Essays on Technology and Culture

The Silence and I

The quiet scares me. So, I make my own noise, plugging little smooth white plastic buds into my ears to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, and loud music. It helps me work, I tell my coworkers. It keeps me sane, I tell myself. It keeps the silence away. Well, the near-silence of whirring air conditioners, and the dull clacking of people typing on cheap Dell keyboards. Hearing Dan and Merlin chat is much more comforting.

As a lifetime city dweller, and current denizen of one of, if not the loudest city in America, I have an odd relationship to noise. It’s been a constant in my life, with cars driving past my windows, planes flying overhead, kids playing in the street, and the various noises of household appliances and computer hardware. If I ever want to shut out the din, and take control of my sonic environment, I have those little white buds in my pocket, ready to be plugged into infinity. At home, I have the option of big, heavy cans to clamp around my ears, not only blasting sound in, but keeping outside sound out.

Which is why it’s taken a conscious act of will to keep the white buds out of my ears for a chunk of my day. I’d already opted to stop blasting my own noise into my ears on the subway, after being attacked for my phone one Christmas Eve in Philadelphia. (The kid didn’t get it, but ended up breaking a pair of $80 Apple In-Ear Headphones in the process.) When I go for my long walks, I often don’t have the buds in as well. It keeps me more in tune with my environment, which is to say it keeps me from getting hit by cars when crossing the street. Now, at work, once my morning podcasts are done, I’ll take the buds out and try to face the silence there.

I figure it’ll make my co-workers think that I’m not trying to avoid them. Maybe it’ll make me more present as I take orders by email, process them through the black box of brain and fingers, and put the product out into the world. At the very least, working in the silence will teach me to live with the silence. I may never accept it, but perhaps the silence and I can reach a détente. It exists, I exist, and we’re both going to have to be okay with that. Until then, I’ll still pop in the white buds when I need to. I do need to know what happens next in my audio book of Operation Mincemeat, after all.