In the ruins of ancient Pompeii a graffito was discovered, a plea for silence scrawled across a wall: ‘Enough! Be quiet!’1
It’s 7.00 A.M. I wake up to the sound of a syncopated, cheery marimba alarm. I’m growing to loathe its tinny major key and upward inflection, but it’s the only alarm on the iPhone that is guaranteed to wake me up. I must reach over and pick it up, as scrolling my fingers across the screen is the only way to silence it. No indelicate jabs at a snooze button for the shiny touch screen interfaces of the twenty-first century.
I’ve got the phone in my hand. I open Twitter, merely as a tactic to delay the inevitable moment of getting out of bed. And suddenly it’s on: messages from friends overnight, news updates, links to articles I should read, tracks I should listen to, videos I should watch.
Two accounts. One private, the other public. A radio station of a thousand channels. I’m scanning them all. I’m still in bed. It’s 7.30 already. Fuck.
In 1741 the artist William Hogarth drew a tableau of utter frustration with the urban noise of London. The Enraged Musician is positively stuffed with representations of unpleasant sound: a woman peddles song sheets while holding a crying baby, a town crier bellows out the news, parrots squawk and dogs bark, while the general cacophony of commerce and human life, from buying and selling to pissing in the street, continues without pause. All the anxiety of the growing cities of the eighteenth century and the loss of rural farmland is there to see: a musician covers his ears and looks furiously at the madness in the street. No silence, no space to write, think or play music.
Things only got worse in the nineteenth century, with urban congestion causing a litany of complaints, preserved and amplified by the literati. Goethe complained about barking dogs, Schopenhauer loathed the sound of drivers cracking horsewhips and Thomas Carlyle was so appalled that he built a soundproof room at the top of his townhouse to escape the babble of the London streets.2 Rapid industrialisation mean new noises: trains, steam whistles, the din of factories and horse-drawn trams. With each new phase of capitalism came a set of attendant noises and distractions, things that had to be blocked out or tolerated with gritted teeth. It was the sound of progress, and you could like it or leave. That is, if you were wealthy enough to have a summer house where you could escape the madding crowd.
With each new technological innovation came a claim for noise reduction. One of the strongest arguments for the removal of horse-drawn carriages with the coming of the automobile was sound: no more clanging of horseshoes against cobblestones and grinding of iron-wheeled carts.3 Scientific American welcomed the car as the technology of tranquility: ‘The noise and clatter which makes conversation almost impossible on many streets of New York at the present time will be done away with, for horseless vehicles of all kinds are always noiseless or nearly so.’4 Conversation was also a common source of complaint, as a source of street disturbance that would impinge on domestic spaces from the street and ruin concentration or rest. As one gentleman wrote of Venice in 1899, ‘the nearest motorized vehicle was far away, but sporadic outdoor conversation in the alley below my bedroom window … effectively murdered sleep’.5
In the early twenty-first century, there is a new kind of noise problem: networked conversation. This is not the street noise that floats into open windows, but it finds us nonetheless: via text messages, Twitter, Facebook and emails. It does not cease. I can tell I’ve stayed up too late when the chatter from Australians on Twitter begins to wind down, and the Americans and Europeans begin posting their first messages of the morning. Social media may be textual—written words, sometimes in 140-character bursts—but it functions like sound in many ways. We ‘tune in’ to it during the course of the day: it burbles away in the background while we work, like the radio, occasionally moving to the front of consciousness. Media theorist Nick Couldry has observed that aural metaphors are the best way to capture contemporary media’s social presence, and certainly the concept of listening helps us to describe the reciprocal and intersubjective nature of networked media.6 To me, it also suggests that there is a limit to listening—when it all becomes noise.
We have become accustomed to switching between conversational spaces, hearing new things, acquiring morsels of data, gossip, news: seeking diversion. Continuous partial attention, all day, every day. Particularly for white-collar media and information workers, social media, mobiles and email are critical resources for work—but they’re just as critical as breaks from work, a ‘healthy’ replacement for a smoko, an engine of infinite distraction. It is no longer just about deskworkers, either. Social media services and smart phones are reaching ever greater numbers, with growth curves that wildly outpace the popularisation of radio, television or cars. What were once just early adopter questions have now reached well beyond the latte belt: do I really need to check this fifty times a day? Why do I feel swamped by it? When (and how) do I make it all go away?
By the twentieth century, city noise had become a common subject of legislation, of city statutes attempting to shape and define the difference between acceptable ‘disorder’ and unacceptable ‘noise’. Citizens formed anti-noise coalitions. The splendidly named Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise was one of the most successful, founded in New York in 1906 by Julia Rice. With no less a figure than Mark Twain as honorary president, the society won campaigns for ‘quiet zones’ around schools, arguing that ‘protective circles’ were needed for children. The risk, in their view, was grave: in noisy environments, children would develop ‘jerky mental habits—a sort of syncopated thinking where the mind jumps from one subject to another without completing its train of thought’.7 Unbidden, noise would interfere with the learning process and begin to rewire the brain.
