Our noisy, noisy world

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Posted Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 9:52am

Robert Whitcomb

The Providence Journal

It's apparently just too stressful for most people now to tolerate quiet.

That might help explain the growing and barbaric practice of installing televisions and other electronic noisemakers wherever people are trapped waiting for a service. ("Hey, turn it up, will you!" Or, "Somebody check out the Weather Channel!") You are not permitted out of the sight of a cathode ray tube or an electronic music spreader these days.

In airport lounges, doctors' offices and jury lounges, television sets, permanently turned on, assault the ears. There seems to be no thought given to those who don't want to hear these soap operas, yak shows, sit-coms and endlessly repeated and meaningless CNN news bulletins (composed of factoids barely listened to and almost immediately forgotten) and so forth. Even in wilderness areas, people must have their Walkmans or cell phones so that they won't have to think. (This has meant that some poor forest rangers have to respond to pleas for help from hopelessly lost besneakered "hikers" armed with cell phones.)

Serving as a juror, I was trapped for days in a jurors' lounge with some fellow temporary public servants who kept trying to turn up the volume on the two TVs that leered at the room and were never turned off. From the conversation of some of my fellow jurors, I realized that they spent most of their waking hours consuming a steady diet of sit-coms and soap operas, while developing new quiz show obsessions.

Rather than talking about their own families or friends, they discussed in great detail the imaginary characters twitching on the screens, who obviously interested them far more than their own flesh and blood. But then, the former are friendlier, and better looking. Nature imitating art, indeed!

Some of all this may be because of declining literacy: Too many people have never known how to read, or have lost the ability to read under the constant assault of television, the Internet and the other dubious advances of modern life. So they can't amuse themselves with a book. Also, even reading the most elementary texts requires far more thought than looking at a cathode ray tube spewing coma-producing gibberish.

At the same time, the electronic media have permanently changed people's neurological systems in such a way that failure to be distracted for more than a few seconds causes an upsurge in debilitating anxiety in many people, who without the buffer of electronics might now have to think about their lives, facing existential terror. Electronics are truly the opiate of the masses.

Drugstores and department stores (the latter of which I almost never enter anymore) try to medicate their customers by playing loud soft-rock music with numbing repetitiveness. Its relentless irritation has driven me from numerous establishments. The discount stores are the worst.

CVS drugstores are mighty bad, too sure to worsen whatever condition sent you there in the first place for medication. I give Nordstrom a lot of credit for having real people play quietly pianos in its stores, and nice tunes, too.

However, when I look around at my fellow consumers, I see that most are oblivious to the racket, however much the more primitive parts of their nervous systems have been permanently damaged by the exposure. That is because most of them, certainly the younger ones, have grown up in a society immersed in loud noise and jerky graphics meant to distract people, and/or get them to buy more junk. They're so used to noise, they're barely aware of it, and get very nervous without it. Indeed, while these modern diversions do seem to pacify folks in the short run, their long-term effect is to make people unable to sit still.

In any case, the noise has to be doing damage to their ability to reason, and maybe even their eye-hand coordination.

Of course, there are visual equivalents to all this in the gyrating visuals of television and the Internet, whose makers assume, with considerable justification, that people, especially young ones, cannot stay focused on one stationary image for more than a few seconds, and that vivid colors are also necessary to keep eyes peeled to the screen. That is why it takes so long to download so many Web sites: The graphics, which have little or nothing to do with the requested content, take up so much memory. Sesame Street is coming under fire for being too slow and gentle for the up-and-coming generation, which wants lots of action NOW. And yet at Sesame Street's inception, it was considered remarkably manic and fast. Life gyrates ever faster.

One effect of all these advances is to make people stupider.

Indeed, you have to wonder if the stupefying effects of consumer electronics may prevent the future invention of such devices. Perhaps we will reach the level at which our own machines make us incapable of inventing more of them. The machines will have deprived us of all inventiveness.

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