By Sophie Elliott
February 7, 2023
On my last visit to New York City, I walked from Midtown to Central Park. Strolling along Seventh Avenue, I was subjected to ceaseless cacophony: the drilling of construction, the wailing sirens of emergency vehicles, the babble of crowds. Even on the outside paths of the park, I could hear the eternal din of traffic—engines revving and horns blaring and buses screeching as they came to a stop. Anything remotely pleasant— whizzing bicycles, the pitter-patter of rain, rustling leaves, chirping birds—was overwhelmed by urban cacophony.
Indeed, urban environments are significantly louder than they used to be. In the last century, thinning populations in the countryside and suburbs have been lost to the city, where industrial developments have to accommodate high-density habitation. For example, the democratization of the automobile industry led to a substantial increase in the number of cars on the road and concomitant construction of transportation infrastructure has contributed strongly to the growth in ambient noise.
The increasing noisiness of our cities is deeply concerning, considering how dangerous constant sound is to health. A study by Bruitparif, a non profit environmental organization, concluded that a person living in the loudest areas of the Île-de-France (a region in France surrounding Paris) loses “more than three healthy life-years” because of noise. Loud noise triggers the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems and can induce spikes in blood pressure or disrupt homeostasis, with severe detriment to an individual’s metabolism and cardiovascular system. In fact, another study assessed a 7 to 17 percent increased rate of cardiovascular disease for every 10 dB sound increase.
One’s hearing is likewise impacted by city racket. Firecrackers, which average around 140-150 dB, can cause immediate hearing loss. Sustained sound has similarly deleterious effects as singular sharp noises. Five minutes of exposure to 105-110 dB of music at a loud entertainment venue can lead to the development of permanent conditions. And, even in the sanctuary of your own apartment, there is no respite from the sounds outside: the brain processes sounds continuously, even during sleep. The encroachment of human noise pollution is practically limitless. Even undisturbed sleep, a basic bodily function necessary for optimal performance while awake, is nearly impossible to achieve.
The popularity of noise-canceling headphones is unsurprising, then, given the growing volume of the soundscape. And a habit of escapism is understandable in the context of the digital age, in which individuals seek gratification and self-stimulation within the faux-intimacy of cyberspace. But such technology, unless used for the purpose of blocking background noise, merely replaces urban noise pollution with more sound. The effect is a mutually-reinforced dynamic: modern conditions create a lack of community, and so we turn to substitutes found in the technology from which social atomism originates.
In a 1995 lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School, sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, ascribes the decline in community engagement in part to the development of technology, noting how listening to music was once considered a social activity. Putnam argued that technology was “privatizing our leisure time” and that even though “the average number of hours that the average American spends listening to music each week is rising, […] the number of hours spent listening to music in the company of another person is declining.” He bemoaned that, instead of attending philharmonic concerts, people now listened to music on CDs or Walkmans; he no doubt would have been horrified that modern gadgets such as the iPod have allowed people to turn public spaces into venues of private and isolated experiences.
And though strolling with AirPods in our ears may seem a pensive activity, the act is in fact a rejection of outward engagement and betrays an assumption that our surroundings are undeserving of aural attention. To detach yourself from the physical world around you is to miss things like the hushed sounds of crickets or the sound made by a gentle breeze. Eliminating background noise can be useful when passing loud areas, and many suburbs are devoid of nature, anyway—the relative quietude of a habitat is often an indicator of socioeconomic status—not to mention the fact that such noise-canceling technology itself is exclusive to those who can afford the luxury of silence. However, even suburban places that are highly developed may have natural features worth noticing if one pays close attention. At the very least, emptying aural input can leave you susceptible to other random encounters and sights, or help generate thoughts spontaneously. Within the literary tradition, walking has long been regarded as a useful activity to inspire creativity. In fact, Charles Dickens once remarked that he obtained pleasure from walking “of two kinds: one, straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond.” Recreational walking for the novelists of the 19th century was contingent on aural sensitivity, displacing the mind of worldly obligations for random thoughts to emerge. That being said, neither were such environments silent, and the obtrusive sounds of industrial life carried novelty worthy of literary documentation; Dickens, for instance, wrote extensively about the filth and pollution of Victorian England. However, unpleasant noise did not reach the preponderance it has today, thereby preserving the sanctity of the outdoor walk. The modern city operates at sound levels which can measurably hurt human health and dwarfs the sound levels of the early periods of industrialization.
