It’s zero. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, which has no reason to exist but seems to grow louder each year. Most places play the same twelve songs over and over, the reproductive and scatological obsessions of adolescents played to underage children and pensioners alike, but the choice of music is not the main issue. The problem is that most people I know have ceased to notice this background and talk over it --- again, more loudly each year.
When I ask, shouting to be heard over the speakers, if they could turn it off, most people look at me befuddled; they are unaware the noise exists. They are obviously not enjoying something they are unaware of, so you might ask why they play the speakers at all. Yet when I ask bus drivers and store managers to turn the noise off, or even down, they look offended.
My co-workers moved into a new office recently, and the first thing they did was to turn on the radio; I asked why, and one said, surprised, “Well – we need to have something on.” When the radio was off and he heard only the hum of computers, the click of keyboards, the whirr of printers, the chatter of co-workers and the distant murmur of cars and horses outside, he felt unnerved.
We live with a great deal of background noise – a city bus idles at 90 decibels, and as the decibel scale is logarithmic that level is 10 times louder than 80 decibels. Many people today, who grew up with rock concerts and background construction, can expect to lose their hearing at a much earlier age than earlier generations -- a 1997 study of the elderly found that hearing loss doubled in the 30 years between 1964 and 1994, and we are almost 20 years further on from that. The constant noise of speakers might be an attempt to drown out the increasingly loud background, but it stacks the mountain of cacophony ever higher.
Most of us can only choose to buy our own headphones and MP3 players, meaning that I and all my fellow bus passengers spend the hours locked in our private reveries. Everyone has their own musical tastes, of course, and at six in the morning most people do not feel the mood for conversation. The problem is that everyone around me feels compelled to isolate themselves inside headphones; even worse than everyone being forced to listen to the same electronic media, everyone is forced to listen to their own.
I see the effects of this with friends and family, some of whom listen to Rush Limbaugh, others to Noam Chomsky, others to the Bott Radio Network. People can listen to whatever they want, but if they spend all their lives enveloped in the political and religious bubble of a single group, they lose the ability to commonly understand events.
Like any of us, they hear the latest news headlines and incorporate them into a larger story that they believe is happening all around them – I write about how the world’s fossil fuels are running down, and since fossil fuels power our travel, our farming, our electricity and our human economy, their slow decline means those things will change or be destroyed in what has been called the “Long Emergency.” Since I see that as the most central issue we face, I tend to see everything else --- fuel costs, the Arab Spring, the Eurozone crisis – as part of that larger story.
If, however, you see the overarching story of the world as a gradual ascent of humanity through progress, or as a battle between Christianity and Islam, or as a vast liberal conspiracy to destroy traditional values, then you will accept any new information only as part of that larger story, and fasten it to the rest of the story wherever it seems to fit.
If we all spend our lives listening to our own private stations, watching our own television programmes and visiting our own pet bloggers, we will not merely disagree on what is happening around us. We will not have the common language to express disagreement, or to compare notes. We will not realise that other people’s world differs from ours.
I do get to hear some of what others are listening to, though, as their music is turned up louder than their earpieces can contain. In what Atlantic magazine writer Brian Eha called “bleed-over, collateral aggravation from the personal consumer choices of others,” living in the presence of ubiquitous noise creates a kind of arms race between eardrums. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing.
More than that, though, this ubiquitous noise brings a psychological toll. We all live in a kind of enforced solitude now, yet cannot enjoy the tranquillity that made solitude desirable. Eha cites studies by developmental psychologist Lorraine Maxwell, who found that excessive noise warps children’s attention and memory, and makes them withdraw from talking with peers. Yet she also found that, when they are accustomed to working with noise, they cannot work without it; the quality of their work deteriorates. Finally, she found that when children learn to passively accept “uncontrollable noise” in the background, they show a “learned helplessness” to changing the world around them.
No other society has ever performed this kind of giant experiment on themselves over generations, so no one has ever measured the long-term effects. I do know, though, that between the earphones, the MP3 player and the earplugs, a normal life is getting expensive.
“An Increasing Prevalence of Hearing Impairment and Associated Risk Factors over Three Decades of the Alameda County Study, by Margaret Wallhagen, PhD, RN, CS, William J. Strawbridge, PhD, Richard D. Cohen, MA, and George A. Kaplan, PhD, American Journal of Public Health, March 1997, Vol. 87, No. 3.
“The Effects of Noise on Pre-school Children’s Pre-Reading Skills,” by Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans, The Journal of Environmental Psychology (2000) 20, 91-97.
“The Sound of Solitude,” Brian Eha, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2012.