I'm staying at the Hilton in NYC now, and they've got televisions installed in every elevator. For 22 floors, you have to listen to the urgent cadences of a video newscaster. Airports are doing this, too -- more and more televisions are being installed in lounges and waiting areas. And they're ubiquitous in hotel gyms. They've even got them on the Heathrow Express into London (although there, at least, there are "quiet cars," as well).
I wonder if this "all TV, all the time" trend isn't indicative of an overall move away from the notion of personal responsibility. Sensible people know they might have to wait at the airport, or inside an elevator, or on a train, and come prepared with their own (mercifully silent) reading material. If you forget your own material, you might have to endure a bit of ennui -- which should remind you to be less forgetful next time. Now, not to worry, you're not responsible for the entertainment; it's being provided for you. You don't have to remember a thing.
(You'd think that with the constant barrage of news we'd be be a well-informed society, but it doesn't feel that way to me. Maybe it's because the barrage is telecast, not printed.)
Cars beep constantly, too, warning us of an open door, a key in the ignition, and unbuckled seat belt. Makes sense, I guess... after all, what's a little omnipresent irritation if we can save one person from locking his keys in the car?
(Think personal responsibility again...)
Back to airports: why do the electric carts that ferry people through terminals have to be accompanied by such shrill beeping? At first I thought it was a (dubious) safety feature, to help prevent people from getting run down, but then I realized no, that doesn't make sense, the driver could easily slow for or otherwise avoid pedestrians. The purpose of the incessant beeping, I realized, is to get pedestrians to clear a path so the carts can go faster. The implicit tradeoff is silence for speed. An entire airport full of people has to suffer so a few lazy asses can get toted around a little more quickly? Who ran those cost-benefit numbers?
On airplanes, you have to listen to at least ten minutes of announcements after you take off. Most of it has to do with selling you something -- food, drinks, an in-flight movie, duty-free merchandise. So let me get this straight: I've paid for the ticket, and now that I'm a captive audience, you're subjecting me to ten minutes of in-your-face (actually, in-your-ears) advertising? When is one of the airlines going to catch on and start billing itself as the "quiet, haven, sanctuary, advertisement-free" alternative? It's probably just a coincidence that the big carriers are in and out of bankruptcy.
There's music playing everywhere, too. It used to be just in stores and restaurants. Now it's in restrooms, too. Which is great, if you require trumpets to accompany the act of urinating. At a Wild Oats supermarket in Cincinnati, there was music not just in the store, but in the parking lot, too, where they'd installed outdoor speakers that were supposed to look like rocks. I guess you wouldn't want to detract from the inherent naturalness of parking lot music with an artificial-looking speaker. What would happen if I had to endure the two-minute walk to my car... in silence? Would I dislike the store? Would I buy less of their food? Has Wild Oats actually studied this issue, or do they just assume that more people want more music in more places?
A discreet elevator door chime is a good idea -- lets you know when the elevator has arrived in case you didn't see it. But what happened to the discretion? The Los Angeles Bel-Age elevator chimes sound like submarine klaxons. The otherwise elegant Boston Ritz Carlton chimes sound like a pair of live cymbals clanging together over your head.
I guess there's a law requiring trucks to issue a horrible, piercing, repetitive beep when they back up. Has anyone done a study on how many injuries and lives this "feature" has saved, versus how much irritation and loss of quality of life it's produced?
Suburban lawns look serene from the interior of a car. But walk through suburbia during the day, and you'll find the serenity is entirely visual: the cacophony of mowers and blowers that produces that visual effect will ruin your walk and drive you right back into the relative sanctuary of your car. To make suburbia look pretty, we've made it sound awful. Was this choice conscious? Does it make sense?
The noise isn't just constant; it's also loud. My guess is, the volume is jacked up to get through to the hard of hearing. But is making everything loud enough to be heard by the hearing-impaired fair to the non-impaired? Is burdening the majority of the population to provide an arguable benefit to a minority sensible? Are these questions even being asked?
Technology has offered us a choice that didn't exist for previous generations: silence, or aural clutter. As a society, we seem increasingly to default to the latter. I know I'm a curmudgeon before my time but... I hate it. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you ought to.