by Corinne Podger

The World Today – ABC News (Australia)

January 12, 2011

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Hello, I’m Elizabeth Jackson and this is a current affairs special.

Today we’re quietening the mind

We’re in pursuit of silence and listening for meaning in a world of noise, that’s the evocative title of a new book by writer and journalist George Prochnik.

George fled his native New York on a quest for the quiet.

And today George Prochnik is asking whether our entire civilisation is being deafened.

George Prochnik is speaking to Corinne Podger.

(Excerpt from ‘Noise’ soundtrack)

CORINNE PODGER: For many urban Americans noise is the enemy, groups like Noise Free America campaign against the onslaught of grinding traffic, screaming subways and blaring stereos. New York was the setting for the film Noise, about a family man who adopts a vigilante alter ego, The Rectifier, and takes to late night car alarms with a baseball bat.

[Excerpt from Noise soundtrack]

GEORGE PROCHNIK: I think it’s easy to feel victimised enough that you do feel full of rage and, well I would say that I don’t identify with that character and that I just wasn’t tempted to go out and be a vigilante.

Certainly I was motivated to explore ways where instead of simply kind of yelling back at the noise we might find new sorts of approaches that would do an end-run against the whole face-off that I saw happening between noise makers and noise haters.

It’s certainly the case that noise incites aggression and there were studies done in the 1960s looking at this that found that not only did noise incite aggression but it actually diminishes the impulse to altruism.

CORINNE PODGER: Well the title of your book is ‘In Pursuit of Silence’ but every scene in this book is full of noise: popping radiators, clicking DVD players; what kinds of noises do you really hate?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: I think for me I’m often particularly distressed by the extra layer of sounds that come on top of the loud infrastructure sounds that we’ve been submitting to for generations since the industrial revolution.

So for example I ride the subway in New York every day and first we have that incredible shrieking of these trains to the station, it sounds kind of like a Victorian asylum full of hysterics all screaming simultaneously and that’s bad.

But on top of that now I don’t get into a subway car without being next to someone who has their personal sound device their MP3 player up so loud that it’s like a transistor radio just playing openly within the car.

CORINNE PODGER: Your book does take very square aim at mechanised, industrial city noise; it’s not bird song or the splash or trickle of the rower’s oars in the Concord River as you beautifully describe it. But most of us are surrounded by industrial noise from birth, that’s our natural environment, so what makes that so different to waterfalls and thunder storms?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: Our early mammalian ancestors had to operate in a nocturnal environment because the predators around at that time were too large, they were going to be destroyed by them if they couldn’t move entirely by sound cues.

So our hearing works to connect us to the environment and I think that the adverse effect of noise, going back to that idea of aggression and diminished altruism, has to do with the ways that noise, too much noise, makes us put up different sorts of shields against our environment. So why do these mechanical noises bother us so much?

I think that we feel increasingly a sense of disconnection from our surroundings, and we feel driven to disconnect further because of feeling under assault by noise. Mechanical noises which we are less interested in tracking the source of, I think in some deep evolutionary psychology sense, tend to make us shut out that much more aggressively.

Maybe that sound of water was associated with a sense of being able to relax into connecting literally, physically to the environment through drinking. And birds also of course are early warning systems for an intruder in the environment, for an environment becoming unsafe. Either they stop singing or fly away, or they don’t sound so melodious when there’s trouble.

So maybe these two sounds were sounds that helped people feel that they could open themselves to the environment, that they could be expansive. And we hear that machine and our hearing is unbelievably sensitive from the moment that a sound in the environment strikes our ears till it’s perceived by the brain it’s amplified a hundred-fold.

So we’re set up to hear as much as possible. And now we have a situation where our hearing is in fact operating under reverse conditions from what it was developed to cope with.

CORINNE PODGER: You see the world, the modern world, involved in what you call a torrid, choppy affair with noise. What are the drivers for that attraction?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: Well I think that noise has to be fit into a family of stimulants that we are now addicted to, and we can think about our addiction to visual stimulation, we can think about addiction to sonic stimulation, and even I think really through all the senses we live in an environment that’s been pumped up so far for different commercial interest reasons a lot of the time, but for different reasons beyond that as well.

Noise can become something that feeds on itself not only in terms of how we have to turn up our personal sound devices if that’s what you it is so that we can hear them, but also noise is a particular kind of stimulant that leads us to desire further stimulation.

And one of the studies that really interested me in this regard was a study done a couple of years ago in Italy on a group of rats. There were 20 rats, they were divided into two sets, one set of which was administered ecstasy in a relatively quiet laboratory setting, and the other half was given ecstasy in an environment where the sound level was that of a typical discotheque.

