Monday, July 24, 2006

Got Noise?

When did the world get so noisy?

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.


Mindy Tarquini said...

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?

What does who is riding in the cart have to do with the beep, Barry? Plenty of people who ride those carts do so because they can't manage the walk, especially toting luggage, for whatever reasons. Maybe they're cardiac patients. Maybe they suffer spinal stenosis, or asthma, or MS or any one of a number of conditions that limit their mobility.

Can't speak to the beeping. It's as obnoxious to the people being carted about as those being told to get out of the way. But the beeping and the people being carted have nothing to do with one another.

Beeps that are there for safety reasons don't bother me. Agreed on the ubiquitous presence of televisions, sound systems, etc. everywhere I go.

I like silence myself. My TV is off unless I'm watching it. I don't have mood music playing in the house. I avoided toys for the kids that needed batteries. But even as I type this, my air conditioning kicked in, a car went by on my street, the dogs barked at a passing horse and rider, and I can hear one of the cats nibbling her food.

The best you can do is avoid noisy places and create the silence in your home. Other than that, if you want quiet, live in the country, where the clamor of bird twitter is likely to wake you an hour before the sun rises.

Anonymous said...


With all those distractions, we can avoid thinking deep thoughts, thoughts that might make encourage us to challenge our beliefs, or solve hard problems or just enjoy the depth of beauty that can be around us.

The chatter keeps us flitting from one subject to the next, just as we build up a good frothy lather over one or another politician's latest statement, bamm, we are immediately shifted (not of our own accord) in to an indepth analysis of some celebrity's wedding gown or driving record or some other such nonsense.

Can a culture or society be defined as ADD? And if so, was that ADD learned? Is there a societal equivalent to Ritalin? (not to minimize the impact that ADD has on those who suffer from it, but rather to make a point about the society around us).

On a recent trip to Italy, I was astounded by how (at least in most of the small villages I visited), they used their mid-day break (from 1-5) as a time to rest and reconnect with family, rather than as leisure time to be filled with electronic distractions. As we would wander through these towns in the lazy mid-afternoon sun, we were regularly pleasantly surprised by the sounds of laughter and conversation coming from their homes, their courtyards their windows. The sounds of families and friends connecting a level we have forgotten here. We decided that we want that for us too.

MG - as to living in the country, well, quiet it relative. I have had visitors who have been kept awake by the haunting calls of loons on the lake, or the roosters and guinea fowl out by the barn. As for me, if they could just invent silent two stroke engines (so that the wave runners in summer and snow mobiles in winter would be quieter), I for one would sleep better.

Then I'd only have to deal with the sounds of the Harleys as they ride by on the "designated scenic" road. I know they say "Loud pipes save lives"...but geez.


Anonymous said...

I agree completely. The world is just noisy.

I don't think the volume is so high because of the hearing impared. I think the volume needs to be one setting higher than everything else in order to be heard. Like in Spinal Tap, we now have volume that goes to 11.

I've been debating buying noise canceling earphones since my home, commute, and work are all places where silence necessary to my sanity, but is simply impossible.

Anonymous said...

You can turn the volume down, but never off. No way to escape the barrage in public these days --- maybe the life of a hermit is for me?

But I sure would miss the good two-minutes hate on the telly.

Anonymous said...

With regard to the tv's, my cynic view is that it is deliberate. I seem to recall this particular tactic being used in 1984 - you can turn the volume down, but never off.

Gotta run -- almost time for the two minutes hate.

Barry Eisler said...

MG, you are absolutely right. Who is riding the cart has nothing to do with the noise pollution the carts cause. I let my irritation with the noise color my views of the people riding the carts, which isn't logical. The point is that whoever is riding the carts -- disabled, tired, lazy, whatever -- they don't need to get where they're going any faster than pedestrians. So although the carts are necessary, the noise is unwarranted.

I don't mean to suggest that absolute silence is the objective here; I'm using the term in a relative way, as Doug P notes. So I don't agree that one should either accept what to me is excessive and unnecessary noise, on the one hand, or move to the country, on the other. I'd prefer to try to keep cities livable rather than have to flee them.

