Within a few short weeks of our relocation to New York City, my husband and I received an anonymous note on the doormat in front of our apartment. “Your dog has been barking all day. Please keep him quiet.” The following day, we steeled ourselves and knocked on our neighbors’ doors to apologize, only to be met with empty stares. The mystery of the note’s origin made it no less panic-inducing. We live in a co-op; the rules regarding neighborly disturbance are clear. The law, too.
Unwanted noise is perhaps the most irksome form of sensory assault. A bothersome sight? Close your eyes or turn the other way—eyesores are, generally, immobile. An annoying taste? Spit it out. (Why was it in your mouth?) Sound, on the other hand, is ambient, elusive, enveloping. Even the softest drone can echo cacophonously if it worms itself into your head. Ulysses was not seduced by the sight of the sirens. Poe’s telltale heart does not torment with its smell.1 “Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption,” groused the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought.”
Noise ranks as the number one gripe of restaurant-goers nationally according to a Zagat survey, and it is the complaint submitted to New York City’s 311 hotline with the greatest frequency. (From 2012 to 2013, noise-related calls to 311 increased 16 percent according to noise activist Arlene Bronzaft.) Even if these complaints are just cyclical resurgences of an age-old problem—the ancient Greek colony Sybaris mandated that certain noisy tradesmen (potters, tinsmiths) had to live outside the city walls; Elizabethan men couldn’t beat their wives past 10 p.m.—we seem to be dealing with it differently.2 From noise-canceling headphones to the popularity of silent retreats, there has never been quite so great a premium placed on silence. And not only do we value it in a general sense, we’re willing to pay for it. Silence has become the ultimate luxury.
Take Amtrak’s silent car, a place where passengers attempt to wrest back some semblance of control from the epic indignities of travel. You may have paid several hundred dollars for a train that shows up two hours late, but at least you can sit in peace once you board, thanks to the vigilance of your fellow passengers—dedicated defenders of the code of silence. As Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times in 2012: “Ever since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car.”
The fiercely defended philosophy of the quiet car is spreading. A number of rail lines around the country now offer silent seating areas. Moreover, people seem willing to pay extra for this small luxury. A recent informal CNN poll suggested that a number of airline passengers would dole out more for silent flights. According to The Boston Herald, 53 percent of passengers would offer up a premium to sit in a silent zone. Even when other people aren’t a problem, silent travel is sellable. “One of the most luxurious aspects” of driving the luxury, hybrid Lexus sedan (ostensibly, the quietest car on the market), writes one car-review website: “near absolute silence.” (Alongside the quiet-car-ification of other means of travel, it's worth noting that the quiet car has become perhaps less necessary; almost one-third of Americans prefer texting to calling.)
The sale of silence extends beyond trains, planes, and automobiles to the destinations themselves. Glossy magazine like Travel + Leisure feature silent retreats—a “huge travel trend”—The Huffington Post digest version of this story: “10 Fantastic Retreat Centers In The U.S. For Peace & Quiet.” (The sequestration-as-vacation trend has become so widespread that it’s already the subject of satire—see A.M. Homes’s This Book Will Save Your Life.3) A series of travel photography books aims to get tourists to the quietest spots in various cities. An iPhone app called Stereopublic crowdsources the search for placid urban spaces by encouraging “earwitnesses” to map these locales. In Berkeley, California, a restaurant employed a high-tech AV company to install a system—more commonly used for Cirque du Soleil productions—that allows the owner to fine-tune reverberation levels. (The cost of such a project can range from $10,000 to $100,000, according to the contractors.)
Household products are also being newly marketed with an emphasis on noise-reduction. A Bosch dishwasher that sells for about $1700 is marketed as the quietest dishwasher in the U.S.; the Electrolux “Ultra Silencer” vacuum cleaner goes for about $600. (Electrolux conducted an extensive polysomnography—that’s brain wave—study in order “to explore how vacuum cleaner sound affects sleep quality”: “18 out of 21 times, the test subjects remained asleep as the vacuum cleaner was turned on.”) Bose has been offering noise-canceling headphones to consumers for $299 since 2000, and they’ve become de rigeur for business-class travelers: “I had none,” wrote one travel-writer. “I was clearly an imposter and should find another cabin in which to travel.” Last year, the company brought out its first in-ear, version. I’ve tried them; they are miraculous—so light you can forget you’re wearing them, yet powerful enough that it feels as though someone’s dialed down the very throb of your brain.
This list could go on. Soundproofing companies abound. There’s a booming mini-genre of search-for-silence self-help/self-discovery books—something like Wild meets Quiet meets Lonely Planet. You can buy John Cage’s 4’33’’ on iTunes.