And the rats who were given the drug in quiet, their brains straightened out in less than 24 hours but the rats who were given ecstasy in this louder environment took over five days for their electro cortical parameters to straighten out in their little rat minds to be working well again.

That’s an indication of the way that noise can actually increase toxicity. But we crave stimulation. I had an experience in which the dangers of this, particularly for young children, were really borne home to me. When I was at a friend’s house and they had on educational television program, they had on Sesame Street one of the more highly regarded educational television shows, not an action film.

And I was very aware of just how loud it seemed, visually in terms of the different noises, in terms of the speed of the cutting, in terms of everything about the way it was assembled. And I went back and I looked at the first Sesame Street that was ever made, and it was, relative to what I had just seen, it was like watching Sesame Street on quaaludes, it was so slow, but beautifully slow. There was plenty of stimulation for the children, they were moving at a human scale listening to sounds at a human scale.

And I thought if you think about kids who are moving often from loud homes with multiple entertainment devices on simultaneously to loud streets, to loud stores, often to loud schools, how could they not be distracted, how could they not have problems learning and focusing?
But that doesn’t mean that they might not also have triggers inside them which would make them crave that stimulation the same way we crave sugar.

CORINNE PODGER: Some of the scientists you spoke to found that as the noise is turned up it makes us eat more, drink more and shop more. But there’s an intriguing chapter of your book that explores spaces for people who don’t have to put up with the noise of modern life because they can’t hear it, and it’s an exploration of deaf architecture. Could you tell us first what is deaf architecture?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: Well this for me was really one of the most moving discoveries I had over the course of my research, where I was in touch with some people from Gallaudet University which is a university in Washington D.C. for the deaf. It’s probably the foremost such university in the world, and I was studying at that time sign language and thinking about the deaf experience of noise because I felt that deaf experience certainly in terms of what most people think of as noise, there was less auditory input from the outside world into their minds and their lives.

And I wanted to know what that experience was, and I wondered whether there was something that the hearing as well might be able to learn from the deaf. And I discovered that there was an architectural movement being pioneered at Gallaudet, grown out of workshops with faculty and also with students, talking about what can make space for the deaf maximally nurturing in every sense and primarily in the sense of communication.

We move around our world through acoustical cues to a much greater degree than most of us are aware of. I was struck by a story that was told me by a professor at Gallaudet when he led a workshop with a number of people who had suffered from a very rare form of hearing loss that happens abruptly and profoundly.

And he said that every single person in this workshop when asked to describe what the experience was of going suddenly profoundly deaf, didn’t speak of not being able to hear anything, they all said, ‘Where am I?’ They’ve lost their sense of rootedness in space.

So deaf architecture says all right, how do we start from scratch and try to think about navigating in space when we don’t have those acoustical cues? So in very simple terms it’s an extremely transparent form of architecture with lots of glass, a great deal of openness. But there are also wonderful surprises within it that I found that offer I think lessons for all of us today when we think about how to build public space that might be able to help form community around something other than just amping up the noise still further.

Deaf people we know have better peripheral vision than the hearing do. I was extremely struck in the time I spent with a number of deaf students at Gallaudet by the ways that when they looked at space and showed me the world, they were very, very attuned to spaces that maximised sight lines, that gave me the greatest sense of openness to my environment.

And in the same ways that I think the experience of silence is really rooted in a sense of not feeling threatened by the sounds around us, there are certainly certain kinds of visual spaces that can communicate a sense of silence even if there is some noise. And it has something to do with that sense of not feeling closed off from the world, the same kind of visual openness that we need in our acoustical landscape.

CORINNE PODGER: Deafness is a theme that runs through the book, a very real concern for you, the damage that what you refer to as discretionary clamour or luxury noise. We’re talking about the MP3 player and other forms of personal noise – what does it do to our hearing, what are the risks?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: Well if we think again about what our hearing really is that idea of amplification has to be central to our understanding of what our ears are doing, what all parts of our ears are actually doing to the noise signal.

And when we think of hearing loss what’s usually being damaged is actually the mechanism of amplification which takes place at different points in our hearing, but critically in what are called hair cells which are in the inner ear which line something called the cochlear and which it used to be thought these cells just took the mechanical signal of noise and transduced them into an electrical signal that the brain could read. But now we believe that those are also involved with amplification.

And I’ve seen images of what happens to these hair cells, sometimes even with single blasts of very loud noise, but what certainly happens to corrode hearing over time; they look like one held a handful of pipe cleaners in one’s hand and just squashed down with one’s fist- they just mangle. And they are no longer capable of doing anything at that point with the sound waves that pass over them.

