I'm standing next to the gas pump, and I'm hit with a video in the pump window extolling the virtues of some new lime flavored junk food. No mute button for this auditory assault. How did we get here; why am I faced with a talking gas pump?
For most of human history, ambient noise was confined to local critters or the whooshes, pitter patter and thunderous cracks of weather phenomena. Man was hopefully safe in his/her abode where the only mechanical noise, at least by the 1700s, was the ticking of a mantle clock. Outside there could be the sound of horses and passing carriages. If you were in the country, the lowing of cattle, the bleat of sheep, the trill of birds. The most disruptive sound was probably a loud human voice. No sensory overload here.
The industrial revolution brought big machines powered mostly by water and steam engines. The iron horse huffing and puffing along its tracks. The new factories as noisy places that constantly assaulted the ears. Click –clacking everywhere. By the 1870s, offices were being assailed by typewriter keys, and not long after, the first telephones. Then, in the early 1900s, the automobile makes an appearance, backfiring its way down rutted roads.
However, it was still possible, by and large, to find relative peace at home, in stores, restaurants and most places outdoors. But by the 1920s and 30s, along came radio and jukeboxes. Listen to Jack Benny, dance to Benny Goodman. One of the few semi quiet places left was elevators with Muzak gently cradling your ride. Finally the one eyed monster, TV made its ubiquitous appearance in the late forties and early fifties. Turn your imagination off; excretable pabulum was here to save the day. Nothing on? Turn up the volume and watch the test pattern.
In the sixties, below the boom of jets, the hippies tried a back to nature movement where you would live in a tent or commune and avoid the world's electronic footprint. Groove to the stars; trip to a babbling brook. However, this approach pretty much collapsed when Summer Windsong found out that Amber Moonbeam had stolen her tie dye skirt and wasn't even carrying her weight in the turnip patch. Unicorns and utopia just weren't in the cards.
Flash forward fifty years and look where we've ended up. The person in the stall next to you is having a loud argumentative cell phone rant with their significant other, when all you want is silence while hunkering down. You are eating a burger in a "family friendly" chain restaurant while being bombarded with hip hop drivel where somebody's "hoe" keeps switching hot pants. In the waiting room, at the doctor's office, the flat screen is running a DVD about six early signs of dementia. You try to block it out by focusing on your tablet, but suddenly, a blaring promo pops up for some corrupt political candidate. As you drive home from work, you are stuck at a light next to some guy whose tricked out car shakes and vibrates because of ten well placed monster speakers.
I try to get away with a walk on a desert trail; just me, the coyotes, snakes and javelinas. A woman comes towards me gesticulating wildly. Is she in trouble; is there immediate danger? No, with a Bluetooth device attached to her ear, she is just being animated while she talks. Kill the cell towers.
Back in 12th century France, Jean the Younger is knelt in prayer in a magnificent Gothic cathedral, light shafts streaming through stained glass windows. Suddenly a bunch of monks start in on Gregorian chants. How do you commune with God through such racket? Where is silence when you need it?