I follow a hundred people from my private Twitter account, another 400 from my public account. TweetDeck sends me updates on my laptop and desktop, Tweetie on my phone. Then there are a few hundred names in my mobile, of which a good twenty are likely candidates to pop up on any given day. Let’s not even talk about Facebook here, the yawning maw of squared-off faces, busily filling the news feed with tiny activities that, when taken together, represent months of busy time. With some desktop and mobile software, your messages will spring up onscreen whenever they arrive, as long as you are on and connected. Which is, of course, most of the time. This isn’t so much an abdication as a devolution of control: we get used to being interrupted, to the tuning in/tuning out cycle. We get better at it. We begin to miss it when it’s not there: the anxiety of a day without internet access, the sickening feeling when we have accidentally left the phone behind.
In the 1930s the popularity of the radio became a source of public concern. It added noise to the city, certainly, but even more worrying was the possibility that it was changing the way people thought. In the words of the historian David Goodman, radio ‘created the possibility of the abandonment of choice’, as people would leave it on in the background, as they went about household chores or work routines.8 But here was the danger: would these distracted listeners be easy prey to the skilful radio propaganda of fascist and communist regimes? Educational pamphlets about propaganda featured sections on the risks of background radio listening. Radio was considered an abundant medium that could be both beneficial and harmful: consumers needed to be attentive and ‘responsible in choosing from the array of goods’.9 The teaching of proper radio listening emerged in school curricula in the mid 1930s, with students being taught to keep a daily ‘listening log’ and answer questions about why they listened to that program, and whether they gave it their whole attention or were playing or studying at the same time.10
Are we now a society of distracted listeners? Over the past two years, I have been involved in a national investigation of mobile media use, which has meant travelling between big cities and small towns talking to people about their use of phones and social media. Be it inner-city Melbourne or Port Augusta, the stories I hear have marked similarities. The phone is the alarm clock that starts the day. Facebook and Twitter are always present for little ‘checking in’ moments throughout the day, then emails for work, and texts from friends. Moments of silence, of disconnection, are rare. ‘Do you ever turn your phone off?’ I ask. ‘No’ is the most common answer. Occasionally: ‘Only if it’s crashing a lot.’ Or: ‘I just put it in silent mode, you know, for movies or concerts or funerals.’ The mobile phone, that most personal of computers, can no longer be considered in isolation. It offers immediate access to multiple networks: your ‘Facebook friends’, ‘Twitter followers’, ‘iPhone contacts’; all slightly different groups, all of whom are probably sending you messages right now. Go on, you’d better check.
What do all these forms of media interruption, both signal and noise, do to us? In a recent essay, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben admitted how much he loathes the mobile phone:
I live in Italy, a country where the gestures and behaviours of individuals have been reshaped from top to toe by the cellular telephone … I have developed an implacable hatred for this apparatus, which has made the relationship between people all the more abstract.11
Indeed, the mobile has changed us: from the way we gesticulate, to how we reach the people we care about, to how we fidget. Particularly how we fidget: mobiles fill all that frustrating interstitial time that occurs between everyday events. I try to remember how I used to wait for friends before the mobile. Did I read? Stare into space? Think?
The hatred of mobiles is not new: if anything, it was once the default state of affairs. Some people would make a point of not owning a mobile, as though this was making a significant protest, or as if it would have any material impact on the radical changes to communication that were occurring all around them. I don’t know many people like that any more. Now there are significantly more mobile subscriptions than human beings in Australia.12 Are mobiles, and the social-media worlds they contain, starting to overwhelm us and further abstract our relationships with others?
These kinds of discussions usually break into two camps. There are the ‘information overloaders’, who claim that we need to return to some prior way of life, a hazy and mythical time when things were simpler. The internet, mobiles, all of it is somehow unbalancing and unnatural, and what’s worse, think of the children. I don’t have much time for this view. On the other hand, we have the ‘information self-reformers’, those who believe that if we are suffering from too much network presence, too much data, we simply need to manage ourselves and our tools better. This is the meaning behind Clay Shirky’s smug claim: ‘There is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure.’
It’s not much of an option: do you eat your packed lunch with the Luddites or join the techno-church of high individualism? Yet it seems deeply unsatisfactory to accept that the static of constant network connection is just something we must put up with. Unlike the arguments about the noise of the nineteenth-century city, leaving town is no longer an option for many—our jobs, our social lives, our sense of self have become entwined with these technologies. Worse, the Shirky approach is merely prosthetic: in his view we must change ourselves to make it all bearable, assembling digital earplugs that will let the good signals in and block out the noise. This is where I agree with Agamben, that at ‘the root of each apparatus lies an all-too-human desire for happiness’—these are powerful desires keeping us connected, always hoping for happiness, and such desires are easily manipulated. Yet we feel that we can master it all, just as soon as we figure out Inbox Zero or learn Getting Things Done, or ban the laptop from the bedroom, or stop using the phone at dinner, or read that book about productivity that everyone’s twittering about.
If Agamben is right, this is the greatest folly. When well-meaning technologists simply tell us just to use the tools better, they are ignoring the ways in which the tools are part of a process of creating us as particular kinds of subjects, as ‘always connected people’, powerfully contributing to the shape of entire societies. If there is something charming in the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise it is that they recognised noise as a shared problem and addressed it collectively.
