The Quest for Silence

I just came back from my doctor’s office. Well, not right this very minute, as this post was started yesterday by the time you read this, but before I befuddle myself utterly, I’ll move on, without getting lost in some sort of time travelling experiment.

The clinic used to be a peaceful place to sit and wait – you could read a book or a magazine or disappear into a meditative misery if you were feeling crappy. Sure, there was a television there, but it was used mostly to entertain children and the sound was always low or off. Now the bleedin’ thing’s always on and fairly loud at that, and did I mention how it’s competing with the music entertaining the staff at the reception desk a mere 2-3 metres away, plus the new number system for the lab that dings! as each number is called? And the funny thing is that the patients, the people in the waiting area, rarely watch the TV, instead sitting with glazed eyes and a slightly stunned expression. I imagine they’re trying to escape the cacophony, because that’s what I’m doing and I also imagine that the barrage of sound would make people crankier about the wait time, rather than safely soothed into a passively receptacle by the “entertainment”, willing to wait until the cows come home or the TV conks out, whichever comes first.

And it got me thinking about noise. The noise that’s everywhere and proliferating. It reminds me of that scene in some movie - Blade Runner? - where you’re on the street, commercials are booming at you from every building in every direction and I think we're going there. Because no matter where you go, there’s this onslaught of information flashing at you, telling you things, competing to be the one you look at with noisenoisenoise, both in audio and visual form.

I've been wondering for while about the iPod phenomenon. The one where everyone's walking around plugged in to their MP3 player or, for that matter, talking on a cell phone and sharing their conversation with the rest of the world, seemingly without being aware of it, perhaps believing that the act of being on the phone creates a cone of silence over their heads. But it doesn't and I am ever surprised by the highly private conversations I overhear walking down the street, in the line-up at the grocery store or aforementioned doctor's waiting room. I mean, I can barely have a telephone conversation when someone else in the room, so I don't get it at all.

Except last week, I think I did. I think it's about the noise. It used to be that if you left your home and walked down the street, you would hear snatches of other people's conversation as they walked by with a friend, traffic, bird chirps, dogs barking, the clink of cutlery on plates as you walked by a patio restaurant, but that was it. There was peace, space to open up and let the world in or, if you were in a different kind of mood, wander down the street lost in your thoughts. Increasingly, in the city, there is no such thing as wandering down the street in your own thoughts and so, being plugged into an MP3 player or talking on your cell is not just about adding your own noise. I think it can also be about creating silence, a space where you can protect yourself against the maelstrom of information, creating a small, portable and private space that is if not silent, then at least only has one source of input and the noise in that space is the noise of your choice.