Our jadedness to city noise has still deeper implications. Ignoring your auditory environment removes you from aspects of political truth: a journey on the London Tube, for example, exposes the reality of insufficient funding in public services, evinced by the consistent screeching and clamor of the trains as they scrape against the tracks. In fact, a 2018 study led by Joseph Sollini of the University College London’s Ear Institute found that the city’s loudest Tube journey, from Kentish Town to Tufnell Park, averaged 97 dB. Some—most notably the Transport for London (TfL)—argue that the dangerous volumes (sometimes reaching nearly 110 dB) are not sustained for long enough to inflict lasting damage on passengers. But even brief exposure to loud blasts of sound can be harmful. Luis Gomez-Agustina, lecturer in acoustics at London South Bank University, says the Tube’s noise problems can be alleviated by
“reducing [the] speed of trains, smoothing out or grinding the contact surfaces between wheels and track, rail lubrication, […] improving vibration isolation from wheel and track to the carriage, […] improving sound insulation of windows [and] carriage walls, damping vibration of radiating panels of the carriage, and even installing active noise canceling to eliminate loud difficult to remove squeals or hums.”
Investment in public transport is necessary to reduce the risk of health problems from noise exposure. Even after receiving nearly $1.5 billion in funding settlement earlier this year, the TfL remains severely underfunded, which has forced a rise in fares and cuts to bus services. But greater investment in the London Underground yields noticeable improvements. The Elizabeth line, which opened earlier this year during Jubilee weekend, others improved facilities: airy platforms, lifts that run horizontally, a rooftop garden at the Canary Wharf station, wider carriages with WiFi, and tunnels lined with concrete and perforated with small holes that ensure the system operates silently, replacing the rowdy hassle of the metro with architectural refinement and proficiency. The project, completed four years late and $5 billion over budget—costing $23 billion in total—has been widely praised for the line’s reduced noise, cleanliness, comfort, and efficiency.
And yet, attention to sound is not just a question of communal awareness. To have an interest in, and personal reaction to, your surroundings— noticing the aesthetically or ecologically important features of your neighborhood, such as a swallow in the park or declining population thereof—is a central feature of an individual consciousness. Consider the flâneur, a literary archetype popularized by the 19th century novel. The flâneur, an individual who wanders idly while observing society, typically amidst the backdrop of urban industrialization, is not presented as a moral hero in 19th century fiction. Yet, the assumption underpinning the flâneur’s behavior is that the world around you is worthy of interest and that paying attention can be intellectually or spiritually rewarding. Practicing flâneur type behavior today is essentially prohibited by the invention of the crime of “loitering” (which is often enforced in a discriminatory way).
Nevertheless, the presumption today when embarking on such aimless excursions is that you will either listen to music or to a podcast—a habit that rejects the worth of organic observation, a practice which itself is devalued by the modern cultural mania for constant productivity (who among us doesn’t derive gratification from multitasking?). Podcasts, for instance, offer intellectual stimuli in a way that can be passively absorbed; a 2019 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism revealed that 25 percent of listeners were motivated by a desire to “fill empty time.”
In his new collection of essays The End of Solitude, William Deresiewicz argues that the post-modern individual has “lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. […] If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the generation of the web.” It is because of the nature of communication in the digital age, in which online correspondence is always accessible, that the skill of seclusion does not have to be learned, and the negative experience of loneliness has developed. In order to embody the sensibility of the flâneur in the contemporary age, mental solitude, which is best accomplished in the context of blankness, free of the constant occupation of our aural senses, is essential.
