Schopenhauer famously observed that tolerance for noise is inversely proportional to intelligence. If he is correct, our society has made itself a collective idiot through not only its tolerance for pointless and constant loud sound, but its seeming embrace of it.
We might wonder why so few gadgets contain an option to not receive warning noises, beeps, ringtones, and so forth. It seems that mythical purchasing demographic “the masses” likes this, the same way the urban market likes chrome and movie-goers seem to prefer $6 hot dogs and violent, stupid, sentimental films to intelligent ones.
How difficult would it be to ensure that microwaves, dishwashers, coffee makers and cars had a “silent mode” where those of us who use them every day could bypass the whistles, buzzes, beeps and toots designed to tell us of the device’s progress? If it takes 14 minutes to brew a cup of coffee, do I need that beep?
We also should ask ourselves whether having constant fans, motors and filters running within audible range is a good idea. It’s not that hard to tuck air conditioners away from high-use areas, but we tend to put the intakes (and fan noise) in our living rooms. It’s like trying to shout over an airport sometimes to be heard. I suppose the HVAC industry thinks that we cannot use slower fans (or more of them) or locate these intakes farther from the fan itself as well as from the people-spaces nearby, thus cutting noise.
Other sources of noise also deserve contemplation. Televisions are a popular insertion in public places because they distract people and lower complaints and possibly crime rates. However, for everyone but the complainers and criminals, the result is constant blaring noise. Most of it is even commercial messages.
This is not to say that our problem with noise is recent. Even back in the 1950s, stores used intercoms and PAs to announce messages to their own workers or customers, generating a holocaust of noise when it might have taken 50 steps to reach the person instead. Muzak and other elevator music has been a part of life for as long as we have had elevators and waiting rooms. And of course since the invention of the internal combustion engine it has been increasingly difficult to get out of earshot of one.
The salient facts of a situation are usually forgotten by the rush to popular notions that affirm our wishes for our own futures, or our wishes for what “should” be socially acceptable. As a result, we have gone into denial about (a) how easy it would be to reduce or eliminate most of these sources of noise and (b) the long-term health effects of background noise.
Schopenhauer may have been on the right track after all. Any society that regulates according to what is popular to the largest number, in other words the “lowest common denominator,” is going to end up making stupid decisions. Our tolerance of noise is a small but important failure along those lines.