Monday, 6 June 2016

The incontinence of noise

Young, well-spoken and well-to-do, she sat at the back of a bus, phone to ear, explaining to a friend in a carrying voice about that afternoon’s appointment with her gynecologist, seemingly oblivious to all those around who were perhaps less than enthusiastic about the details of the encounter.

On a train, speeding north from London, a young man, seated at a table in a standard-class carriage, opened his laptop and decided that this was the perfect environment in which to conduct a business video conference call. Everyone within three or four seats in all directions was included – irrespective of their wishes or even the interests of business confidentiality.

These are two snapshots of a modern Britain where humans have become noise incontinent. And they will be familiar to most of us.

But it is not just a matter of conversations made public. It’s one thing for headphones to leak sound, but at least the wearer is making an effort.

Yet it is now the norm, in urban areas, for the first good weather of the year to see windows and balcony doors flung open, and music ‘shared’ with neighbours.

“Music,” that is, consisting of little more than booming bass. The same “music” that you’ll hear from passing cars, whether the windows are down or not.

But this is not simply a matter of individual behavior.

In shopping arcades, going far beyond the curse of muzak, shops blast out sound – presumably, because a psychologist somewhere has discovered that hi-tempo, booming tracks encourage spending and quickly.

The Arndale in Manchester is one example: on a visit one Sunday morning, only the Waterstones Bookshop and Games Workshop were peaceful – although both were busy. Even the Disney Store was playing music loudly – hi-tempo and with a beat, albeit rather more in keeping with little pink princesses.

On a larger scale, it is now apparently acceptable for a rave festival to be arranged and staged within 50 metres of homes, and if residents do not like feeling their bones rattled, that’s their misanthropy.

It never is, incidentally, Chopin rattling someone else’s windows – or Johnny Cash or Dean Martin or even Abba or the Stones.

But try to find a coffee shop – chain or independent – that doesn’t insist on providing some sort of soundtrack to your morning cappuccino. It might just be the radio, but you could be forgiven for thinking that we are scared to sit peacefully; to allow ourselves the opportunity to hear ourselves think.

There is a narrowing of basic good manners here – not a conscious one, but resulting from a sense of individual entitlement that requires no justification and expects no challenge.

‘Why do you think it’s fair for you to make other people listen to your conversation/music?’ This is not a question that usually earns a classier philosophical response than some form of take on a shrugged ‘because’.

Although in order to do so would require a way of explaining why the ‘right’ to converse or play your music in such a way as to force it on others trumps their right not to have it thus inflicted. Since nobody is saying that you cannot play your music or have your private conversation, then that would be difficult.

Perhaps much of it is about consumption.

On one level, we consume the gadgets that allow us to converse wherever we want. And then we consume anything we put on them. Except that, since we are encouraged increasingly to keep it in the cloud, we don’t really have it at all. When we want to conspicuously consume that tune again, we have to download or stream it once more – possibly with added consumption via whatever charges our telecommunications provider might levy.

On another level, there is a growing emphasis on consumption as a core part of citizenship: see all manner of things, from the small-state fundamentalism of the concept of the ‘citizen consumer,’ to the rising importance in the economy of the retail sector (and therefore of our personal and collective consumption).

You can find florid declarations of spending as a patriotic duty to aid the nation’s economy, while increasing suggestions that we’re in for a period of sustained low interest rates (in part because of past and present spending on ludicrously-inflated mortgages) produces a concomitant sense that we might just as well spend our hard-earned, then.

Once having consumed, we then have the right to enjoy that consumption. And after all, if it is a patriotic act we have carried out, then who can deny us enjoying it in whatever way we please? There’s no such thing as society any more anyway.

Now consider the onslaught on personal privacy of the last decade or so: the UK as the CCTV capital of the world; attempts by governments to introduce ‘snoopers’ charters’ to combat terrorism and child abuse ยบ the two terrors of our age: all produce a semi-constant response of how, ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’.

The ‘rights’ and ‘entitlement’ of the conscientious consumer sit well with an era in which the desire for privacy can be viewed as an admission of some guilt or other.

Consume, let others see your consumption – and never worry if you’re being overheard or watched, because it’s happening anyway. Quiet and privacy cannot be bought and sold: they have little value.

This incontinence of sound – this droning, banging, driveling bombardment of noise – is itself symptomatic of something wider: of a dumbed-down public discourse where whoever shouts loudest is heard; where considered arguments are battered out of the way by sensation and fact-free claims.

Will it take until all the satellites fail and all the ‘clouds’ burst and all the gadgets seize up to make us appreciate once more, quietness, a private conversation and music enjoyed without the need to foist it on others?

Or before then, will it dawn on people that all this incontinent noise is simply one more cover for our intellectually incontinent politicians and the corporatocracy on whose behalf they work?


  1. I have persuaded a young man to move in a train by admiring the "music" hissing out of his earphones and asking for details so I can use it in primary class music. He was so embarrassed he moved to the next carriage. (I am three years off retirement and old enough to be his granny)

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  3. I think there is a strong element of narcissism in all of this, there is the casual usurping of other people’s private space or convenience but also a lack of awareness of what is appropriate behaviour in different environments. Mobile phones have this effect on many people, not just the numpties on the bus who wants to share their music or private conversations, but also the person holding up the front of the queue because they won’t hang up their inane conversation for two minutes, or my personal hate the person who struggles to get their pushchair/heavy luggage off the train because one hand is welding the phone to their head. In the latter I’m torn between doing the civil thing and offering to assist and the rational thing which is leaving them to their explicit priorities. I remember one train journey sitting next to a lady who applied a full “face” of makeup spilling powder around as she went and I wondered to myself how she would feel if I decided to have a shave or brush my teeth while sitting next to her, after all if she could transfer part of her morning toilet to a packed commuter train carriage why not me?