The Age of Noise

The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire–we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Huxley is talking about the radio and the newspaper, the carriers of noise at the start of the 20th century, but his words could just as well have been written today. Today, silence is a thing to be shunned, with the social ecosystem of apps and devices ready to help you do just that.

Just now, Twitter is augmenting their already busy feed of messages with even more messages. They call it the “Activity Stream”. Anything that’s not a message but could be turned into one is. Who are your friends following? What tweets are they adding to favorites? What are they re-tweeting? The stream of messages is not enough, we’ve got to transmit everything else. Of course it’s not just Twitter, it’s the whole social ecosystem of applications, platforms and devices. Everything needs to be turned into a feed, and everything needs to be sent as an instant notification, pushed right to your mobile device so you can consume it wherever you are.

In such culture, silence doesn’t have little value, it has negative value. To remain in silence is to be “disconnected”, to miss out on something. Silence is so unbearable that whenever we’re on the go we’ve got to pull out the iPod, plug earphones into our ears and murder that cruel torment of silence with the sweet torrent of noise. Mobile connection speeds have advanced so far that we can now consume the Web on the go, on our mobile phones and tablets. When we’re back in our homes, the soothing sound of the TV set helps keep silence at bay, or perhaps we sit down in front of our computer and see what’s new, and here a myriad of websites and apps is ready to flood our mind with a firehouse of content.

Of course all this is not really negative or positive, it’s simply change, but I do agree with Huxley on silence. Silence is the only time when you can truly think, yet this is the time you’re trying to destroy. What are you afraid of? Is being trapped with your inner voice truly so terrifying–or worse, so boring?

August 2011