Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the WaPo Labs blog on March 22, 2012. For more posts on the role of technology in society, check out our Technology section; for more posts from Emily Schwartz, click here.
Is silence golden?
How about Chopin on your iPod? Or Nirvana? Is music preferable to a coworker tap-tap-tapping on a keyboard? Or to cars whizzing by as you walk down a city street?
When was the last time you experienced silence?
That’s the question that Brian Patrick Eha asked recently in The Atlantic: “What effect is the sound-culture having on our self-awareness and faculties of thought?”
I’ve written previously about the value of disconnecting from our devices, but the idea of disconnecting ourselves from sound entirely is a different beast. Our world is a cocoon of noise: music, voices, television, cars, film, advertisements, construction and – dare I say it – the sounds of nature.
What does quiet sound like? Is all of this noise good or bad for us? Is technology the problem or the solution?
As Eha notes, the impact of sound upon our thought processes, social interactions, and even our cognitive functions is still yet to be fully understood. The idea that we now plug-in to positive sound (Chopin) to escape negative sound (the loud subway) is fascinating. Is being selective regarding noise our way of adapting to its overabundance?
In 2009, sound specialist Julian Treasure gave a short TED talk on four ways in which noise affects us. He described sound as impacting us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively, and behaviorally. The human relationship with sound, he said, is largely unconscious – for better and for worse. Bird song is associated with safety and security. But an open-plan office space, rife with distracting chatter, diminishes individual productivity by two-thirds. Suddenly, those earbuds prove rather beneficial.
Again, we treat sound with sound.
Technology isn’t going away. Noise isn’t going away. But the ways by which we choose to handle our overstimulation to noise is crucial to our health, our relationships, and our professional successes. We cannot educate, research, create, and innovate with jackhammers and garbage trucks outside our laboratories and schools. Yet silence appears increasingly unattainable – and, for some, undesirable. What can be done?
Eha suggests humans may need “acoustic vacations, sabbaticals of silence” similar to trendy technology-free vacations. Maybe he’s right, but I’m beginning to wonder if the right kind of sound – ocean waves crashing or a piano concerto, for example – could be more than enough to help ease our hypersensitive selves.
In these escapist instances, when loud, long days are piled high and rural farmland and deserted islands seem impossibly far away, technology’s ability to connect us with solace — whether or not we care to admit it — seems to offer the greatest of reprieves.
Did you hear that?