The disappearing sound of silence.

Is it just me or is the world getting louder?

It seems impossible to escape noise these days. Everywhere I live and everywhere I travel I seem to be surrounded by noise. I seem to live my life in headphones. How far does one have to go to avoid noise?

I though I’d escaped noise last year when I chose to live on and manage a cattle farm for six months. The farm encompassed 110 acres of paddocks as well as the home, and I assumed that such a large property would afford me some peace and quiet, both for my work and my general sanity.

I was wrong.

The farm ended up sitting just 200 metres away from a massive housing development to the west. An entire new suburb of characterless McMansions was being built near the farm, and the noise from the construction machines was incessant. Six days a week, from about 6.30 – 5.30, I was surrounded by the noise of trucks, diggers and other construction machinery, including the annoying ‘beep, beep, beep’ of the vehicles.

Even out at the far ends of the farm, I could still hear the machines, either from the housing development to the west, or the construction of a new retirement village to the east. I also discovered that a new house was also going to be built to the north of the house, on the neighbour’s property. I’m glad I left the house when I did.

Of course, it wasn’t just the construction machinery which created so much noise. The obligatory barking dog on the neighbour’s property kept me up at night. The neighbour’s lawn mowers, leaf blowers and whipper snippers destroyed the serenity, and weekends usually brought the sound of tourists and weekend warriors hooning around on their Harley Davidson’s or their V8 cars.

I’ve never been able to escape the sounds of gardening machines in suburbia, and I feel like the noise is getting worse. Again, is it just me? Also, when will an engineer invent silent gardening tools, such as lawn mowers or leaf blowers? It can’t be that hard.

Suburbia is awash with renovations these days as well. Barely a street escapes the presence of tradies and the banging and bashing of a new kitchen or updated bathroom.

I also thought I’d escaped noise when I went to live on the outskirts of a small coastal town in NSW, Australia. The house sat on about 5 acres and was surrounded by other large blocks and hobby farms. I thought I was right to assume a modicum of tranquillity, but alas, I was wrong again. Every large property had a large lawn which was normally cut by a ride on lawn mower. For a few hours almost every single day, I heard the whirr of the ride on mowers, and other gardening tools.

Libraries

Libraries used to be havens of serenity. Not anymore. Most libraries are regarded as ‘Interactive Community Spaces’ which is fine for people who want to interact, but what about people who want to read in silence, or study?

I’ve been disturbed by librarians themselves having social chats, a young guy doing a job interview via skype, loud phone conversations and teenagers using the free WiFi to play on their social media platforms, or teenagers pretending to study in groups.

I’ve also witnessed parents who seem to have confused libraries with playgrounds and let their kids run wild through the library – and not just through the kids section.

I’m referring here to libraries in Australia. In contrast, I visited one or two ‘reading rooms’ in South East Asia, including some in Hong Kong. The reading rooms weren’t in public libraries, nor in universities or colleges, they were actually in the apartment building. On the ground floor of the complex was a room set aside specifically for reading and studying – and it was quiet. The day’s newspapers were provided, or residents could bring their own reading material. Older people were reading, school kids were studying and everyone was quiet. No screaming toddlers, no teenagers playing on their phones or gossiping. One might suggest that this reflects the difference in academic achievement between Australia and Hong Kong.

Australia’s literacy and numeracy rates, as well as overall academic achievement, are falling. Hong Kong, and many other South East Asian nations, always perform well academically.

Are Australian students falling behind because they simply cannot concentrate? True concentration can only occur in a calm and peaceful environment. True concentration is required to solve complex intellectual problems or to grasp an unfamiliar concept. Learning new and complex intellectual concepts is the purpose of school, but few schools, or libraries, enjoy the necessary peace and quiet which allow students to delve into a problem and apply their intelligence to a task.

Students in Australia may or may not find the required serenity at home, just as many students in Asian countries struggle to find tranquillity in small, crowded urban apartments. For this reason, ‘reading rooms’ exist. Could we establish ‘reading rooms’ in Australia?

Interestingly, the reading rooms I visited were located above a train station and a small shopping mall, on top of which the apartments were built. And they were still quiet.

Quiet carriages

Designated quiet train carriages were established on trains in various parts of Australia, and they’re a great idea; if everyone obeys the rules. I’ve been on many quiet carriages which were far from quiet. People blatantly ignored the advice to refrain from noise, or to go to another carriage. On one occasion, I overheard a young woman have a 40-minute phone conversation in which she revealed that she was about to go on a threesome date with a couple she met online, that she never wanted kids, she was struggling through a long-distance relationship with a guy in France and she might be pregnant to another guy, who is definitely not in France. Way too much information, which she had shared with everyone in the carriage.

Obviously selfish and inconsiderate people exist everywhere and in any context. That said, are people now so accustomed to noise that they don’t seek peace and quiet, and are they oblivious to the fact that they’ve destroyed someone else’s peace and quiet?

In the outdoors

One has to wonder whether people have forgotten what peace and quiet feels like. Especially when one ventures outdoors. Hiking and exploring the outdoors should bring respite from noise. But some people bring the noise with them.

On many occasions I’ve been enjoying a nice hike through a beautiful landscape only to hear someone approach with a stereo or speaker blasting out some music. Don’t they get it? The idea of spending time in nature is to get away from the noise of the city and suburbia, not to bring it with you.

Is this what attracts people to extreme adventures? To hikes or bike rides or back country skiing trips miles from anywhere? Is this perhaps the only way to escape noise when every inch of the world has been discovered.

Personally, it is motivation for me to try to stay fit and healthy, so that I can take on more arduous hikes or bike rides which separate me from the hordes of noise makers who always seem to converge on more accessible hiking trails. It’s also why I take for ever to find camping spots these days, because I always live in fear that a car full of people will turn up, crank on the stereo and settle in for a party, when all I wanted was peace and quiet.

In the modern world, many people create the exact thing they were trying to get away from – noise.

Technology

Perhaps our noisy world is the result of technology. Technology exists in every facet of our lives and machines and devices follow us everywhere. Machines make noise.

The consequences

What are the consequences of a world full of noise?

A world full of noise is one in which it is harder to concentrate. It is harder to study and it is harder to truly think. This could be contributing to the dumbing down of society. People can’t find the space to read in depth or to contemplate, so they are less knowledgeable, less discerning and more gullible.

If school students can’t find serenity, will they ever understand complex theories, and will they ever make it to the end of a literary classic?

Stress

Excessive noise leads to stress. A small amount of loud noise is not harmful. A New Year’s Eve party, a concert, a sporting grand final or a festival are chances to scream and shout and let loose and have fun, and should be celebrated. But endless, annoying, loud, obtrusive noise causes stress, and enduring this noise day after day, year after year, as most of us do in city and urban environments, must be affecting people’s mental health. It is seldom mentioned in discussions of causes of mental health problems, but surely it must be a contributor. Perhaps it is not considered a factor because people are so used to noise in their daily lives.

Noise begets noise

What do you do when you hear an annoying noise? You probably try to block it out. You hear the neighbour’s leaf blower blasting away while you try to work, so you put on your head phones with some white noise. You overhear a banal phone conversation on the train so you plug in your headphones and your favourite play list.

We create our own noise to try to drown out someone else’s.

Where does one go these days to find peace and quiet?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s