Toddm, the noise-canceling headphones are fantastic on airplanes. But mostly they block out white noise (which is still loud and fatigue-inducing) like engine drone; they don't do that much for people shouting into cell phones, beeping carts, etc. For that stuff, ear plugs work best. And yes, I do wear them in noisy airports. Chicago, BTW, in my experience, is the worst. Minneapolis airport is delightfully quiet by comparison.

David Odeen said...

Ah nothing better then the Fox News channel and an Eisler novel! See Ya tommrow night Barry, don't hit me.

Anonymous said...

You are speaking right to me on this Barry.

Aural clutter is torture for me. I have noted the same places into where it has crept like a malignant blob. In elevators! Why, oh why there?

In escalators into our "vertical malls" we must have giant flat scenes with heads talking at us. It makes the escalator ride so creepy and claustrophic.

Since lawns are a pet-peeve for me, you can imagine how I feel about lawn-mowers.

I can not escape the aural clutter at home either but I do have one sanctuary. My zen temple. In zazen, there is no escape into distractions, not even movement. It is so refreshing and a necessity, for me, in our current culture/environment.

Are you coming to Chicago anytime soon?? :-)

All best,

JD Rhoades said...

Congratulations, Barry. You have taken a giant step on the road to old-fartdom.

I eagerly await the "damn kids on my lawn" post.

Loudernhel said...

Hear hear.

Anonymous said...

I recently noticed that mobile phones equipped with mp3-capabilities is a very bad idea, since suddenly I see people listening to their music on every corner, and not one of them uses earphones, instead projecting the shitty phone quality all around her.

In Germany, trucks have only recently begun to beep when backing up. I don't think we had an epidemic of people being run over before.

Though I will admit that I like to hear music when writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to see so many men chiming in for silence. My anecdotal experience on this issue is that men like a louder environment than women. My husband and my son prefer the television much louder than my daughter and I would choose. My brothers-in-law turn the TV on and then never bother to turn it off (one of my biggesst pet peeves). What do the rest of you think? Am I off base or do men generally live life at a higher decibal level?

I must say, however, that I like TVs in hotel gyms. The best are the ones where you can plug in your individual headsets to the equipment. I cannot run and read at the same time. I've tried and the result is not pretty. Running without any distraction gets boring pretty quick.

By the way, Barry, it was great seeing you in the Burgh. I'm almost done with The Last Assasin. Really enjoying it.

Anonymous said...

I had to chuckle while reading your post. You've hit the nail on the head, but only us older farts who lived during a quieter time will know the difference. A pity.

Grandma Carol said...

This morning I went to the Doctor's office to get my lab work done for my exam next week. Well, it used to be nice and quiet in the waiting room. I always took a crossword puzzle book or paperback and relaxed quietly until it was my turn. Today, there was a TV set up on the wall, turned up so EVERYBODY could hear. Annoying. So I sat in a chair that was underneath so I wouldn't have to look at it. Except I could still HEAR it. It must have been on the Animal Channel. They were operating on people's pets. One little doggie didn't make it. Ewww....... I didn't need that!

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is a noisy world. A couple of months ago, the city of Buffalo was trying to ban the installation of those car speakers that make the whole road vibrate when they go by. So far no luck.
I do have a couple of observations. My son is deaf. Don't ever let anyone tell you hard of hearing people benefit from increased volume and all the sirens, bells and whistles on trucks, etc. He can hear none of them no matter how loud. Those who can hear some sounds, it becomes so distorted that it communicates nothing. At times I think he is the lucky one. When he was growing up the TV was usually on mute with closed captions. Silence for me and he was actually reading the TV.
Secondly, the greatest skill I learned in college had nothing to do with the symbolism in Moby Dick. I learned to shut out extraneous noise and people at my discretion. It didn't help in making friends, but I loved it. I just wish I knew how to teach it to others. I taught 7th through 9th grade when the open concept was all the rage and "rooms" had no doors or walls.
My son had a shirt that said, "I am not ignoring you, I am deaf." We always said I should have one that said,"...and I'm not deaf, I'm ignoring you."

Personal note - I hooked two new customers for you this morning. Can't keep up with the 744 Al Gore books sold in the last three days but every little bit helps.

Anonymous said...