It’s early 2010. I’m travelling for work. Racing between meetings, I suddenly notice my phone is missing. I frantically check everywhere. I retrace my steps, check every location, contact restaurants, cafés, offices and friends’ houses. Nothing. The phone is gone. I’m furious at myself: for not backing it up recently, for not having insurance, for not checking it constantly. As though somehow I could always be in control of these things, or that phones—unlike all other kinds of things—aren’t occasionally lost or stolen. That night, I realise I can’t even set my alarm for the morning. I pause for a full beat before I remember that the hotel will have a ‘wake-up call’ service. I feel ill and jittery as I fall asleep; then I wake up in a sweat at six, cataloguing all the things in the phone that I’ve lost, things that are important to me. Photos, notes, text-message exchanges, all gone. And what of the day ahead? People are trying to reach me, I’m away from home, I can’t email or text or check in via Twitter or Facebook. I will be at least two days off-network before I’m home and able to buy a new one and attempt to reassemble the data of my life. It’s a bad time for this, I say. Is there ever a good time?
I’m not throwing in my lot with those who suggest we destroy the looms, or proposing we form a society for the suppression of unnecessary networking. But I do think it’s time for a broader discussion of media sustainability, and where we find spaces of silence. Adam Greenfield, currently at Nokia as head of design direction for service and user-interface design, tells a dark joke about one day opening a café chain called Faraday’s. The walls of the cafés would function as Faraday cages, effectively blocking electromagnetic interference: no wi-fi, no web or email, no phones would ring. You would be inaccessible. He believes that over time, civility and reflection, even sanity, depend on this kind of silence. He calls for ‘zones of amnesty’. Genevieve Bell, the chief anthropologist at Intel, uses the term ‘spaces of refusal’: she believes new forms of morality will develop about when it is right and wrong to be connected, along with the creation of spaces where technological absence is the social norm. Bell once sent me a photograph from a church in Korea, where there is a large sign with a pictogram of a mobile with a red line through it. The text reads: ‘More grace to you if you will turn off your cellphone.’
It comes as no surprise that it is these most connected people, those living and working at the very companies that have contributed to our over-connection, who most desire the grace of silence. They have been at the cutting edge of these technological modes for some time, and their work requires them to travel the world and notice patterns emerging. They recognise the impending severity of the problem. The situation will only become more acute as we begin to use location-aware technologies that report on our movements through cities, such as the increasingly popular Foursquare service. As Greenfield argues:
The only real hope I see is to create a constituency of empowered users, people who demand compassionate design of their artifacts, and ensure that together they have enough of a voice in the market that whatever gets sold observes at least some of the basic principles of a sane and civilized society. But that’s a conversation that has yet to happen.13
This is the conversation we need. To talk about working with each other to maintain some latitude for silence. If we don’t, we are resigning ourselves to making our way through the cacophony, always feeling responsible for our inability to keep up with it all. This is why I find the analogy with noise pollution most productive: it reframes the issue away from individual technological use towards thinking about the combined impact of these technologies in the shared spaces of our homes, offices, streets and cities. We can follow the path of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers and agitators who were troubled by the impact of noise on city design and civic conversation, concerns we should still heed. This is ultimately an ethics of connectivity: to develop principles that prioritise media sustainability, or more specifically human sustainability, within a cloud of ever-present media forms. Only then can we seek both the happiness and inspiration of connection, as well as the solace of silence and retreat. By chance, as I write this, a Twitter message from Alain de Botton interrupts me, flashing up on my screen. ‘We have become such experts at being always in touch, informed, connected. Now must relearn how to be silent, disconnected, alone.’
- See Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2002.
- Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, p. 116.
- See Joel A. Tarr, ‘The Horse—Polluter of the City’, in his The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective, University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio, 1996, pp. 323–6.
- Peter Coates, ‘The Strange Stillness of the Past: Toward an Environmental History of Sound and Noise’, Environmental History, vol. 10, no. 4 (October 2005), p. 641.
- ‘The Horseless Carriage and Public Health’, Scientific American, no. 80 (18 February 1899), p. 98.
- Nick Couldry, Listening beyond the Echoes: Media, Ethics, and Agency in an Uncertain World, Paradigm, Boulder, Col., 2006.
- Quoted in Raymond W. Smilor, ‘American Noise, 1900–1930’, in Mark Michael Smith (ed.), Hearing History: A Reader, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 2004, p. 325.
- See David Goodman, ‘Distracted Listening: On Not Making Sound Choices in the 1930s’, in David Suisman and Susan Strasser (eds), Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, p. 25.
- Lesley Johnson, The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Australian Radio, Routledge, London, 1988, p. 79.
- Goodman, ‘Distracted Listening’, pp. 35–6.
- Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, Cal., 2009, p. 16.
- From Paul Budde’s report on Australian mobile subscriber statistics, <http://www.budde.com.au/Research/Australia-Mobile-Communications-Subscriber-Statistics.html>.
- Adam Greenfield, interviewed by Rebecca Blood, December 2005, <http://www. rebeccablood.net/ bloggerson/adamgreenfield.html>.