CULTURE JUNE 14, 2010
by George Prochnik
Doubleday, 342 pp., $26
In 1906, Julia Barnett Rice, a wealthy New York physician and philanthropist, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. Rice, who lived with her husband and six children in a Manhattan mansion overlooking the Hudson River, had become enraged at the way tugboats would blow their horns incessantly while steaming up and down the busy waterway. During a typical night, the tugs would emit two or three thousand toots, most of which seemed to serve merely as sonic greetings between friendly captains.
Armed with research documenting the health problems caused by the sleep-shattering blasts, Rice launched a relentless lobbying campaign that took her to police stations, health departments, the offices of shipping regulators, and ultimately the halls of Congress. Initially ignored, her pleas finally reached sympathetic ears in Washington—and she won her battle. New York and other East Coast cities placed tough new restrictions on the blowing of horns and whistles by tugs. Nights became significantly quieter, and a lot more restful.
Encouraged by this victory, Rice organized her quiet-promoting society and proceeded to attack, and hush, other producers of what we would today call noise pollution. One of the organization’s most celebrated accomplishments was its successful campaign, heartily backed by Mark Twain, to get school kids to pledge to keep quiet when walking or playing near hospitals. In the long history of anti-noise crusades, Rice’s movement stands as one of the few that have actually made a difference, but its string of successes soon ended. The society and its programs fell into disarray when a powerful new noisemaker—the automobile—made its way into cities. The roar of motorized traffic quickly drowned out the protests of do-gooders.
As George Prochnik reveals in his genial and informative study of the noisiness of modern life, the story of the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise comes with a wry, and revealing, punch line. It seems that the fellow who drove the first motorcar in Manhattan was none other than Julia Rice’s husband, who was particularly fond of racing his din-making machine through the once tranquil byways of Central Park. The big challenge in fighting unnecessary noise was – and still is -- that the people making the racket rarely find it unnecessary. One person’s cacophony is another’s joyride.
Automobile traffic has today become the most pervasive and noxious source of noise in the world. Prochnik cites statistics from the World Health Organization indicating that the sounds emitted by cars’ engines, brakes, and tires actually cause significantly more illness than the exhaust spewing from their tailpipes. The stress and the sleeplessness resulting from traffic noise take a particular toll on the heart, contributing to many thousands of fatal heart attacks every year. And yet, in another sign of the subjectivity of our experience of sound, when people are surveyed about the noises they find most disturbing, they point not to traffic but to the barky dog in a nearby yard or the raucous late-night party down the street. We tune out civilization’s ever-present racket but find unendurable our neighbors’ occasional pleasures and excesses.
We have adapted so well to the noisiness that surrounds us that we rarely even think of it as a problem. Julia Rice-style protests have become rare. Today, in fact, most urban noise-control programs have little to do with making places quieter. They are aimed instead at designing “soundscapes” that make a city’s clamor a little more agreeable by, for example, tweaking the way traffic flows through streets or the way voices spill from bars and restaurants. Soundscaping has also become popular among retailers, who now eschew generic Muzak in favor of meticulously customized store soundtracks that reinforce their brand image while propelling shoppers toward cash registers. A sound designer tells Prochnik that the thunderous beats pumped out by the sound systems in Abercrombie & Fitch outlets are engineered to create “a state of celebratory arousal” that reaches its climax with the purchase of a hoodie.
Soundscaping routinely takes place at a more intimate level as well. When we want to isolate ourselves from society’s ambient noise, we rarely think to seek out quiet spots. Instead, we just crank up our own personal volume knob. To make sure that we can drown out traffic noise during commutes, we upgrade the sound systems in our cars to include powerful amplifiers and subwoofers. Fighting fire with fire, at home we turn up our televisions and stereos to mask street noise—and the barking of the neighbor’s dog.
The most popular of contemporary sound-management tools is, by far, the ubiquitous iPod. As soon as we plug the cute white earbuds into our ear canals, we enter the refuge of a personally engineered soundscape. Aural experience becomes completely customized. The iPod doesn’t just shield us from the sound of urban infrastructure. It also, as Prochnik writes, blocks out “the discretionary din that got plastered on top of that layer”—the din created by people talking on cell phones, playing video games, and listening to their own iPods. All of us are now participants in a sonic arms race, with no end in sight.
Unfortunately, our bodies are ill-suited to the loudness we wrap ourselves in. Human ears, like those of other animals, evolved in a world that put a premium on keeping quiet. Although a well-timed roar might now and then scare off a predator, survival more often hinged on the ability to hear the movements of others without being heard yourself. The ear, which in its original form was a vibration-sensing part of the jaw, developed into an incredibly sensitive amplifier, able, quite literally, to hear a pin drop. One expert on the biology of hearing tells Prochnik that a sound gets a hundred times louder between the moment it enters our ears and the moment we actually hear it. That physiological amplification is extremely useful when it comes to getting an advance warning on the approach of an enemy during a quiet night, but it becomes a disability in our age of iPods, boom cars, and blaring TVs. Hearing loss, Prochnik reports, is becoming an epidemic, and yet, seeking refuge from noise in more noise, we continue to jack up the volume.
Prochnik is at his best when reporting on the work of scientists, soldiers, and soundproofers—people for whom noise is a decidedly earthly concern. He is adept at making the arcane lucid. But he becomes less surefooted when he travels to more ethereal realms—monasteries, Zen gardens—and tries to explain the attractions of silence. “When we confront silence,” he muses during a visit with Trappist monks, “the mind reaches outward.” Five pages later, he remarks that “the pursuit of silence often turns us deeper and deeper inward.” Both statements may be true, but it would have been nice to learn how silence can push us in opposite metaphysical directions simultaneously. As it is, we are left hanging between platitudes.
But then again, maybe this helps to explain why society has been getting ever noisier. We have little problem making the case for the necessity of noise as a product or byproduct of useful and entertaining technologies. But when it comes to describing the benefits of silence, words fail us.
Nicholas Carr’s new book is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.