Aural clutter...great choice of words. I have a friend who has to wear ear plugs in certain situations just to hear above the cacophony from competing sounds around her. So, as much as noise bothers me, it bothers her more. We have a neighbor (across the street) who loves his Bass switch on his CD all hours. And he works early mornings so his ride always hits the horn when it arrives.
Of course, those decibels aren't doing those in their cars with the windows rolled up and the backbeat blaring a whole lot of good either.
Me? I've learned to tune things out, but don't ever stick me in a totally quiet room...I'll start talking to myself just for some noise. :o)

Barry Eisler said...

Regina -- I missed Chicago on this tour and am bummed about it. Drove right by from Indianapolis to make my signing in Milwaukee. Next year I'm going to spend three nights there, though -- there must be at least sixty stores in the area. I'll keep you posted.

JD, "road to old-fartdom?" You mean I haven't arrived yet?

Patrick, funny you mentioned the 3G phones. I noticed this in Italy recently and wondered about it.

Meryl, I'm not sure if a preference for noise or quiet is gender-linked, but it's an interesting question. It could be that I'm in touch with my feminine side... I do hate when a television is on and no one's watching it! Glad you're enjoying the book and thanks again for coming to my signing in Oakmont.

Cheryl, I love those dueling tee shirts. Thanks for handselling so many of my books. But what was Al Gore thinking, going up against me? JK Rowling tried it last summer, and look what happened to her...

Okay everyone, gotta a long drive today, Omaha to Denver. Eight more days and I'm done!


Anonymous said...

law dawg...add to that the fact that regional airlines tend to use pre-recorded announcements which need to be restarted occasionally because the tape glitches. Or that the recording in an airport in Central Illinois sometimes announces the first part in Spanish :o) But my favorite pet peeve is the "You are coming to the end of the moving walkway" in tones guranteed to put tired travelers to sleep.

Anonymous said...

Would you rather it be like in Vegas where Don Rickles tells you that "the walkway is ending knucklehead!"?

Anonymous said...

Todd...could be worse either way I suppose :o)

Anonymous said...

Oh, man, I SOOOOOOOOOO totally agree. Totally. I've taken to carrying earplugs with me everywhere, but especially when I travel so I can block the constant bombardment.

And I'm not sure what's worse: the airport barrage of nonstop chatter/music/televisions/whatever, or the incessant racket in restaurants. WHY do restaurateurs assume we want to shout at each other across the table??

On second thought, don't answer that. I'm sure there's some marketing psychology at work (eg, crank up the music and irritate the shit out of your customers so that they won't be tempted to linger and you can turn the table over more times each evening.......)

Elizabeth Krecker said...

There is one advantage to being partially deaf. When the world gets too noisy, as it so often does these days, I just take out my hearing aid and smile.

Public TVs, however, are my worst nightmare. For some reason, the sound of TV advertising manages to invade even my blissful hearing-impaired world.

Visual stimuli runs just as rampant. Logically, it seems that visual ads (internet, print ads, billboards, package designs, etc.) are less intrusive, but I think we're deceiving ourselves. Just walk down Broadway in NYC and try to keep your eyes on the face of the person you're walking with. It's impossible.

Or worse, go to a sporting event in a modern stadium and try to keep your eyes on the game. With motion advertising swirling all around you, that's nearly impossible, too.

I tried looking up the number of advertising messages we see each day, but couldn't find a reliable statistic. The numbers I found ranged from 300 to 16,000. Either way, it's a lot.

And we're all just trying to pile our own messages on top of everyone else's hoping we'll get heard, too.

Anonymous said...

"Visual stimuli runs just as rampant."

Yes. This is one of the reasons I stopped watching tv. It wears me out and keys me up. Modern dramas and sitcoms tend to flip images past you at a high rate--something I didn't notice consciously until I once saw someone else's tv through a window when it was dark, and I realized the flickering was from the picture changing rapidly. I don't think the shows I watched growing up did that. Instead, the camera held steady for a longer period of time while the actors moved around.

Sensory overstimulation is rampant in corporate culture, too. Workers are expected to "multitask." When I start feeling overloaded, I often tell my boss "I can only do six things at once!" My job involves a lot of intense, analytical thought. Yet I'm expected to perform with a constant barrage of people calling out questions to me in person, or popping up on my screen with IMs. My response is expected to be immediate. Often, people will start talking to me with the presumtion that I've read an email that arrived just miliseconds before. They don't provide context at all--they just launch into whatever it is they have to say and assume I've just read the material they just finished reading. Annoys the heck out of me. Nope. I only read my email every twenty minutes or so. Longer if I'm in the middle of thinking through a difficult task.

