Between a rock and a loud space


Back when the only noise-making machine on any self-respecting scribbler’s desk was a manual typewriter (mine happened to be a vintage Underwood I inherited from my grandfather), a person might actually hear the birds chirping outside his distinctly non-hermetically sealed window.

No more, alas, no more.

I write one of these a day, sometimes more, and I can’t remember the last time at least one of my various computers didn’t startle me with a flood of alerts and notifications (emails, text messages, tweets, voicemail, etc.), momentarily goosing my 55-year-old heart rate to dangerously high levels and generally throwing me off my game.

My younger, more tech-sanguine colleagues laugh when I periodically complain (as I do here). “Just turn down the volume, old fella,” they say. “Better yet, turn off the features altogether and go grab a nap.”

And I would, except for one unavoidable anxiety: I’m afraid I’d miss something.

What if a nuclear broke out, and I slept right through it? How embarrassing would that be for a journalist of my seasoned flavour? What would I write for my next blog posting? How radioactive dust makes a great fire-starter for the summer barbecue?

Worse, what if I missed the latest Gap ad, promoting blockbuster savings on men’s skinny jeans, or advance word of the next episode of The Vampire Diaries on iTunes?

Apparently, I’m not the only one in this tricked-out, wakeful world caught between a rock and loud space.

Pointing out that “noise” is no longer a merely audible phenomenon, but also a visual one, Daniel Levitin, James McGill professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, recently wrote in The Guardian, “When trying to concentrate on a task, an unread email in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.”

He continued: “Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting.

“Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife-like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime.”

And, yet, say the great minds of history, silence truly is golden.

In fact, William Penn once insisted, it is “the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

Confucius scooped him by a couple of millennia when he declared, “silence is the true friend that never betrays.” Indeed, Walter Bagehot observed, “an inability to stay quiet is one of the most conspicuous failings of mankind.”

Or as Henry David Thoreau noted, “silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.”

So, then, the conundrum comes down to a choice: How much of the modern world shall we tolerate in our quietest moments? Going without our various feeds, alerts and notifications, altogether, seems absurd and absurdly precarious (given the degree to which our economic survival, these days, depends on these beeps and bells).

Still, perhaps we can sit back and just listen to the birds every once in awhile.


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