Tiffany Jenkins: Constant search for silence

WHY does every second of our attention have to be filled with someone telling us or selling us something, asks Tiffany Jenkins.
Background noise is now so constant. Picture: Callum BennettsBackground noise is now so constant. Picture: Callum Bennetts
Background noise is now so constant. Picture: Callum Bennetts

One of the possessions I use most at the moment is a pair of headphones. I wear them constantly, everywhere: on the train, on the bus, to work and back and when walking around town. I don’t mean the ear-bud kind, the ones that aren’t a comfortable fit; I mean the big, soft, noise-cancelling kind. I bought them to listen to music, but I no longer use them just for the tunes. Instead, I wear them so as to hear nothing at all, to drown everything out – it’s the only way to get a bit of peace these days.

Because that’s how bad it is – the constant hum of something. Traffic and talking and chatting is present everywhere you go, of course, but that’s not the problem – this kind of thing is easy to block out or can be interesting to overhear, it can also be an opportunity to speak with others and engage in spontaneous interactions.

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No, I am not complaining about the sound of useful activity, or human sociability. It’s the other stuff that really gets me: the undirected, non-human noise, the ones no one asked for.

Like the announcements about minding the gap, or updates on train services that don’t tell you anything you need to know and which everyone tries to tune out, the ones that rotate on a loop and go on and on. And then there is the music in the coffee shops. And in lifts. All sounds that draw our attention away from what’s going on inside our heads and from each other.

At Edinburgh airport recently, each open café had music on, playing at full volume (even at 7am), over which you had to strain if you wanted to hear the detail of the messages broadcast about departure gates, or special offers and whatever else. Then there were the screens scattered around broadcasting “breaking news”. If you didn’t want to listen to any of this, you were out of luck. It was difficult to sit and read a newspaper or a novel – no matter how gripping – or carry on a chat. Forget about thinking about something complicated or concentrating on something. In the bathrooms, where you might expect hush, there was that dreadful piped muzak, the kind often played in spas and sold as relaxing but which is anything but. On the way in to the terminal, in the taxi, there was one of those TV screens with blaring advertising and the same breaking news. Finally on the plane, we were hit with one pre-recorded message after another, telling us all about the exciting scratch-cards for purchase, the various drinks and “tasty” snacks, and amazing perfumes available at knock down prices. There was no respite.

Why are we so afraid of silence? What is threatening about peace and quiet? These are questions the philosopher and political scientist Matthew Crawford raises in his new book The World Beyond Your Head in which he scrutinises the high “costs of paying attention”. Crawford had a similar airport experience to mine and he notes, with envy, that the business-lounge passengers do not suffer in the same way. The only noise you hear in this fancier lounge is the tea spoon on a china cup. Wealthier passengers are shut away from us, whilst waiting to be invited, by a real person, politely, to board their flight, in a space that is silent – or quiet, at least. It is we, the plebs, who are bombarded by tannoyed information, a deluge of demands on our minds. “We’ve sacrificed silence,” Crawford laments, “the condition of not being addressed.”

Crawford points the finger of blame at the market, “our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetise every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention”.

And he has a point. Flashing adverts are everywhere, so much so you have to pay to escape – only luxurious spaces are surrounded by a hush, free from the cacophony of a rolling sales pitch, even if customers have to pay for it .

But this is not the only explanation. It’s not solely down to profit and the problem isn’t just advertising. There are other demands on our attention and from those you would least expect it, when it is not appropriate, and in places where silence used to be the norm.

I always wear my headphones in the library, because it is now that noisy – no longer are they quiet places. Other such spaces are similarly afflicted – museums and galleries spring to mind. Here, it is as if the clientele is expected to scream and shout. School parties are particularly bad, especially loud. As a kid, we used to be told to “put your fingers on your lips” – to shut-up – that silence was golden, and that wasn’t all that long ago. Not so with children today. It’s appears that these kinds of so-called educational organisations prefer people to be talking if not shouting. The crowd is not expected to think, to read or look in contemplation, only bellow and clamour.

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As a remedy to this state of affairs, Mr Crawford suggests imagining an “attentional commons”, treating our attention like it is an asset like real estate. He sees this as a legitimate extension of the “conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed”.

Because there are real benefits to silence. It means we can follow a train of thought, see it through to the end, without being distracted by something or someone else. It means we can concentrate on matters we decide are important, not those subjects or ideas dictated to us. And it means we can set the terms of our thoughts and conversations, not interests outside of us. No great book, or idea comes without a degree of silence. Independent thinking is not possible without it. Perhaps this is why so many corporations and institutions demand our attention – and why we should protect it.