The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 1, 2001

Fewer and fewer moments of silence
Mohinder Singh

"SILENCE", wrote Herman Melville, the noted novelist of Moby Dick fame, "is the only Voice of our God". "Silence, in its way, is fundamental to life but everywhere one turns one sees a culture willing to deny that essential truth," says Mark Salouka, author of War of the Worlds a cultural critique of the digital revolution.

Ensnared in webs of sounds, those of us living in an advanced urban set-up must pick our way through a discordant, infinite-channeled auditory landscape. Business people lugging laptops and cellular phones wherever they go. In the car, at the airport, on the aeroplane, in the hotel room, they are sending and reading e-mail and faxes, calling their companies and customers.

Sometime back computers could be connected to company networks only from the hotel room. This meant that e-mail was restricted to mornings and evenings, and occasional returns to the hotel. Now wireless connections for company computers are available, letting e-mail messages come through anywhere, anytime. Wireless computers, cell phones, pagers: there is no escape from messages. It all comes to fewer and fewer moments of silence ó and reflection.

All sorts of new technology sounds are filling up peopleís lives: cheeps and chimes of phones (fixed, portable, mobile)), pagers, baby monitors, scanners, car alarms. And tele-marketers busier than ever in making calls for product promotion. One of the side effects of the so-called free market: most of the noises we hear are the noises of buying and selling.

Make no mistake; the aural universe is subtler than the one that imprints itself on our retina. And less easily blocked. You can block an unsightly neighbourhood scene by drawing the curtains; itís far more complicated to block music blaring outside ó one manís music another manís noise. Closing a window is often not enough; you may have to kill noise by noise, such as killing traffic noise by air-conditioner noise.

In the USA and some other countries where e-mail and cellular phones have had a prominent presence since a decade, a backlash against these is discernible. Busy executives are passing on the task of reading their e-mail and faxes to assistants, the way regular postal mail is dealt with. Assistants print out the messages so that the busy executive can scribble his response. Less important messages get answered directly, so the executive may never see them.

Cell phone number is made known only to family members, close friends, and administrative assistants. Anyway the cell phone stays switched off most of the time; used as an instrument to call people rather than receive calls.

Silence, like solitude, is now a commodity. Money buys space, and space buys silence. Indeed the ability to engineer oneís own silence has been one of the age-old prerogatives of the rich. The great advantage that money confers is not silence per se but the option of silence, the privilege of shutting out sounds that one doesnít want to hear or deems them distracting.

However, for the vast majority, the worldís decibel level is steadily rising. It is estimated that noise levels in our cities would double every ten years. There is the rising noise level of motorised traffic, of aeroplane flight corridors, loudspeakers, construction machinery, factory noise, and loud music playing in places and in automobiles. On top, recurrent sounds from the ubiquitous TV. Possibly, thereís no quicker way to regain control of the pace of oneís life, the peace of oneís home, and the content of oneís thinking than to turn off the TV for some time; at least turn off its sound.

The Information Age is exerting its own information load. Here is distinction has to be made between nourishment and gluttony: the first is a necessity, even a pleasure; the second an overload, even a distraction. People became aware of the adverse consequences of consuming too many food calories. Our info diet, again, needs some fine-tuning.

A view is gaining ground that some of these modern communication technologies interrupt our lives, whether or not that was the original intent. Worse, they can disturb the lives of nearby people who are unfortunate enough to be located adjacent to such activity, similar to someone smoking near you.

Cell phone conversation, for one, can be a nuisance to those seated nearby. Little wonder, clubs have started banning the use of cell phones in lounges, bars and other public areas. Restaurants are instituting similar exclusions: tobacco-free zones, cell-free zones. Theatres prohibiting cell phones, pagers, and tape recorders. Recently our Parliament had to go to the extent of electronically blocking cell-phone operations in the assembly chamber. Some European trains now have cellular-phone-free carriages, where riders can be assured that their neighbours will not be discussing personal or business affairs for all to hear.

The other day while I was having a haircut, another customer having pedicure in the next seat of the small saloon, started talking loudly on his cell phone. He, I surmised, was talking to the maid who had been left to take care of a sick child while the mistress was out shopping. He was showing his annoyance to her because he could hear the child crying. He even hinted his displeasure of the housewife for leaving the kid when sick. I felt vaguely uncomfortable, feeling as though I was eavesdropping; I had been looking forward to a relaxed shampoo and haircut at this pricey place.

Some people have taken to creating their own technology-free zones. For example, our son and daughter-in-law living in New York donít keep a phone around while eating. And they refuse to answer a call at dinnertime (an answering machine takes messages). Again they donít keep a television set in the dining area. Dinnertime is given to the enjoyment of the meal at its undisturbed pace.

The use of cell phones, pagers, and other communication marvels is spreading fast in the country. Indeed cell phone has catapulted into a status symbol. One of my golfing buddies carries an activated cell phone strapped to his belt while playing. And employs it frequently for long conversations. I donít know what he talks into it; he moves a bit away when talking. But after such talk he often hits a bad shot. Maybe, his mind gets rattled by some bad business news.

In fact sometimes it makes one wonder how life had been livable before the invention of cell phone.

As we continue to pave the world with sound in the new millennium, we will continue to crave what little silence we can manage. The rapidly changing aural landscape has raised the value of silence enormously. Itís nobodyís case that we can put the clock back on modern communication technologies. But we can surely discipline ourselves in their use. At least ensure that in using them we donít impinge on the peace and silence of others.

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