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?


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.

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.

Music isn't the only culprit. At home we have our televisions and other consumer electronics, our computers with browser bookmarks for video sites like YouTube and Hulu, our vast libraries of games, movies, and other audiovisual entertainments. The proliferation seems infinite. Apple is projected to sell 60 million iPads this year alone, and its App Store is currently counting down to its 25 billionth download.

It's high time we seriously consider what effect the sound-culture is having on our self-awareness and faculties of thought. "We have no real precedent to tell us how life-forms mature and are conducted at anywhere near the levels of organized noise which now cascade through the day and the lit night," Steiner wrote.

With the dubious benefit of four more decades in which this cascade of noise has only grown in volume and intensity, we can now say it seems to stunt or impede important faculties. Developmental psychologist Lorraine Maxwell has found that excessive noise causes stress in schoolchildren and impairs their attention and memory. Noise also affects their desire to socialize and participate in groupwork. Children both young and old, she wrote, "withdraw from communicating with their classmates in noisy environments."

At a certain point it becomes a health issue, just as technology addiction has. Those in the developed world now have recourse for that addiction: technology-free vacations. For the right price, anyone can get away from their gadgets -- staying in hotels that don't allow personal electronics, or visiting areas that have no Wi-Fi access and are distant from cell towers. The upscale Ultima Thule Lodge in Alaska, accessible only by plane and 100 miles from the nearest road, is so remote that digital gadgets can't get a signal. Rooms start at $1,700 per night, with a three-night minimum. In California, the Ranch at Live Oak forbids mobile phones and watches as part of a week-long detox program that also excludes meat, sugar, and alcohol.

It may be that to heal or at least lessen the damage caused by the onslaught of noise, we need acoustic vacations, sabbaticals of silence. It's notable that a daily dose of personal time is part of the Ranch's health package.

As a culture, we are now afraid of silence, and hold suspect those who indulge in it. We are afraid perhaps because music has become our lingua franca, our common ground, the most universal means of sharing experience. Where this is true, silence means disconnection, withdrawal, social death. But only in silence can we learn to think often and well. And bad thinkers notoriously make bad actors.

Even within the heart of the city there are remedies. I've taken up urban exploration, which, whatever else it does, allows me to enter quiet zones where I can get away from it all. Yoga and meditation, which have been linked to a variety of cognitive benefits, are more popular than ever. One in 10 adults in the United States now practices yoga. And there's church -- by which I mean not religious observance necessarily but merely the precious quiet of hallowed space. In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, there's a sanctuary below ground where I often went to hear myself think when I worked in that neighborhood.

I'm 25, a digital native writing from inside the sound-capsule. But I'm also at the tail end of Steiner's somewhat arbitrary timeline of youth. From 18 to 22, music was like oxygen for me, as it was for many of my peers. In one three-day period in March 2009, I acquired 24 new albums, by artists ranging from Yo La Tengo to Neil Young. I listened happily at every hour of the day and night. But now, when reading or writing or thinking, I tend to go radio silent. Music is still important to me, but it no longer consumes me.

These days, being alone increasingly means letting my wall of sound come down.

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