with a small sleeve stuffed with “Courtesy Cards” in French and in English to distribute to anyone asking how to get a pair.

Thus, for a $500 airline club membership and a $300 pair of noise-canceling headphones, one can travel the sky in silence, a luxury that—like most luxuries—begins to feel less a luxury and more a necessity the more often one indulges in its pleasures.

But flight is not the only mode of transport that demands a premium from its customers to mute the racket it creates.

In a 2014 comparison of fuel economy, for example, Road & Track magazine issued a surprising declaration: “America’s most fuel-efficient new car isn’t a Prius: You’ll never believe what beats it.” The magazine named a Mercedes the winner and went on to explain its choice. “We’re not picking on the Prius (it’s a technological marvel), but it’s a car created solely for efficiency, and that shows in its road manners. The $52,634 E250 is a luxury car that just happens to get unbelievable mileage. It’s 1001 pounds heavier than the Toyota but feels as if every ounce of that went toward noise cancellation and luxury.” Notice that “noise cancellation” is the one luxury singled out by the author.

Even more dramatic attention is paid to Mercedes noise cancellation in a 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Mercedes-Maybach S600: The Silence Is Deafening.” In describing the incredibly quiet ride of this sedan with a base price of $190,275, the author explains the silence is not merely deafening; it is sickening:

I’m getting woozy. Something about this car is playing havoc with my vestibular system. . . .

The rear cabin, the company claims, is the quietest ever in a production car. In fact, Daimler developed the aero acoustics in its new wind tunnel with rolling road, which is able to conduct experiments with angled flows of air and crosswinds. The larger the door—and the Maybach has some big ones—the more likely a crosswind may pull the door away from the frame, creating small acoustical hot spots. That’s why the door seals look like rolled-up wetsuits.

In any event, wind noise is virtually nonexistent. Tire noise and vibration barely palpable. And then I realize the feeling. It’s simulator sickness.

This condition is common to even experienced pilots training in simulators with wraparound 3-D screens that tell their brains one thing while their inner ear tells them something else. The Mercedes-Maybach S600 is so attenuated, so muffled and muted, it turns down the sense data to the point where things almost don’t compute, at least from the back seat.

The rich, apparently, are willing to endure even nausea for the luxury of silence.

But if silence sickens the rich, noise is an affliction of the poor. Alex Lockwood, in a Counterfire review of John Stewart’s Why Noise Matters (published by Earthscan in 2011), points out the disproportionate effect of noise on those living in poverty:

At around 50 decibels people begin to get annoyed with daytime noise (at night, it is 30 decibels). At around 55 decibels (a 10 decibel increase represents a doubling of sound levels) people become extremely annoyed. Above 130 decibels is the human threshold of pain, although the gradual loss of hearing from continuous noise is a greater worldwide problem. One of the strengths of Why Noise Matters is that it offers up noise pollution as a global phenomenon. While its research is not (and does not claim to be) comprehensive, this global approach highlights the inequities in experiences of noise pollution between rich and poor, industrialized and industrializing, and asks why more is not being done to tackle noise as a social injustice. Noise is, as are other forms of pollution, a class issue.

For example, a MORI survey (2003) revealed that almost 20 percent of people in the UK, with a household income of less than £17,500, regularly hear noise from neighbors, including 93 percent of social housing tenants. In contrast only 12 percent of people with an income of more than £30,000 could hear their neighbors. Looked at globally, the divide between the peaceful rich and harried poor gets bigger according to where people live. In nearly all countries, from industrialized nations such as the U.K., through to India, Thailand, and across Africa, because poor people are more likely to live closer to major sources of noise pollution (roads, airports, industry), they suffer disproportionately more annoyance. Noise is not only the forgotten pollutant, but is increasingly what Les Blomberg, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, calls “second-hand noise.” More and more, it is not created by those who suffer from it.

The hushed halls of affluence buffer the rich from the hubbub of poverty, but for the poor, the clatter of modern life—like other forms of pollution—is inescapable. And as noise continues its inexorable advance into the quietest eddies of wilderness, even the rich may find a silent retreat impossible to locate.

This article has been excerpted from John Biguenet’s new book, Silence, part of the Object Lessons series.