CORINNE PODGER: Now anyone reading your book, George Prochnik, might be thinking it might be time to move to a monastery, somewhere really quiet. But in those spaces you suggest that silence can be uncomfortable and confronting. Why?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: I think for many people the association with silence is with death. There’s a throwaway line actually that Freud has in his essay on the uncanny, where he sort of says at one point as everyone knows the three primal infantile fears are of silence, solitude and darkness. Which of course are also very much the conditions of the monastery, stereotypically.

But particularly as many of us have lost the solace of organised religion as a way of coping with mortality; anything that seems to put us in a space where our identity is threatened which silence certainly is capable of doing, there’s, you know, we are thrown back upon ourselves and we’re not sure what’s there and we often don’t like what we find. There’s a real tendency to want to flee from that and I think that a lot of the ways that noise is cultivated now in society have to do with our preference for asserting ourself rather than reflecting back into ourself which is what silence causes us to do.

CORINNE PODGER: You met people who not only endure but embrace that confrontation every day at a Trappist monastery in Iowa – what was that like?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: Well I was really struck by the fact that these people who live most of their lives in silence and actually in very dim light as well, I expected the silence to have a heavy quality to it, to be a gloom, like out of some old horror film monastery. But in fact there was a real joyous lightness to a lot of the silence in the monastery.

What I felt ,speaking with different people there, was the degree to which it enabled them not only to focus on their particular pursuits but also there’s no question that their sense of compassion for the world is intensified by the ways that they live in silence. And it expands them out beyond themselves, not just taking them inside.

CORINNE PODGER: Thoreau famously withdrew from the world when he wrote Walden, and there’s a question you put in your book, how much our pursuit of silence requires us to withdraw from the world. Is that a question you now feel that you have an answer to?

GEORGE PROCHNIK: I feel that it’s a question that I have an answer to from the point of view of social responsibility. But first, to speak more directly to the idea of a different model of silence, if we only have this idea that silence is the individual withdrawal, the deeper and deeper retreat into the self – and I think that’s perfectly good for the people who know of it as an option, for the people who have the time, the monetary resources, the cultural resources to pursue silence in that way. But there’s so many millions of people who do not, and what do we do about them.

I came to feel that while there really is such a thing as noise pollution, most of the noises that disturb most people are not of that very loud obviously pollutant variety. So that we get in a trap. People have struggled to define sound for a long, long time. People have said that noise is an unwanted sound but as I found, there are millions of people who want the very same sounds that millions of others don’t want.

Or they say it’s unnecessary sound, but it’s the same problem, I mean unnecessary by whose definition. I mean the slogan of the United States Air Force is the sound of freedom, and it’s that thundering roar of the plane, certainly for the air forces own sense of itself, that’s the necessary noise, however unwanted it is to many people.
I think that rather than framing the problem of noise as a pollution problem, we might think of our daily sound diet. Lots and lots of people today have an environment with much too much sonic junk; big fat noises the same way that their food intake is very imbalanced.

And we need more quiet in that diet, we don’t necessarily need to go off on 60-day retreats, but we do need to find ways of interrupting that nonstop ingestion of noises that we are really not equipped to handle.

Where I felt there was hope, was in the work being done by some people – and I know that actually in Australia there’s some very interesting work being done in this regard in a movement known as the ‘soundscape movement’ or sometimes the quiet space movement. This is an architectural effort that takes advantage of different psycho acoustical understandings of sound and also improvements in noise abatement technology to make spaces that provide some respite from the cacophony of the streets in general. And maybe with an admixture of some of those natural sounds that work on our senses in such pleasing ways: the birds, and waterfalls.

In New York there was actually a beginning to this movement in the 1960s. The then commissioner of the Parks Department, known as Thomas Hoving, began taking advantage of the many vacant lots and abandoned buildings that at that time were scattered across the city and turning some of these into these extremely small, little slot parks in which there would be planting that often helped to absorb sound and there would be a waterfall and the different kinds of shrubs and flowers would encourage birds to come.

And they are enormously effective at giving some interruption to that diet of heavy, fat noise that the streets are so saturated with, at a much more economical manner that would be possible to lower the decibel level of the whole world. Through them we can give people experiences of silence that hopefully will encourage larger social experiments in silence, and will in fact show them that silence isn’t only about death and isolation and being silenced and removal from the sociable space of humanity – which ultimately I want to be part of as well, and is why I live in New York City and not off in the middle of the woods despite my predilection for silence.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Writer and journalist George Prochnik, speaking there to Corinne Podger.