The U.S. needs to take one big chill pill, as far as I'm concerned. However, that requires all of us to do so, and most people don't like waiting for anything anymore. We want it, and we want it now, dammit. And we're gonna get angry and stomp and scream if we don't get it. We are overstimulated in many, many ways in this culture, and we often behave like overstimulated toddlers as a result. I know I've been guilty of that my share of the time, and I've started consciously fostering an attitude of patience and calm. Makes life much more pleasant, I've discovered.

Oddly enough, there are people who become quite distressed at my calm demeanor and assume I don't recognize problems at work--even though I'm often praised as one of the best problem-solvers in my group. I've learned not to fall victim to their demands that I start frothing at the mouth while I work on a problem. No reason I have to get keyed up to get the job done. I just get the job done.

Unknown said...


Just returned to the peace and quiet of Connemara after Phoenix, New York, and Boston - and, once again, you've hit the nail on the head. I lived in the States for years and now I visit every year. Is it my imagination - or has the noise level (and the 'sound-bites') increased inexorably from year to year. Here I used to go into a pub for a good pint and great conversation - or just to sit in a corner and contemplate. But with the birth of the Celtic Tiger comes the Sports Bar with the TV, and the end of traditional 'craic' . I'm afraid we'll start producing newspapers like US Today!

Slan, Pat.

Anonymous said...

You've picked a subject impossible to argue with!

Worst of all.... Noise in the Library! Now days it's not just a library. It's an internet cafe, a day care/storytime center, and an after school baby sitter.

Video tapes, dvds, music. Oh yeah and books.... More and more mind porn. I'm not talkin' naked pictures violence and sex. I mean those horrible graphic novels!


Anonymous said...

Barry and Pat:

I have lived in NYC for ten years, and this metropolis - indeed, this country - is louder than ever.

It's difficult to go out for dinner or lunch in NYC and not be assaulted by blasting music - usually hip-hop derived - with the bass amped up. In high end sushi restaurants, even. Doesn't matter the caliber of dining, or how strangely inappropriate. It's relentless.

People talk louder, too, since they can't hear each other over the cacophony, and because they are used to everything being so bombastic, and as a result have lost a natural sense of politeness and consideration for others. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, it's common for cars to ride by with music booming so that my windows and walls literally shake from the pounding drum and bass.

The subways are no better. Nearly everyone is plugged into an I-Pod, which is often turned to maximum volume, so that you wonder how these people are not deaf. There's nothing more fun than a ride to work at 8:00 in the morning, standing amongst six drones who are listening to variations on the same processed music, all of it creating a painful blend that makes John Cage sound melodic and harmonious.

And finally, there are the motorcycles. Those damned motorcycles. With mufflers altered for maximum effect, so that you hear a rapid fire succession of explosions that is guaranteed to make your ears ring.

I went hiking on mount Katadin last weekend, and I couldn’t believe the quiet.

It was like a dream.

Anonymous said...

So can anyone recommend a good brand of ear-plugs?

Anonymous said...

Wish I could, todd...the window-rattling bass drives me to thoughts of war. Actually, maybe we should all find a good company that makes some and buy ear plugs and Bel-Tone. Then we could afford a couple of quiet mountain...or beachside...cabins away from all the noise :o) Until someone moves in next door that is.

Barry Eisler said...

Davesax, agreed on the mobile rock concerts and tweaked motorcycles. I wonder why towns don't pass laws and hand out tickets to offenders? Worst case, new revenue for the town. Best case, a little quiet.

Toddm, any earplugs sold in gun shops will get the job done. The ones I like best for airports and planes are called EarPlanes:

Phillip W. Palmer said...

You've really touched a subject that is both close to my heart, ears, and wallet. As a production sound recordist, I am constantly busy trying to eliminate all of the noisemakers in my daily recordings. Imagine the cacophony you so eliqently described, cranked up to 11 in a set of headphones everyday. Whew....

~Phillip W. Palmer