Cafés—which may surpass 70 dB during their downtime hours—are a useful example in exploring the dynamics of public spaces. Not only is it difficult to find cafés without amplified music, but there’s the constant grinding of espresso machines, clatter of coffee cups against wooden countertops, sound of the news on television, and clicking of MacBook keyboards. Indeed, researchers speculate that prolonged exposure to the café’s ambient noise may inflict auditory injury on baristas. Restaurants are known to exploit sound levels to drive profit by playing loud music to increase and expedite consumption, despite the fact that dining out is designed to be a social activity. If one’s dinner companion is unintelligible due to noise, the restaurant has effectively undermined any efforts at fostering rapport. Likewise, the commercial explanations for music in cafés directly undermine the interests of many café-goers, as what is supposed to be a relaxed environment is now occupied by an inescapable distraction that inevitably disrupts personal serenity and thought. The modern café milieu thus impedes interpersonal engagement.
Historically, cafés have had a social and intellectually interactive function. In the Ottoman Empire, where they originated, coffeehouses were radical because of their accessibility and egalitarianism, serving as a location for citizens of various socioeconomic backgrounds to discuss political and social events. Though these places often reverberated with noisy chatter (which is starkly different from the cool ambiance of synthetic sound), the willingness to engage in conversation reflected a culture dedicated to deep social intercourse and intellectual mobility. The key ingredient to the inspiration and artistry of the cafés of the 17th to 19th centuries was the propensity of café patrons to engage in genuine interaction. Habitués of the European café scene included academics from a variety of fields, from mathematicians like Isaac Newton to philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The European café and the spontaneous happenings that could occur in it acted as a breeding ground for the intellectual exchange and ingenuity that brought about the ideas of the Enlightenment. The ambience of that era’s cafés was entirely different to the one we have today. Today’s socio-sonic detachment exposes a culture of solipsism which rejects the type of spontaneous happenings that would be beneficial to society. A truly literate and democratic public sphere requires spaces that enable inwardness, where people have the ability to muse independently—either without disturbance, or with organic interruption.
When I go home to Singapore, I like to escape from the city din at the Botanic Gardens. After I pass the Botany Centre at the southern entrance of the garden, the raucous sound of traffic fades away, replaced by rustling leaves and chirping grasshoppers. The absence of typical urban noise allows me to notice things I otherwise would not: I can smell the aroma of ylang-ylang flowers when visiting the ‘fragrant garden’; in the ‘rainforest’ I often spot monkeys swinging through the forest canopy. Outside the park, other urban aesthetic experiences arise on quiet streets: the sun setting over a red brick townhouse, or birds gliding above the Clarke Quay river’s surface.
Photographs of vacated public beaches, plazas, diners, and auditoriums in 2020 are striking visual representations of silence. While these images may remind us of the beauty of quietness, apocalyptic emptiness should not be the only means of accomplishing tolerable sound levels. The COVID pandemic, by literalizing the isolation of human communities, helped illustrate the loss of spontaneity in society. Socializing with intention tends to deepen bonds that already exist, but socializing with spontaneity—which, within the codes of the digital forum, is contingent upon anonymity—allows us to interact with people we do not have obvious ties to, people of different socioeconomic or racial backgrounds who we may only encounter serendipitously.
Beyond its effects on human physical health, the soundscape determines what kind of socializing is possible. Cafés used to allow people to immerse themselves in solitude or to spontaneously engage with each other. We should aim to restore cafés for both of these purposes. As societies are deeply affected by their public spaces, the type of cultures we nurture and interactions we promote depend upon the sound in our communal spaces. As for the individual, the soundscape is a fundamental question of intellectual and spiritual health. In order to build an enlightened and rational society, we must have public places where philosophical meditative aloofness and engagement are supported.
* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from Current Affairs.