Creating global prosperity without economic growth


The Long Lost Sound of Silence

by Sharon Ede on 15th March 2010

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cartoon of The Thinker shhhing The Scream in an art gallery


Cartoon reproduced with the kind permission of Brazillian cartoonist Marcelo Rampazzo

I admit it. I’ve become one of them. Those anti-social people who get about, particularly on transit, wearing iPod/Phone/mp3 player buds in their ears and isolating themselves from their fellow citizens with their own auditory niche. I’ve always thought that choosing to disengage from society was almost selfish, yet another behaviour that contributes to the atomisation of our society into its smallest unit – ‘me’. 

That was until I discovered that blocking out the whine of the bus/roar of train, the incessant yacking of people on mobile phones and screeching of kids was pure and utter bliss. A shot of tranquillity – controlling my own sound environment through my choice of music or relaxation sounds, and a chance to opt out of unwanted noise.

I did think about why it bothered me so much – after all, people talking, rumbling buses and grizzly babies are just everyday urban sounds, right? Why am I so sensitive to them? Its because my brain can’t deal with it along with everything else I do in a work day, and after work, especially if its on insufficient sleep.

This started me thinking about the hyper culture that demands our attention with ever more messages, ads and interference in our inner environment in order to sustain the growth culture. 

Adbusters recently called for ‘an insurrection of the mental environment’, a rebellion against the incessant pollution of our mental space with messages and ads:

The interjection of advertising and other info-toxins into our mindscape neutralizes our attempts to construct an alternate future because from a poisoned mind spring only poisoned deeds…The future of activism is as an insurrection of the mental environment – a movement that appropriates tactics reserved for physical battles and applies them to the battle to protect our mental environment.

This mental noise is not just those trying to sell us something, but the influx of information through email, Twitter, Facebook and other social media. 

And blogs, of course. How ironic.

But we choose to use social media, and there are myriad ways – including self discipline – to screen out what is superfluous [see Scott's post 'Filter Failure']. 

We don’t choose to be assailed by a cacophany of different soundtracks while walking through our local shopping precinct. We don’t choose to be subjected to ads or news while we are waiting for – or while we are in – a lift.

I can’t even find a local library that is quiet! I don’t know if this has changed everywhere, but where I live these days, they are less about stern librarians hushing you and more about community hubs with people talking at normal levels, keyboards clacking and – at my local library recently – a child upending a bag of blocks almost as large as he was onto the floor in the kids’ play area with an horrendous crash! Children have every right to be in the library – but could there be *one* area where people who do want quiet can work? I’ve found the only quiet spot in a library is in our State Library, which means a 40 minute bus trip each way to get to the city.

In Britain, they have a sufficient transit economy of scale that they can offer ‘quiet carriages’ in which commuters can read – or just be – in silence. No loud conversations [especially ones with the word 'like' used, like, heaps of times]. No mp3s. No mobile phone chatter. Oh PLEASE can we have it here?

Why is both visual and auditory quiet so hard to find? 

Everywhere you turn, there are sandwich boards, billboards, ads on the sides of buses and trams, and even worse is when the ads are designed for car drivers zooming past – then they have to be twice as big to cater for the speed of movement.

We are probably the most exposed generations ever to a tsunami of signs, sounds, ads, jingles, catalogues, and electronic messages via an ever-expanding variety of means. What is wrong with us? Are our egos so big that we can’t contemplate the value of just shutting up?!

No wonder we are so exhausted – not only because of less sleep, but because our brains are constantly having to process the stuff we DON’T want as well as the stuff we HAVE to, in the hope that there will be some capacity for the stuff we WANT to!

More people and more choices means more messages and more noise and more stress and more mental health problems and more sleeping pills and more conflict – and less silence and stillness. We don’t want to go to the other extreme and be dull either, but there has to be an optimal point between dull and hyper – where is it?

  • How often do you experience true silence – no noise, no talking, no TV, no reading? No thinking even?
  • So often we are not even aware of noise – what kind of visual/auditory/mental noise do you encounter in your day?
  • How can we quieten the physical environment around us to enable our mental environment to process incoming signals at a rate we can absorb?

They did it in Sao Paulo, Brazil: São Paulo: The City That Said No To Advertising [Business Week, 2007]

In the meantime, I will continue to inoculate myself against the racket of hyper/growth culture by any means necessary, including the use of that icon of consumer culture the iPod/Phone. How ironic.

Now – please let me introduce you to my favourite Tweeter ever:



This post was written by

avatar Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

Sharon has written 37 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Sharon


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