Why has silence become a commodity? To some extent it seems an outgrowth of a back-to-basics, purity-as-priority impulse. Food can’t get from the farm to the table fast enough; toxins must be avoided at all costs; the “disconnectionists” preach digital detox. Absence, in other forms, has become a commodity. How many products advertise their virtues by what they don’t include? BPA-free baby bottles, GMO-free tomatoes, and gluten-free oatmeal—never mind that it didn’t have gluten to begin with—are all available at your local supermarket.
The search for silence might be the extreme extension of the urge to shed modern life’s “noisy” baggage: all those emails, texts, and bits of media—digital, social, etc.—that clutter our consciousness. Noise doesn’t even have to be audible in this modern incarnation; it’s become a particularly catchy symbol of any kind of nuisance. As Jonathan Sterne, author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, put it to me, silence has become something like a metaphor for a “utopian state, much like the empty inbox.” Of course, our inboxes will never be empty. Being an advocate of quiet in our society,” wrote Kreider in his essay about the quiet car, is as “ridiculous as being an advocate of beauty or human life.”
But the impossibility of silence says something about why it remains so alluring. Noise-related annoyances stem from emotion—frustration, disorientation, fear—as much as actual audible irritation. During late nineteenth-century industrialization, “The noise of [the railroad’s] steam whistle,” writes Emily Thompson in The Soundscape of Modernity, “was disturbing not only for its loudness but also for its unfamiliarity.” When a 1926 study determined that an individual horse and carriage was actually louder than an individual automobile, The New York Times perceptively responded that the it was not the nature of the sounds that was the trouble, but the fact that “the ear has not learned how to handle them.” In a 1929 poll of New Yorkers, noises identified as “machine-age inventions” were the ones that bothered them most. And by the late 1920s, activists and engineers had a way to quantify their irritations. In 1929, the decibel was established as standard unit of sound. Science contributes to noisiness in more than just audible output: New means of measuring heightened peoples’ awareness of their aggravation.
Today, there’s a similar chicken-egg element connected to our obsession with silence: Technology has both increased our perceived need for silence and created (or at least improved) the means of attaining it. We’re assaulted by incessant technological “noise” and reliant on technology to control it. We’re battered by a ceaseless stream of emails and memos and tweets and status updates, but we plug into the latest iPod to tune it out. Those lightweight noise-cancelling headphones are the product of years of research and refinement. Same with the vacuum cleaner and the uber-quiet Lexus—or so their marketing materials would have you believe.
Does it all, ultimately, come down to marketing? There might also be another underlying economic rationale. As Garret Keizer points out in The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, matters that have less to do with life and more to do with quality-of-life, tend to arise in times of relative prosperity. The Depression and then World War II, Keizer argues, sapped the energy from efforts to “address the Jazz Age roar.” Though the first comprehensive noise code in New York City was passed in 1936, at the height of the Depression, it did not reflect the grand (i.e., expensive), progressive schemes that had been proposed earlier in the century for noise abatement. As one contemporary observer noted, “opposition to unnecessary noise has been somewhat drowned out in the Big Noises of politics, repeal and national recovery.” Of course, the Great Recession hasn't really ended for plenty of people in terms of its painful aftereffects, but the top 10 percent is splurging as though it's long gone.
I don’t mean to suggest that current preoccupations are merely a function of anxiety or technology or the economy. There are real detriments to a noise-filled life, and we might just be more aware of these issues than before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that four million people work amid “damaging” noise every day; ten million people in the U.S. have noise-related hearing loss. And the dangers are not limited to our ears: a 2003 study found that exposure to chronic aircraft noise could impair reading comprehension and long-term memory in children. In 2011, the World Health Organization released a report which estimated, based on “disability adjusted years,” that “at least one million healthy life years are lost every year from traffic-related noise in western Europe.”
The modern-day selling of silence, though, seems to have less to do with either global health or the annoyance of a neighbor’s barking dog and more to do with a desire to push back against the gnat-like ticking of technology than anything else. Mindfulness mania has underlined that urge, and retreats and headphones and apps and niche guidebooks have responded. It might be just a matter of time before all this selling of silence comes to seem like a noisome annoyance of its own.
“Whence is that knocking?” says Macbeth; “How is ’t with me when every noise appals me?” Peter from Mrs. Dalloway is discomfited by “a voice bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly or shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning.” The sea’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” was Matthew Arnold’s symbol of ignorance and faithlessness. The characters in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are tormented by “small seekings sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in.”
Julius Ceasar issued an edict banning wheeled vehicles during the daytime. Thomas Carlyle tried to block the noises of the Victorian street—as well as the “crowings, shreikings, and half-maddening noises of a stock of fowls which my poor neighbour has set up for his profit and amusement”—by building a soundproof attic study. (This history goes on and on; see this or this.)
In Homes’s novel the protagonist has his meditative intentions sabotaged by the havoc that the retreat’s legume-heavy diet wreaks on his digestion: “Because it’s otherwise silent, everyone can hear; because they’re meditating, they can’t move away; and because of the silence, he can’t apologize.”
Chloe Schama is a story editor at The New Republic.